US Veto on UN Settlement Resolution Shows Obama Is Not Ready for Change

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
By Andrea Dessi

On 18 February, the US vetoed a UN Resolution describing Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as “illegal” and “constituting a major obstacle” for peace. First submitted by Lebanon in late December 2010 on behalf of the Arab Group and the Palestinians, the resolution was co-sponsored by over 120 nations and received the endorsement of all other veto-wielding members on the Security Council. In the hope of attracting a unanimous pledge of support the resolution was specifically drafted to include wording contained in past UN resolutions as well as US and EU statements on the topic of Israeli settlements.

America’s decision to veto the resolution after months of behind the scenes pressure on the Palestinian Authority to withdraw the initiative shows just how internationally isolated the US Government is on the topic of Israel’s controversial settlement construction; an issue that has already caused the total breakdown of peace negotiations and has long been described by the same US Administration as “undermining efforts to achieve peace”. 

While an overwhelming majority of the international community considers Israel’s continued settlement construction to be illegal under international law and are united in support of a Palestinian plan to announce independence by September 2011, Israel and the US appear to be the only nations pushing to limit international involvement in the conflict. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was quoted in early January as stating that “it is deeply regrettable that growing international concern over the unilateral expansion of illegal settlements is not being heeded. Such actions seriously prejudice the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. Contrast this statement with a recent quote by US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg: “We have made very clear that we do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues. We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that arise there, and we will continue to employ the tools that we have to make sure that continues to not happen”. While this is the first time the Obama Administration has used its veto power at the UN, since the year 2000 the US Government has vetoed a total of ten Security Council resolutions, nine of which were related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In an opinion article published this February in The New York Review of Books, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, two long-time analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, write that “today there is little trust, no direct talks, no settlement freeze and, one at times suspects, not much of a US policy”. This ongoing stalemate has in turn led the Palestinians to explore alternative avenues for achieving their goals, increasingly turning to the international community and the UN for support. Since mid-2010 the Palestinian Authority has been collecting a mounting number of official recognitions from members of the international community and, according to media reports, about 100 nations have to date recognized an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders (a majority of these belong to the non-aligned camp but more recently some European countries, including Ireland, France, Portugal and Spain, have upgraded the Palestinian Diplomatic Delegation to the status of “mission”, a rank that is just below that of an official embassy).

These developments have not gone unnoticed in Israel and the US. In November 2010, the Knesset responded by adopting a bill that will prevent any Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights without the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament or, failing that, a national referendum. This will fundamentally curtail the chances of a quid-pro-quo negotiated solution with the Palestinians while also rendering any internationally-backed declaration of Palestinian independence an almost fruitless endeavour since their capital in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control. Less than a month later, on 15 December, a non-binding resolution was unanimously adopted in the US House of Representatives calling on the Obama Administration not to recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian State and to use its veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the passing of any resolution that would advance that goal.              

With the Middle East engulfed in turmoil and the Arab streets roaring for change, the Obama Administration could have risen to the occasion by sending a clear and decisive signal to Israel that change must also come to its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and that the world will no longer accept the continuation of Israel’s expansionist policies in the West Bank. Instead America’s unwillingness to single out Israel for criticism, even as the Netanyahu Government has repeatedly rebuffed US initiatives, will no doubt further tarnish America’s standing in the region. Last Sunday around 3,000 protesters took to the streets of Ramallah chanting “get out, Obama!” while waving banners that read “veto settlements, vote justice”. Today, while Washington continues to press for negotiations between what are two grossly asymmetrical parties, the world appears to be moving in the opposite direction. “Almost two decades after the peace process was launched, little remains of the foundational principle that each side has something of value to which the other aspires and thus something it can offer in exchange for what it wants”, write Agha and Malley in their op-ed, while later underlining the fact that “Israel holds a monopoly on all material assets” and has therefore “become accustomed to the way things are”. 

Instead of endorsing what was otherwise a unanimously supported Security Council resolution, the US chose to brake from the international community and use its influence to pressure the Palestinian leadership to withdraw the initiative altogether. In a last ditch attempt to prevent the resolution from coming to a vote, President Obama held a fifty-minute phone call with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warning him that pressing ahead with the resolution could result in a curtailment of US financial aid. In exchange for its withdrawal Obama offered to support a mildly worded, un-binding, statement read out by the President of the Security Council and a high-level UN visit to the region. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad described the US counter-proposal and associated financial threat as “offensive” adding that “we are not willing to compromise our national enterprise for a fistful of dollars”.

In the absence of meaningful negotiations between the parties and when confronted with Israeli intransigence and what amounts to American indecisiveness with regard to its Israel policy, the Palestinians are right to search for alternative measures that may jumpstart what is today an increasingly defunct peace process. Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said just that in an article she authored for The New York Times late last month while later warning that by opposing the resolution the US is in practice closing down “what few avenues are open to Palestinians, in the absence of negotiations, to continue our national struggle through nonviolent means”.        


26 February 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner


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