In a stinging rebuke to Israel, the United States abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that demands a halt to Israeli settlements, allowing the measure to pass despite vigorous bipartisan opposition at home.
In advance of the vote, Democratic and Republican lawmakers called on the Obama administration to block the resolution, saying it would harm peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. The White House, meanwhile, contends that Israel’s settlements have imperiled the peace process, and that a two-state solution cannot exist while settlement activity increases.
Speaking immediately after the vote, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., singled out Netanyahu and his allies for their continued support of settlements.
“One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict,” Power said. “One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.”
Of the 15 member states on the Security Council, 14 voted in favor of the measure. As one of the council’s five permanent member states, the U.S. has veto power over any resolution. It decided instead to abstain, prompting rousing applause inside the chamber but vehement criticism from Capitol Hill and the incoming administration.
As drafted, the resolution condemns Israel’s settlements as a “flagrant violation of international law” and as having “no legal validity.” Israel has long maintained that its settlements, particularly those in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are legitimate and legal.
President-elect Donald Trump had intervened in the process earlier in the week, speaking by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an appeal to delay the vote that was originally scheduled for Thursday. Trump was successful, but the same resolution was put up for a vote on Friday by four separate nations—Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal. After the vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his ambassadors in New Zealand and Senegal to return to Israel.
Trump personally offered his support to Netanyahu, whose government vehemently opposed the resolution. The president-elect tweeted in response to the vote: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th”—the day Trump officially takes office.
That sentiment was echoed by Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, who said he has “no doubt that the new U.S. administration will usher in a new era.” In a separate statement, Netanyahu called the vote “shameful” and vowed to defy it, accusing the U.S. of sabotaging his government.
In advance of the vote, Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, were vocal in their opposition to the resolution, and urged the Obama administration to block it. After the vote, critics from both sides of the aisle piled on.
“I am dismayed that the Administration departed from decades of U.S. policy by not vetoing the U.N. resolution regarding Israeli settlements. I continue to believe that a productive path toward peace requires direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.
Added House Speaker Paul Ryan: “This is absolutely shameful. Today’s vote is a blow to peace that sets a dangerous precedent for further diplomatic efforts to isolate and demonize Israel.” Ryan pledged that the incoming Trump administration will work to “rebuild our alliance with Israel.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the U.N. as a whole “is increasingly viewed as anti-Semitic and seems to have lost all sense of proportionality.”
Amid the backlash, the White House held a last-minute call with reporters after the vote, during which senior White House officials said the settlements have only contributed to Israel’s “isolation” within the international community, making it harder to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
“The continued pace of settlement activity, which has accelerated significantly in recent years … puts at risk the two-state solution, as does any continued incitement to violence” said Ben Rhodes, a top national security aide to President Obama.
Rhodes added that the U.N. is a “flawed venue” through which to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it “has frequently been used to single out Israel.” The U.S., Rhodes said, has therefore resisted efforts to hold negotiations on the issue through the international body.
The Obama administration’s opposition to Israel’s settlements has been well-documented. Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said Israel was “heading to a place of danger” with its construction in disputed territory. The White House said Friday that opposition to Israeli settlements and “incitements” of violence and terrorism are “consistent with longstanding bipartisan policy.”
Breaking with her colleagues, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised the Obama administration, saying it acted to preserve the U.S.’s support for a two-state solution. “The ill will that results from these settlements is a significant roadblock to peace, and I again call on Israel to end their expansion so that a two-state solution remains a possibility,” said Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Responding to the vote, GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, a foreign policy hawk, took a markedly different tone. He suggested that the U.S. should consider pulling out of the international body altogether.
“Time for complete review of our U.N. policy, not just funding. Open question whether U.S. should remain member & allow U.N. to disgrace our soil,” Cotton wrote on Twitter. White House officials characterized similar suggestions as an overreaction.
The incoming Trump administration has signaled its intention to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and critics posited that the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from the U.N. vote was intended to throw Trump into a quagmire before he officially takes office. Rhodes shot down that suggestion.
“It would be absurd to suggest that this action is in some way related at all to policy positions that the incoming administration has already said that they will pursue,” Rhodes said, adding of the president-elect’s criticisms: “There’s one president at a time.”