The UN Security Council has voted by 14-0 with one abstention – the United States – to condemn Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The resolution passed on Friday demands that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard.”
It is a clear declaration that Israel’s settlement activities are illegal, but as I explained in an analysis on Thursday, existing resolutions – that have been unenforced for decades – already do that.
This resolution, like its predecessors, sets out no concrete consequences for Israel if it fails to comply. There are also key elements of the resolution – to do with the so-called two-state solution and the right of Palestinians to resist – that I argue actually erode Palestinian rights.
But supporters of Palestinian rights will at least welcome the Security Council’s renewal of its longstanding condemnation of Israel’s ongoing theft of Palestinian land. This will give impetus to initiatives that aim to end all business with the settlements.
The vote came after 24 hours of extraordinary diplomatic drama and vitriolic Israeli denunciations of its biggest benefactor, the United States.
On Thursday, hours before the Egyptian-sponsored resolution was originally supposed to come to a vote, Cairo withdrew it.
This followed intense Israeli pressure on Egypt’s ruler Abdulfattah al-Sisi, including, as the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported, messages that the resolution “was not in keeping with the good relations and security cooperation between the countries and would do great harm to Israel.”
But the decisive factor appears to have been the intervention of US President-elect Donald Trump, who tweeted that the US should veto the resolution and phoned Sisi personally to oppose it.
Israel breathed a sigh of relief, and the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot ran a banner headline with the words “Thank you Sisi”:
Egypt’s military is highly dependent on about $1.5 billion in annual US military aid, support that only flows as long as Egypt continues to enjoy the favor of the Israel lobby.
But that was not the end of the resolution. Four other Security Council members – New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal – gave Egypt an ultimatum that if it was not going to reintroduce the resolution itself, they would bring it up for a vote on Friday.
This sent Israel back into panic mode. An unnamed Israeli official delivered a blistering attack on President Barack Obama and his secretary of state.
“President Obama and Secretary [John] Kerry are behind this shameful move against Israel at the UN,” the official told media. “The US administration secretly cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti-Israeli resolution behind Israel’s back which would be a tailwind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory.”
The official was referring to the Western Wall plaza, formerly Jerusalem’s Moroccan Quarter, which is part of occupied East Jerusalem. The Israeli official called the resolution “an abandonment of Israel which breaks decades of US policy of protecting Israel at the UN.”
The attack is all the more extraordinary since last September Obama approved the largest aid package in history for Israel – an unconditional $38 billion over the next 10 years.
Also on Friday morning, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham threatened to work to block US financing of the United Nations if the resolution passed.
Malaysian representative Ramlan Ibrahim told the Security Council before the vote that the draft was made more urgent by Israel’s recent introduction of legislation to legitimize its land grabs in the West Bank.
US Ambassador Samantha Power told the Security Council after the vote that the body had “reaffirmed the established consensus that settlements have no legal validity.”
She pointed out that until today, the Obama administration had been the only US government since 1967 that did not see at least one resolution passed on the issue.
Power then claimed that the UN had a long history of treating Israel unfairly and admonished member states for criticizing Israel and applying what she called “double standards.”
For all the high drama of the vote, the situation on the ground remains the same: Israel continues to seize Palestinian land and build settlements, while the UN Security Council issues words on paper.