In last-minute drama before the Christmas holiday, a vote by the United Nations Security Council on a resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements boiled down to one country’s tacit approval: the United States.
In an intensely watched vote on Dec. 23 at the UN, 14 elected and permanent members of the council voted yes at 2:21 p.m. in New York, while in the next instant the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, raised her hand to abstain, astonishing everyone in the packed council chambers.
The move, met with sustained clapping, gave the resolution a long-awaited green light for the council to formally demand that Israel stop its settlement activity in Palestinian territory, which has been considered illegal action by most of the international community for decades and called a barrier to peace. Previous council resolutions on Israeli settlements in the last eight years have been vetoed by the US, its strongest ally in the world.
In explaining the US abstention, Power began by saying that for nearly five decades America’s longstanding position has been that “Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 undermines Israel’s security, harms the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome, and erodes prospects for peace and stability in the region.”
Power further emphasized that given the consistency of the US position on Israeli settlements, a vote on the resolution would be “routine.”
“But in reality this vote for us was not straightforward, because of where it is taking place — at the United Nations,” she went on. “For the simple truth is that for as long as Israel has been a member of this institution, Israel has been treated differently from other nations at the United Nations.”
Yet, after summarizing the troubled relationship between the UN and Israel, Power added, “It is precisely our commitment to Israel’s security that makes the United States believe that we cannot stand in the way of this resolution as we seek to preserve a chance of attaining our long-standing objective: two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”
Above and beyond the US abstention, the council’s approval of the resolution signaled not only to Israel that it must abide by international law regarding settlement activities in the West Bank but also that the US, in the waning days of the Obama administration, was an ambivalent supporter.
The vote also sent a direct message to Donald Trump to respect the council’s work before he officially becomes US president. Trump intervened in a vote on the draft resolution a day earlier by tweeting that the US should cast a veto. The resolution had first been scheduled for a vote on Dec. 22.
But in two extraordinary steps by Trump, he tweeted that day, “The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed,” and called the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to ask him to withdraw the draft resolution. The proposal was sponsored by Egypt, an elected member of the council, representing Arab states.
The same day, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, called on the US to block the resolution through its veto. By early afternoon on Dec. 22, the Security Council canceled the vote, with word, later confirmed, that the resolution had been withdrawn, by Sisi, under pressure from Trump.
Sisi, who is deeply unpopular in his own country and throughout the Middle East, is trying to walk a tight line between doing what his fellow Arab states want regarding Israeli settlement activities and what the next president of the US wants, said a diplomat from the region.
Emblematic of the tightrope Sisi walks, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, told this reporter on Dec. 22 that the resolution had been “postponed,” not “withdrawn,” and when asked when it would be rescheduled, he said, “Ask Egypt.”
The resolution got a second wind overnight by four elected members of the council: Senegal, Malaysia, New Zealand and Venezuela, who proposed it again for a vote. The latter three countries end their terms on the council on Dec. 31, so theirs was a final bold move.
On the morning of Dec. 23, it remained unclear whether the resolution would actually be voted on, but by early afternoon, council members rushed from a private session for a quick break, announcing they would vote at 2 p.m. Diplomats returned rejuvenated but no one could say certainly what would happen next.
They reconvened in the council chamber, the room abuzz, as of 2 p.m., but Samantha Power had yet to appear. The resolution, everyone knew, rested on her yes, no or abstention.
When she swooped in and sat in the US seat at the council’s horseshoe table, the council members, under the heading of “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question,” were ready to cast their votes. Countries sponsoring the resolution spoke beforehand, starting with the ambassador from Malaysia, Dato Ramlan Ibrahim, a normally soft-spoken man who read his speech as if he had no time to waste, saying, in part, “It is urgent for the council to seize the opportunity for effective council action without any further delay.”
And so the vote was taken at 2:21 as 14 hands rose for yes — including China, Russia, France and Britain, the other four permanent members — but not Power’s.
The no vote was next: zero. Lastly, the call for abstentions: Power’s arm went up, sealing the fate of Resolution 2334.
Almost an hour later, Trump tweeted, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
Netanyahu announced he would not abide by the vote.