President Obama generated excitement when he allowed his United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, to abstain from a vote on United Nations Security Council 2334 resolution that condemned Israeli settlements and passed unanimously. It explicitly condemned all Israeli measures “altering the democratic composition” of Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including ”construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians”. It cited the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which all UN member states including Israel have endorsed, that legally underpins these restrictions on occupying powers.
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu called it a “shameful anti-Israeli resolution” and declared that Israel would “not abide by its terms”. He should not have made such a fuss. Over the years, all American administrations have consistently criticized Israel’s building and expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian Arab territory. That has been the clear American policy of every president since Israel started to build settlements after 1967 when it occupied the West Bank. Obama’s policy is not new. Nor was his vote. In the past, on 47 different occasions, the United States has allowed resolutions critical of Israel to pass in the Security Council, not vetoing them as it could do as a permanent Council member.
But in recent years, the United States has gotten into the habit of protecting Israel more and more from hostile votes in the United Nations, even if the resolutions express clearly stated policy well known to Israel and everyone. That special approach to the UN seems contradictory but it is based on the idea that the Arab-Israeli dispute should not be adjudicated in the UN, but rather directly between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So the US has used its veto to prevent Security Council resolutions from pre-empting the bilateral diplomatic process. President Obama strictly followed that separation of UN voting from the peace process until last week when he allowed Ambassador Power to abstain.
What was different this time? President Obama has almost served out the limit of his eight years in office, and he will no longer be president on January 20th. This was his last opportunity to send a signal to Israel and the world that he and his administration strongly condemn continued Israeli settlement building. When Ambassador Power explained her vote for abstention, she said bluntly that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the one hand claimed to be in favor of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli problem, but at the same time he allowed continued settlement building, and the two were incompatible. She suggested that he had to choose one or the other. She made clear it is U.S. policy that favors a two-state solution without Israeli settlements.
President Obama has been patient for almost eight years in the face of Israeli intransigence. He has spoken out clearly, as have his predecessors, asking Israel to stop building settlements. But Israel has ignored his repeated requests and continues settlement activity. Finally, in the last days of his presidency, he has come out with a practical expression of his deep frustration with the Netanyahu government and allowed a UN resolution to pass.
The UN resolution is non-binding, under chapter six of the UN Charter, which means that UN members are not required to enforce it. However, since it passed unanimously, it sent a clear signal to Israel and the world that most countries condemn Israeli policy.
It is not clear how Israel will react. Some close observers of Israeli politics say that the UN vote forces Netanyahu to choose between the two incompatible approaches that Ambassador Power pointed out. Previously Netanyahu has claimed that the building and expansion of settlements is of no importance to the rest of the world and he can continue to promote it, to satisfy his right-wing conservative supporters, without paying any penalty. Now because of the vote, his attempt to escape any consequences from his approach will be tested. It is not clear which way he will move.
Meanwhile the other unknown is what the policy of President Trump will be. He criticized the U.S. abstention, and said “As to the U.N., things will be different” after he takes office. He did not explain how different. Half the American public is basically opposed to Trump but he has expressed strong support for Israel because he knows that is a popular position. Some of his close advisors have done the same. His choice of ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has said the US should “never” press Israel to accept a two-state solution. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been a donor to settlement builders. And the Congress, both Republican and Democrat, can be counted on to continue to support a pro-Israeli policy. Leading members of Trump’s Republican Party, who now hold majorities in both houses of Congress, have already criticized the U.S. abstention at the UN.
However, a few other members of the Trump administration seem to have a somewhat more balanced view. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, in 2013 said it seemed that Israel was moving toward apartheid, implying criticism of settlements. Mattis also explained that when he was head of the Central Command, he “paid a price every day” because Americans “were seen as biased in support of Israel.” As for Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of State, we do not know what his opinion is on Israeli settlements or Israeli policy because he has not yet spoken out on these issues.
Trump’s advisors will influence his policy on Israel but he will make the final decisions. He has indicated that he would like to be the president to help bring about an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. He brags about his skill at making deals and he says this would be the “ultimate deal”. But it is not at all clear that he understands the complexities or nuances of the problem, so we must wait to see what he does when he is actually in the White House.