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U.S. Abstains From U.N. Vote Condemning Israeli Settlements

The U.N. declares Israeli settlements illegal as United States defies its own past and calls from Trump and Netanyahu for a veto.


The Obama administration stood by as the U.N. Security Council voted Friday to adopt a resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem illegal and demanding a halt to their expansion. It was a blunt rejection by the Obama administration of appeals (via Twitter) by President-elect Donald Trump to veto the measure.

The vote, with 14 in favor and only the United States abstaining, followed an extraordinary day of diplomacy that saw a U.S. president-elect insert himself directly into a diplomatic spat in an effort to sway the sitting president to change course. Trump continued blasting the U.N. and the administration after the vote. Trump tweeted, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” after Friday’s vote.

The abstention was the first time the Obama administration stepped aside and allowed the Security Council to censure Israel. Speaking after the vote, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, defended the abstention, comparing it to policies of Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to the Reagan administration.

“Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 undermine Israel’s security, harm the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome, and erode prospects for peace and security,” Power told the council after the vote.

The White House stressed the risk posed by settlements to the viability of a two-state solution. The “accelerated pace” of Israeli settlement activity “put[s] the very viability of the two state solution at risk,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, in a call with reporters. “We could not in good conscience veto the resolution,” he added.

The resolution was drafted by Palestine and “put in blue” by Egypt, and co-sponsored by Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela. It demands that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities” on Palestinian land, saying they are “imperiling the viability of the two-state solution.” The establishment of such Israeli settlements, including those in East Jerusalem, has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law,” it said.     

The resolution represented a sharp blow to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who applied intense pressure on Egypt, the council’s sole Arab member, to delay a vote scheduled for Thursday. Netanyahu’s staff reached out to Trump’s transition team to urge the Obama administration to veto it.

“Today is a dark day for this council. The resolution you just voted on is the peak of hypocrisy,” said Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations. In voting yes, he argued, the council in fact voted against progress and negotiation. The resolution added, he said, to “the long and shameful list of anti-Israel UN resolutions.”

“You voted to condemn the Jewish people for building homes in the land of Israel … in our historical capital of Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the Jewish people,” he said. “Would you ban the French from building in Paris? Would you ban the Russians from building in Moscow? …Would you ban the Americans from building in Washington?” He assured the council that Israel would continue to be both a democracy — and a Jewish state.

Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations said he hoped this was but the beginning in a series of steps toward Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli peace. “Stand by the law,” he urged the council, “and stand by the right side of history.”

Trump’s calls for the United States to veto the resolution come amid his vows to make a radical change in U.S. policy on Israel when he takes office in January, pledging to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and tapping controversial hardliner David Friedman as choice to become ambassador to Israel.

“As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations,” Trump said on Thursday.

The Obama administration cast its first veto in the Security Council in February 2011 to block a resolution denouncing Israel’s settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East. At the time, Susan Rice, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.S. veto should not be construed as a defense of Israel’s settlements, which it views as “illegitimate.” But she argued that the resolution, which was backed by 14 of the council’s 15 members, risked “hardening the positions of both sides” and making the establishment of a Palestine state less likely.

Five years later, the outgoing Obama administration’s calculus has apparently changed — or sour relations with Israel finally pushed it to change tack in a way it never had before.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin