The United States on Friday abstained as the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution — vigorously opposed by President-elect Donald Trump and the government of Israel — that criticizes Israeli settlement construction in land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
The measure, though largely symbolic, was the first the Security Council has adopted on Israel and Palestine in roughly eight years, and it prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lash out against those who voted for it as well as President Barack Obama, a man with whom he’s long had chilly relations.
“The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the U.N., it colluded with it behind the scenes,” the Israeli leader said in a statement, according to Reuters. “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 Obama administration furiously pushed back against allegations that it has been promoting the U.N. resolution. But in the past, the administration has vetoed a similar measure; many observers consider this year’s decision to abstain as Obama’s parting shot at Netanyahu, even as Obama aides insist it was the result of growing frustration over increased settlement construction they fear will destroy the peace process.
Trump, who has taken some hard-line pro-Israel positions, on Thursday called on Obama to veto the resolution, an unusual move because presidents-elect normally leave such matters to the discretion of the serving president. After the resolution passed Friday, Trump took to Twitter to reiterate his opposition to it and declare that the U.S. will change course on Israel after his inauguration.
“As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump tweeted.
Obama and his aides have long decried Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank and other areas, arguing they undermine promises that the Palestinians will be allowed to one day have their own country. But Obama also has been largely consistent in protecting Israel from being targeted at the United Nations. He also approved a massive military aid package to Israel this year, another sign of his long-stated commitment to the security of the tiny country.
Explaining the U.S. decision to abstain at the United Nations on Friday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power quoted a 1982 statement from then-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 noted. Settlement activity, she added, “harms the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome and erodes prospects for peace and stability in the region.”
She noted that until Friday, Obama was the only president in the past half-century that did not have a Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pass on his watch.
Obama administration officials also pointed out that Israeli settlement construction has accelerated dramatically in recent years, even after the U.S. vetoed a similar resolution in 2011. They asserted the ongoing construction was putting the two-state solution at risk.
“Since 2009, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has increased by more than 100,000 to nearly 400,000. There’s been an increase of more than 15,000 in the last year alone,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, in a call with reporters after the vote. “The notion that vetoing this resolution would have somehow slowed the settlement activity I think flies in the face of any piece of evidence that anybody who is looking at the facts can see. These are facts. The construction of settlements can be counted and documented. Palestinians being displaced from their homes — that can be documented.”
Rhodes hinted at irritation within the White House about Trump’s intervention, noting repeatedly, “there’s one president at a time.”
“We’re going to make our decision on this and, frankly, believe that it’s important that there’s a principle here that the world understands who is speaking on behalf of the United States until January 20th and who is speaking on behalf of the United States after January 20th,” Rhodes said.
In a separate statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. acted in the interest of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. [Kerry is expected to lay forth a vision of some sort for Israeli-Palestinian peace in the coming days, administration officials told reporters.]
“We cannot in good conscience stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace,” Kerry said. “While we do not agree with every aspect of this Resolution, it rightly condemns violence and incitement and settlement activity and calls on both sides to take constructive steps to reverse current trends and advance the prospects for a two state solution.”
Obama aides on Friday further denied media reports citing Israeli claims that the U.S. was orchestrating the resolution and by implication betraying its longtime ally. “Contrary to some claims, the administration was not involved in formulating the resolution nor have we promoted it,” one official said. Originally, Egypt floated the resolution, but under heavy pressure from Israel and others, it withdrew its sponsorship. The measure that came forth Friday was sponsored by Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal.
Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers had urged Obama to veto the resolution, which they say is unfair to Israel. Several expressed anger that the administration abstained instead, allowing the resolution to pass.
“Today’s passage of an ill-conceived resolution on Israeli settlements marks another shameful chapter in the bizarre anti-Israel history of the United Nations,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The abstention of the United States has made us complicit in this outrageous attack, and marks a troubling departure from our nation’s long, bipartisan history of defending our ally Israel in the United Nations.”
Ahead of the vote, GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York said Congress and the Trump administration should cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority if the resolution passed. “This is an [anti-Semitic], anti-Jewish, anti-Israel resolution,” added Zeldin, co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus.
Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also declared he was “extremely disappointed” in Obama’s decision to abstain on the vote instead of vetoing the measure. “This step reversed decades of a bipartisan commitment to using the voice and veto of the U.S. to prevent the UN from being used as a platform to advance positions that should be negotiated directly between the parties.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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