In a striking rupture with past practice, the United States allowed the U.N. Security Council on Friday to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a “flagrant violation” of international law. In doing so, the outgoing Obama administration brushed aside Donald Trump’s demands that the U.S. exercise its veto and provided a climax to years of icy relations with Israel’s leadership.
The decision to abstain from the council’s 14-0 vote is one of the biggest U.S. rebukes of its longstanding ally in recent memory. And it could have significant ramifications for the Jewish state, potentially hindering Israel’s negotiating position in future peace talks. Given the world’s widespread opposition to settlements, the action will be almost impossible for anyone, including Trump, to reverse.
Nevertheless, Trump vowed via Twitter: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
The resolution said Israel’s settlements in lands the Palestinians want to include in their future state have “no legal validity.” It demanded a halt to such activities for the sake of “salvaging the two-state solution.” Loud applause erupted in the council chamber after U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power permitted the resolution to pass.
Friday’s condemnation, a day after Egypt suddenly postponed a scheduled showdown, capped days of frantic diplomacy in capitals around the world.
U.S. officials indicated they would have been prepared to let the resolution pass, despite blocking such proposals for years. Israeli officials said they were aware of such plans and turned to Trump for support. The U.S. president-elect sent a tweet urging President Barack Obama to block the U.N. effort. Egypt then pulled its resolution, with U.S. officials citing fierce Israeli pressure as the reason. Israeli officials then accused Obama of colluding with the Palestinians in a “shameful move” against the Jewish state. Washington denied the charge.
Most of the world is opposed to Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements in lands it seized in the 1967 Mideast War. The primary holdout at the U.N. has been the United States, which sees settlements as illegitimate but has traditionally used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to block such resolutions on the grounds that Israeli-Palestinian disputes should be addressed through negotiation.
Underscoring that unity, Friday’s resolution was proposed by nations in four different parts of the world: Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela. It is the first resolution on settlements to pass in 36 years, Malaysia’s U.N. Ambassador Ramlan Bin Ibrahim said.
Explaining the U.S. vote, Power quoted a 1982 statement from then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, which declared that Washington “will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements.”
“That has been the policy of every administration, Republican and Democrat, since before President Reagan and all the way through to the present day,” Power said.
“One would think that it would be a routine vote,” Power said. But she acknowledged that, in reality, the vote was “not straightforward” because it occurred at the United Nations, a body that has singled out Israel for criticism for decades.
In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote was guided by one principle: “To perverse the possibility of the two-state solution.”
Chief Palestinian negotiation Saeb Erekat hailed the result as a “victory for the justice of the Palestinian cause.” He said Trump’s choice was now between “international legitimacy” or siding with “settlers and extremists.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office voiced anger.
“Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. and will not abide by its terms,” it said, blaming Obama for failing to “protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN” and even colluding with the country’s detractors. “Israel looks forward to working with President-elect Trump and with all our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution,” the statement said.
In some ways, the U.S. abstention served as a direct reflection of the deep distrust between Obama and Netanyahu. It followed months of intensely secret deliberations in Washington, including what one official said was an unannounced meeting earlier this month between Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and a spate of fresh Israeli settlement announcements that have wrought exasperation and anger from U.S. officials.
Trump has signaled he will be far more sympathetic to Israel’s stances on the two territories, where some 600,000 Israelis live. His campaign platform made no mention of the establishment of a Palestinian state, a core policy objective of Democratic and Republican presidents over the past two decades. He also has vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would anger Palestinians and lack international support. Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, Jewish-American lawyer David Friedman, is a donor and vocal supporter of the settlements.
The resolution is little different in tone or substance from Obama’s view, with the exception of its language on the legality of settlements. Washington has long avoided calling the activity illegal, in part to maintain diplomatic wiggle room for a negotiated solution that would allow Israel to incorporate some of the larger settlement blocs.
While the resolution doesn’t impose sanctions on Israel, it enshrines the world’s disapproval of the settlements. A reversal would require a follow-up vote that avoids a veto from the U.S., Britain, China, France or Russia — a highly unlikely scenario given the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In Washington, Republicans were already threatening consequences. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate appropriations panel in charge of U.S. payments to the global body, said he would “form a bipartisan coalition to suspend or significantly reduce” such funding. He said countries receiving U.S. aid also could be penalized for backing the effort.
In a Hanukkah message Friday, Obama didn’t mention the matter. He referenced Israel once, noting that Jews there and around the world would soon “gather to light their Hanukkah menorahs, display them proudly in the window and recall the miracles of both ancient times and the present day.”