WASHINGTON ― The U.S. on Friday abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council motion condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories ― a break with the administration’s tradition of shielding Israel from critical resolutions.
The resolution, sponsored by New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela, passed with 14 countries in favor and the U.S. abstaining.
The U.S. decision to abstain from voting rather than veto the measure indicates the Obama administration’s deep frustration with Israeli settlement construction, which has expanded under the watch of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also represents President Barack Obama’s final stand against Israeli construction in the West Bank before he is replaced by President-elect Donald Trump, an enthusiastic supporter of the settlements.
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the number of settlers has increased by 355,000, bringing the total population of settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to more than 590,000, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said during remarks explaining her vote.
“One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict,” Power said. Netanyahu has publicly boasted of his support for the settler movement, and some of his advisers have disavowed the two-state solution entirely, she added.
Trump, having failed to block the vote, tweeted Friday afternoon that “things will be different” at the U.N. after Jan. 20, when he takes office. The statement means the Obama administration’s abstention is more symbolic than a demonstration of future U.S. policy.
One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict Ambassador Samantha Power
Though Palestinians and liberal-leaning pro-Israel groups praised the resolution’s passage, Obama faced heavy criticism both domestically and in Israel for failing to exert the U.S. veto power.
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer accused Obama of breaking the “unbreakable bond” between Israel and the U.S. (Under former President George W. Bush, Fleischer’s old boss, the U.S. overrode Israeli objections and abstained from voting on a 2004 resolution that called on Israel to cease home demolitions in the occupied territories.)
Members of Congress from both parties had urged the Obama administration to kill the measure, arguing that the U.N. has an anti-Israel bias and shouldn’t be relied upon to weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Whatever one’s views are on settlements, anyone who cares about the future of Israel and peace in the region knows that the U.N., with its one-sidedness, is exactly the wrong forum to bring about peace,” incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Power echoed Schumer’s concerns and devoted several minutes of her remarks to criticizing the U.N.’s history of speaking out loudly against the Israeli occupation while ignoring human rights atrocities committed by others ― including the Palestinians.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, threatened to “suspend or significantly reduce” U.S. funding to the U.N. in response to the resolution.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was one of the few lawmakers to back the decision to abstain from voting. “I believe the expansion of settlements has but one goal: to undermine the viability of a two-state solution,” she said in a statement.
Israeli officials accused the Obama administration of orchestrating the vote on the settlements resolution. “The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN, it colluded with it behind the scenes,” Netanyahu’s office said, according to Haaretz.
The criticism directed at Obama obscures the fact that, despite public friction with Netanyahu, his administration has acquiesced to most of Israel’s requests. Obama backed down from his early effort to push for a settlement freeze. And with the exception of occasional criticism from the State Department, the administration has done little to pressure Israel on the issue. This year, the U.S. committed to provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade ― the largest military aid package ever negotiated between the two countries.
The Obama administration’s decision to allow the settlements measure to pass is consistent with U.S. policy dating back to 1967, when the Israeli occupation began, Power noted. She opened her remarks on Friday by reading a 1982 quote from former President Ronald Reagan:
“The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
Every U.S. president before Obama since 1967 has allowed the passage of a Security Council resolution that contained criticism of Israeli policy. In 1980, the U.S. voted in favor of a resolution that not only said the settlements “have no legal validity” ― but also called for their dismantlement.
The near unanimous support for the Israeli settlements measure within the U.N. Security Council on Friday belies the complicated maneuvering before the vote. A version of the resolution sponsored by Egypt was initially scheduled to come up for a vote on Thursday afternoon. But under pressure from Trump, who reportedly was asked by Israeli government officials to intervene, Egypt backed down and asked for the vote to be postponed.
Apparently undeterred by Trump, New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Senegal requested a vote on the resolution the following day. Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, voted in favor of the resolution.
Israel plans to impose sanctions against New Zealand and Senegal in retaliation, Haaretz reported. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Malaysia and Venezuela, the other two resolution co-sponsors.
Both Power and Malaysia’s representative to the U.N. said that recent parliamentary efforts in Israel to legalize settlements in the West Bank added urgency to the Security Council measure.
It is against international law for an occupying power to transfer its own population into occupied territories, and most of the international community views the Israeli settlements as illegal.
The U.S. vetoed a similar measure targeting Israeli settlements in 2011. Part of the reason for the reversal, Power said Friday, is that the current resolution also includes references to Palestinian acts of terror and incitement to violence. The Obama administration’s shift also was motivated by eight years of settlement expansion and failed peace talks, she added.
“The United States has been sending a message that the settlements must stop privately and publicly for nearly five decades,” Power said.
This article has been updated to include comments from Fleischer, Feinstein and Netanyahu.