The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution Friday that condemns Israeli settlements in the West Bank and calls them illegal under international law. And in a striking departure from the past eight years of U.S. policy, the Obama administration declined to veto the resolution.
The Security Council has repeatedly condemned Israeli settlements, but had not voted on the matter in more than three decades.
It was the first time the Obama administration declined to veto an anti-settlement resolution, and it immediately drew angry reactions from Israeli officials, pro-Israel groups, and an array of U.S. politicians from both sides of the aisle. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, said it was “disturbed” by the Obama administration’s actions — the U.S. didn’t vote in favor of the resolution, nor did it vote against; it abstained — calling the resolution “destructive” and “one-sided.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham threatened to cut off U.S. funding to the UN because of the vote. And President-elect Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
Palestinian officials and analysts, however, praised the vote. In a statement sent to reporters, Zaha Hassan, a former legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators, said the resolution made clear that settlements are “without legal validity” and that “in other words, they are war crimes.”
The vote capped two days of feverish diplomacy that began on Thursday with Egyptian plans to introduce the resolution. After intense pressure on Egypt from Israel and social and a critical social media post from President-elect Donald Trump, Egypt withdrew the resolution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump’s transition team, and Trump himself talked to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who agreed to table the resolution.
But on Friday, New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Senegal pushed forward to introduce the resolution for a vote.
Though Trump had called on the U.S. to veto the resolution on Thursday, calling it “extremely unfair to all Israelis,” the Obama administration did otherwise. In a clear parting shot to Netanyahu and his backing of the continued growth of Israeli settlements that most of the world considers illegal under international law, the U.S. abstained from the Friday vote. (The Obama administration has given Israel record amounts of U.S. military aid.)
Ben Rhodes, a key White House adviser, told reporters on a call after the vote that the U.S. felt it was “compelled” to abstain because of continued settlement growth, which harms the viability of a future Palestinian state. He noted that in the last year alone, the settler population has increased by 15,000.
Speaking after the vote, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, explained that opposition to settlements “is fully in line with the bipartisan history of how American presidents have approached both the issue and the role of this body.” Until today, Obama had been the only U.S. president to never have allowed a resolution critical of Israel through the Security Council.
Trump has repeatedly signaled a right-ward approach to U.S. Israeli policy. He has vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that would upset the long-standing international consensus that the future of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis as their capital, should be subject to negotiations. Palestinians have warned that the move would kill any prospects for peace in the region and would legitimize Israeli claims over the entire city, including the occupied, eastern side.
Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said he looked forward to working “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” Friedman is the head of a U.S. non-profit that raises money for the hardline settlement of Beit El — another signal that a Trump administration may recognize Israeli settlements, which would be unprecedented.
Trump’s signals on Israel have buoyed Israel’s right-wing government. After his election, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Education Minister, said that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.”
And after the UN voted to declare Israeli settlements illegal, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said that he has “no doubt that the new U.S. administration will usher in a new era.”