U.N. condemns Israeli settlements as Obama declines to veto

Abstention marks big departure from U.S. policy at U.N.

Israel United Nations
FILE - This May 17, 2016 file photo shows construction on land owned by Palestinian Mohammad Abu Ta'a, in east Jerusalem. Abu Ta'a discovered some years ago that the Israeli government had expropriated the piece of land in Jerusalem belonging to his family and handed it over to a leading organization that oversees Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. The U.N. Security Council prepared Friday for perhaps its biggest vote in recent history as the United States weighed abstaining from a resolution that would condemn Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Behind the scenes, U.S. and Israeli officials exchanged surprisingly sharp words for allies. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — In a striking rupture with past practice, the United States allowed the U.N. Security Council on Friday to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a “flagrant violation” of international law. In doing so, the outgoing Obama administration brushed aside Donald Trump’s demands that the U.S. exercise its veto and provided a climax to years of icy relations with Israel’s leadership.

The decision to abstain from the council’s 14-0 vote is one of the biggest American rebukes of its longstanding ally in recent memory. And it could have significant ramifications for the Jewish state, potentially hindering Israel’s negotiating position in future peace talks. Given the world’s widespread opposition to settlements, the action will be almost impossible for anyone, including Trump, to reverse.

Nevertheless, Trump vowed via Twitter: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”

The resolution said Israel’s settlements in lands the Palestinians want to include in their future state have “no legal validity.” It demanded a halt to such activities for the sake of “salvaging the two-state solution.” Loud applause erupted in the council chamber after U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power permitted the resolution to pass.

Friday’s condemnation, a day after Egypt suddenly postponed a scheduled showdown, capped days of frantic diplomacy in capitals around the world.

American officials indicated they would have been prepared to let the resolution pass, despite blocking such proposals for years. Israeli officials said they were aware of such plans and turned to Trump for support. The U.S. president-elect sent a tweet urging President Barack Obama to block the U.N. effort. Egypt then pulled its resolution, with U.S. officials citing fierce Israeli pressure as the reason. Israeli officials then accused Obama of colluding with the Palestinians in a “shameful move” against the Jewish state. Washington denied the charge.

Most of the world is opposed to Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements in lands it seized in the 1967 Mideast War. The primary holdout at the U.N. has been the United States, which sees settlements as illegitimate but has traditionally used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to block such resolutions on the grounds that Israeli-Palestinian disputes should be addressed through negotiation.

Underscoring that unity, Friday’s resolution was proposed by nations in four different parts of the world: Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela. It is the first resolution on settlements to pass in 36 years, Malaysia’s U.N. Ambassador Ramlan Bin Ibrahim said.

Explaining the U.S. vote, Power quoted a 1982 statement from then-U.S. 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 said. 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 last half-century that did not have a Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pass on his watch.

“One would think that it would be a routine vote,” Power said. But she acknowledged that, in reality, the vote was “not straightforward” because it occurred at the United Nations, a body that has singled out Israel for criticism for decades.

In some ways, the American abstention served as a direct reflection of the intense distrust between Obama and Netanyahu. It followed months of intensely secret deliberations in Washington, including what one official said was an unannounced meeting earlier this month between Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and a spate of fresh Israeli settlement announcements that have wrought a mixture of exasperation and anger from American officials.

Before the vote, an Israeli official said Obama and Kerry “secretly cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti-Israeli resolution behind Israel’s back, which would be a tail wind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name.

Israel knew the U.S. was coordinating an “ambush” with the Palestinians, said another Israeli official, who similarly demanded anonymity.

A senior Obama administration official fired back, saying Egypt championed the resolution “from the start” and crediting “other Security Council members, not the United States,” for the renewed push on Friday.

Trump has signaled he will be far more sympathetic to Israel’s stances on the two territories, where some Israelis live. His campaign platform made no mention of the establishment of a Palestinian state, a core policy objective of Democratic and Republican presidents over the past two decades. He also has vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would anger Palestinians and lack international support. Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, Jewish-American lawyer David Friedman, is a donor and vocal supporter of the settlements.

Israeli diplomats believe they were misled by the U.S. during a meeting last week between high-ranking Israeli and Obama administration officials in which the U.S. side offered reassurances about its efforts to support Israel but declined to explicitly state that the U.S. would veto such a resolution if it came up. The Israelis told their counterparts that “friends don’t take friends to the Security Council,” an official said.

The resolution is little different in tone or substance from Obama’s view, with the exception of its language on the legality of settlements. Washington has long avoided calling the activity illegal, in part to maintain diplomatic wiggle room for a negotiated solution that would allow Israel to incorporate some of the larger settlement blocs.

While the resolution doesn’t impose sanctions on Israel, it enshrines the world’s disapproval of the settlements. A reversal would require a follow-up vote that avoids a veto from the U.S., Britain, China, France or Russia — a highly unlikely scenario given the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In Washington, Republicans were already threatening consequences. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate appropriations panel in charge of U.S. payments to the global body, said he would “form a bipartisan coalition to suspend or significantly reduce” such funding if the resolution passed. He said countries receiving U.S. aid also could be penalized for backing the effort.

In a Hanukkah message Friday, Obama didn’t mention the matter. He referenced Israel once, noting that Jews there and around the world would soon “gather to light their Hanukkah menorahs, display them proudly in the window and recall the miracles of both ancient times and the present day.”

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Klapper reported from Washington and Federman reported from Jerusalem.

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