The Obama administration portrayed its historic decision to allow U.N. condemnation of Israeli settlement-building as a way to finally and emphatically demand a stop to the activity.
But the move may backfire by hardening positions, both in the right-wing Israeli government and in the incoming Trump administration.
President-elect Donald Trump has already signaled his intention to roll back numerous U.S. policies that were aimed at promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He may now feel more emboldened.
“Things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump tweeted after the United Nations vote, referring to the date of his inauguration.
On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would not abide by the U.N. resolution and said his government was cancelling about $7 million in contributions that Israel makes to U.N. organizations. He has also recalled ambassadors from countries that backed the resolution.
“All of the American presidents after [Jimmy] Carter fulfilled the American commitment not to try to dictate to Israel the conditions for a final settlement at the Security Council,’' Netanyahu said. "Yesterday, in complete contradiction to that commitment, including an explicit commitment from President Obama himself in 2011, the Obama administration carried out a disgraceful anti-Israeli blitz at the U.N.’'
Trump will feel compelled to quickly “negate” the resolution, as Netanyahu has urged him to do .
And a backlash against the U.N. is already being predicted. Trump has repeatedly called into question the effectiveness of world bodies like the U.N. and is likely to review the United States’ substantial financial support for the agency.
“The consequences of this will, in fact, be precisely the opposite of whatever the administration intended,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Washington-based nonpartisan Wilson Center who served as a Middle East advisor in three administrations.
The U.N. vote Friday marked the first time in years that the United States abstained from a vote criticizing Israel, which allowed the condemnation to be approved unanimously.
Traditionally, Democratic and Republican administrations have used their veto power to block U.N. resolutions that criticize Israel. Obama himself vetoed a 2011 resolution very similar to the one passed Friday.
The president’s decision not to block this resolution infuriated Israel’s staunchest allies in Congress and the Israeli government, which took the unusual steps of reaching out to Trump for help and accusing Obama of “colluding” with the Palestinians to write the resolution. Trump urged a veto.
It is highly unusual for a president-elect to attempt to intervene in foreign affairs and publicly contradict the man he is to replace.
The Obama administration rejected the suggestion that it had worked with the Palestinians on the resolution, which was authored by Egypt and sponsored by four additional nations: New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela.
The decision to abstain was the result of high-level, behind-the-scenes diplomacy at the State Department and the White House, where officials were careful not to telegraph the administration’s intentions. That caught some off guard.
The abstention was a way to condemn Netanyahu, who has accelerated the expansion of settlements in the disputed West Bank and east Jerusalem, contributing to his notoriously frosty relationship with Obama.
“Palestinians being displaced from their homes — that can be documented,” said Ben Rhodes, the president’s spokesman and deputy national security advisor. “The statement of this Israeli government, that they are ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,’ can be documented.”
Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have been repeatedly frustrated by their inability to get Netanyahu to freeze the expansion of settlements, which most of the world considers illegal.
“We’d been warning … for years that the trend line of settlement construction and settlement activity was just increasing Israel’s international isolation,” Rhodes said.
Netanyahu has ignored their entreaties. During a 2010 visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, Netanyahu’s government announced yet another big settlement project. A furious Biden cut the visit short.
The administration argues that settlements undermine the so-called two-state solution, the internationally accepted framework to resolve decades of discord in the region with a Jewish Israeli state living next to a Palestinian state. Many of the settlements criss-cross the Palestinian West Bank and divide it into impossibly disconnected chunks.
But rather than slow the settlement movement, the U.N. resolution, and the United States’ role in allowing it, may give Netanyahu and his supporters more reason to move ahead quickly.
Among pending projects is a law, currently moving through the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, that would retroactively legalize Israeli settlements built illegally on Palestinian-owned land.
Netanyahu has said he looks forward to working with Trump.
And Trump has already said he will move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has named a strident pro-settlement attorney as the next ambassador to Israel. Both actions will be seen as highly provocative by the Palestinians and much of the international community. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their eventual state, and few countries have placed their embassies in the disputed city.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), the incoming minority leader, also condemned the U.S. abstention, saying the resolution would end up being counterproductive.
The resolution “does not bring us any closer to the goal of a two-state solution,” he said.
Special correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed from Tel Aviv.
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