The best chance right now to improve the desperate situation in Gaza ― where millions of people are under bombardment while on the brink of starvation amid a U.S.-backed Israeli military operation ― hinges on America’s choices at the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council will vote Tuesday on a resolution proposed by the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. partner, on behalf of Arab and Muslim states that calls for limiting the fighting and dramatically increasing humanitarian aid for Gazans, two diplomats told HuffPost on Monday. It’s a major moment for besieged Palestinians and their supporters, and for the Biden administration, which is struggling to balance its support for Israel with international criticism of the devastating offensive and deep concerns among American officials about the consequences of largely unchecked support for Israel.
If the U.S. votes to pass the resolution, that would be the strongest signal yet from the Biden administration that Israel must change its conduct to protect civilians. Historically, including under President Joe Biden, the U.S. has almost always used its influence at the U.N. to shield Israel from pressure. Alternatively, the U.S. could abstain, declining to use its veto power and allowing the resolution to pass in what would represent a major warning to Israel. Or the U.S. could veto the resolution, as it did a U.N. resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire on Dec. 8, making America an outlier on the Security Council and among the nearly 200 members of the U.N., 153 of whom endorsed a cease-fire on Dec. 12 in a vote in the General Assembly.
The situation underscores the huge quandaries the Gaza crisis is forcing upon the U.S. office at the U.N. and its leader, veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Thomas-Greenfield and her team are deeply involved in the sensitive negotiations around the resolution, including the question of how Biden will handle it. The ambassador’s office requested a delay in the vote, previously expected Monday, a foreign diplomat and a U.S. official involved in the discussions told HuffPost, which first broke the news of the postponement.
A European diplomat described U.N.-wide negotiations over the resolution as “still ongoing,” interpreting that as “a good sign.” And a Muslim diplomat and an Arab diplomat both told HuffPost they believe the U.S. is unlikely to veto the resolution. HuffPost spoke with 10 U.S. and foreign officials for this story, nearly all of whom requested anonymity to speak frankly.
Whatever decision Biden makes, Thomas-Greenfield and her staff will have to publicly defend and implement it. That reality has made their work extremely complicated since Oct. 7, when the war began after the Gaza-based militant group Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped more than 200 more. The attack prompted Israeli retaliation, which has led to the deaths of nearly 20,000 Gazans, the vast majority of them women and children, according to Gaza health officials.
Foreign policy watchers say Thomas-Greenfield and her team find themselves in an unenviable position as they suspect some in the ambassador’s office would prefer a change in U.S. policy. Some critics of Biden’s Gaza response hope the ambassador may be echoing views similar to theirs within the administration.
The dilemma is in some ways unique but also reflects the broader struggle of American national security officials: Biden has largely rebuffed internal and external calls for a more restrained U.S. approach to the war that prioritizes humanitarian and strategic concerns.
“She was an ambassador in Africa ― I’m sure she has a different opinion on what’s happening,” said Dave Harden, a former State Department official who, like Thomas-Greenfield, left roles in the U.S. government under former President Donald Trump. Thomas-Greenfield served as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, and her highest rank before her current post was as the State Department’s chief Africa official; she is deeply connected and well-respected across the continent. Most countries in Africa and the Global South generally support a cease-fire in Gaza, and multiple U.S. officials have told HuffPost they believe Biden’s position on the war is reducing America’s influence internationally.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said representatives of other countries are “describing a double standard in terms of the U.S. approach” to Israel, given the way the U.S. has previously used the U.N. to rally opposition to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and highlight Moscow’s responsibility for war crimes there. “I’m sure the administration is well aware of this,” Van Hollen said.
One State Department official described particular concerns at their agency about the way the situation is affecting the legacy of Thomas-Greenfield, one of the most prominent Black diplomats in the U.S. foreign service’s history. “Black officers at the State Department are saying this reminds them of Colin Powell and how they threw him under the bus” to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq at the U.N., the official said, referring to America’s first Black secretary of state.
