By the standards of Israel’s usual predicament at the United Nations, Thursday night’s vote condemning Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem was par for the course, or even better. Compared to a General Assembly resolution on December 1, 2000, for example, it’s a vast improvement: 145 members voted at that time to condemn Israeli moves in its capital, with only Israel’s lonely vote against and only five abstentions, including the United States.
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Taking the long view of history, Thursday’s vote was a marked improvement: Only 128 in favor, 9 against and 35 abstentions. This is more than enough for Benjamin Netanyahu and his Foreign Ministry to claim a moral victory.
The problem is that that the latest vote wasn’t aimed at Israel or its policies in Jerusalem, but at Trump’s policies and his personal behavior. The president’s threat to cut off foreign aid to countries that would not support Washington, undiplomatically repeated by Ambassador Nikki Haley on Thursday from the General Assembly podium, ensured that an otherwise routine anti-Israel vote would also be seen as a personal repudiation of Trump and not simply a denunciation of his policies. Trump and Haley and ensured that what would have been a routine slap on the wrist for Israel transformed into a stinging slap in the face for Trump.
The Prime Minister’s Office desperately tried to find a silver lining in the dark UN clouds in the relatively large number of abstentions, implying that things could have been worse. For Washington, however, the meager pickings of mostly second tier nations, with a few notable exceptions, that chose to avoid an open confrontation with Trump is small consolation. All major world powers and all the central European countries and all the Muslim countries, including those that are the biggest recipients of American foreign aid, chose to defy the U.S. President and deny legitimacy for his policies.
Financial pressures are often a highly effective tool in international diplomacy, but only if they are applied in a discreet manner that does not embarrass the recipient. Discretion, of course, isn’t Trump’s strong suit and apparently not Haley’s either. After he ignored the timeless warning of Tuco from The Good the Bad and the Ugly “If you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” Trump must now choose between two bad options: Either appear as a paper tiger who doesn’t make good on his threats or make good on them and thus precipitate an even worse diplomatic confrontation.
Whether the vote hurts or hampers Israel’s hold on Jerusalem is a matter for debate. On the one hand, Trump’s recognition certainly broke 70 years of international boycott of Israel’s capital, but on the other hand the ensuing UN vote on Thursday showcased the deep and wide international opposition to its policies. Before one gets carried away with describing the vote as a diplomatic disaster, however, its worthwhile remembering that the General Assembly would have voted in similar numbers for any anti-Israel resolution, even if it decided to make Tel Aviv or Crown Heights its capital instead.
More relevant, to Israel as well, is Trump’s reaction to what will be portrayed as his humiliation. The president might very well be eager for an escalating confrontation with the international community that would bolster his standing among supporters as a no-nonsense tough guy and elevate him to sacred status among Jerusalem-worshipping Evangelicals. But he might also ask himself whether his gesture to Israel was worth the headaches it caused and the criticism it garnered, and then question who he should blame for the debacle. Never one to find fault in himself, the next best candidate in line would be Netanyahu. It is a prospect that is certain to raise fears, if not dread, behind the facade of the prime minister’s Jerusalem celebrations.