“You’re just instrumentalized by the policy. It’s not her personal view, and knowing her, I think probably she would have abstained [from this month’s veto] if she could,” the official continued. “When she retires, she’ll probably write a memoir and explain it wasn’t her personal position. Based on her background and professional reputation, it’s not consistent with what we would expect from her best professional advice.”
Nate Evans, a spokesperson for Thomas-Greenfield, described the ambassador as fully in line with the Biden administration’s Gaza approach.
“At every possible juncture, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has made clear: Israel has every right to take action to protect itself against terrorists and ensure the horrors of Oct. 7 are never repeated. She also agrees Israel must take steps to protect civilians and must adhere to international law,” Evans told HuffPost. “Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has also joined with her colleagues across the Cabinet to advocate for a sharp increase in allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of innocent Palestinians. She will continue to advocate for Israel’s right to defend itself while at the same time being clear about the need to take feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and the need to prioritize the protection of civilians.”
‘Problematic And Isolating’
Earlier this fall, Ukraine’s mission to the U.N. approached its U.S. counterpart. The Ukrainians wanted American help with a resolution marking Soviet atrocities during World War II that echo Russian brutality against Ukraine today. The proposal, which would have offered a new chance to highlight Russia’s historic opposition to Ukrainian rights, would have to go through the U.N.’s General Assembly because Russia bars action on human rights abuses in Ukraine at the Security Council, just as the U.S. usually bars movement on Israeli actions, such as building settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.
The U.S. gave a message back: It’s not the right time.
The proposal was pulled, for unclear reasons. But a U.S. official described the incident to HuffPost to underscore how the Biden administration’s handling of Gaza is increasingly seen as undercutting other American stances and humanitarian objectives elsewhere — making it harder for its national security personnel to pursue other global priorities, like supporting Ukraine.
Some staff at the U.S. mission to the U.N. believe “it’s going to be quite difficult, if not impossible, to get as many [General Assembly] members to sign up for these resolutions on Ukraine, especially since a lot of the Ukraine resolutions focus heavily on international humanitarian law,” the U.S. official said. The U.S. has repeatedly said it is not assessing whether Israel is abiding by international law in its Gaza operation.
“There are those who have expressed their feeling that the position we’re taking at the Council [is] problematic and isolating from the rest of the Council and the rest of the U.N. membership at large,” the official continued. “This is the cost of our policy of being one-sided.”
A representative of the Ukrainian mission declined to comment on the incident and whether America’s Gaza policy hurts their cause broadly. Another diplomat argued Ukraine had killed the proposal for the World War II commemoration.
Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, described the inconsistency as striking.
“The U.S. voting record at the U.N. has highlighted double standards in Washington’s commitment to the laws of war. It rightly supports condemning Russian atrocities in Ukraine and Hamas’ in Israel. But it hasn’t done the same for Israel’s atrocities,” Charbonneau said.
U.S. allies publicly acknowledge that awkward positioning. The U.S. was the only council member to reject a Security Council resolution on Israel on Dec. 8; even America’s closest friend, Britain, abstained. “America is now alone on this issue,” Hakan Fidan, the foreign minister of U.S. ally Turkey, said after the veto.
The situation contrasts with the Biden administration’s repeated promise to mend U.S. ties with the outside world that had been damaged in the Trump administration.
“Cooperation with [the United States at the U.N.] is good most of the time. Sometimes we disagree. That’s life. But, all in all, it is so much better than under the Trump administration,” said Nicolas De Rivière, the French ambassador to the U.N. “On Ukraine, the cooperation is excellent… in Palestine, the differences are obvious.”
“While we strongly support Israel and are not ready to accept anything that would jeopardize its security… I don’t see any contradiction between the right to fight against terrorists, including Hamas, and the absolute necessity to stop attacks against civilians,” he told HuffPost. “What is happening now is a massive violation of the Geneva Conventions. It should stop now. Military actions should target exclusively Hamas fighters, period.”
France ― which, like the U.S., Russia, China and Britain, is a permanent member of the Security Council with the power to veto resolutions ― has supported calls for a cease-fire, including at the U.N.
The foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Germany on Saturday published a joint opinion article in The Times endorsing a “sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza. The next day, former British defense secretary Ben Wallace argued in an essay: “Israel’s original legal authority of self-defense is being undermined by its own actions… [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] tactics will fuel the conflict for another 50 years.”
Some American diplomats are publicly struggling with being the standard-bearers of a widely unpopular policy at the U.N., the U.S. official said. They said multiple staffers at the U.S. mission have internally communicated they do not want to be put in the position of being seen during televised U.N. sessions at which the U.S. is defending Israel in controversial ways, for instance by using its veto.
“Other bureaucrats don’t have to defend the policy in public view in this way,” the State Department official noted.
There isn’t universal discomfort, however. Many personnel are proud to support a long-time U.S. partner still reeling from the Oct. 7 attack, while others seem to be processing the situation much as they have when responding to other upsetting but far-away crises, the U.S. official said.
“Ambassador [Robert] Wood is a strong supporter of Israel,” the official continued, referring to Thomas-Greenfield’s deputy. When he cast the Dec. 8 veto, calling the resolution too hasty, “You could see him almost jump out of his seat to put his hand in the air.”
‘An Objection Of Conscience’
Critics of the Biden administration’s Gaza policy have recently homed in on Thomas-Greenfield as a potential internal ally.
Officials within the U.S. government have internally shared their belief that the ambassador is more supportive of preventing civilian harm to Palestinians than other senior officials in the administration, a U.S. official told HuffPost. And some observers noted that it was Wood ― not Thomas-Greenfield ― who cast the only U.S. veto since Oct. 7.
But others caution against imposing unattainable expectations on one of the most senior women of color in U.S. foreign policy ― and against attempted reading of tea leaves from afar.
“[Thomas-Greenfield ] has been very highly regarded by her staff,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, who worked on Middle East issues at the Pentagon from 2008 to 2017. “Despite the U.S.’s stances at the U.N. thus far, people inside government ― and people who understand U.S. foreign policy ― know that the U.S. [ambassador to the] U.N. only has so much influence over the president’s directives. There will always be people who want to see such high-level leaders resign in protest, as you saw with Samantha Power when she was U.S. [ambassador to the] U.N., but almost all the time when such a leader is uncomfortable with the policy, they will stay to influence what they can, when they can.”
The State Department official shared a similar view, arguing that Thomas-Greenfield “probably did have an objection of conscience, but she couldn’t voice it.”
“If she resigns, it’s not going to change the policy and we won’t have a Senate-confirmed ambassador to the U.N.,” the official continued.
A U.S. official noted that Thomas-Greenfield had previously scheduled travel to Africa during the week when the Security Council considered the resolution that Wood vetoed. “Anyone insinuating anything otherwise is entirely misinformed and making things up,” the official said.
Tuesday’s expected vote on a Gaza resolution could go some way toward restoring American sway at the U.N., if the U.S. does not block the idea, and be yet another hint that Biden administration personnel are effectively convincing the president to modify his policy of all-out support for Israel amid evidence that current U.S. calls for restraint are insufficient.
The U.S. has been heavily involved in preparing the resolution and appears keen to help it pass and even potentially vote for it, the Arab diplomat told HuffPost.
Backers of the resolution tweaked its language from a call for a “cessation” of hostilities to a demand for a “suspension” in hopes of winning a U.S. endorsement, according to the Muslim diplomat.
That could disappoint many countries that do not want to advance a U.N. resolution that could tacitly greenlight a continued Israeli operation in Gaza. But supporters of the resolution are arguing it is worthwhile to have America and the Security Council onboard a Gaza resolution, and are highlighting how the proposal would enable aid to flow more quickly into the besieged strip, the Arab diplomat said.
“Last week, President Biden warned Israel that it was losing support because of its indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. And indiscriminate bombing is a violation of the laws of war. I hope the U.S. will back those words with action by enabling the Security Council to finally pressure Israel and Hamas to comply with international humanitarian law and protect civilians,” Charbonneau, of Human Rights Watch, said.
He added, “How many civilians need to die before the U.S. lets the Security Council say: ‘Enough’?”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.