The U.S. cast its first veto in the UN Security Council on Friday [18 February] under the Obama administration, according to the Washington Post’s Colum Lynch.
UN photo of US Ambassador Susan Rice casting veto on 18 February 2011
All of the other 14 members of the UNSC voted in favor of the resolution, which would have condemned Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. At least 120 UN member states co-sponsored the resolution, despite a few last-minute drop-outs…
The draft resolution, if it had passed, would have “demanded that “Israel, as the occupying power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem and that it fully respect its legal obligations in this regard”.
The British Ambassador later made a point of saying not only that Israeli settlements are illegal, but also added that the three largest EU members hope to see Palestinian State by September of this year. Britain and France are two of the Security Council’s five permanent members who have the power to veto a resolution, and Germany is now one of the Security Council’s ten non-permanent members who have ordinary voting powers — all three voted in favor of the Palestinian-supported draft resolution that the U.S. vetoed.
The U.S. apparently preferred to say only that Israeli settlements were “illegitimate”.
UPDATE: A post on the Arabist blog here highlights this point:
“It’s rather morbid to read the detailed justification for this. From a State Dept. briefing here:
QUESTION: Yes, Ambassador Rice, you say that you reject the continued building of settlements on the West Bank as being illegitimate. Yet you vote that no on a resolution that calls it illegal. Why is that, considering that the State Department, as far back as 1978, considered settlement activities illegal?
AMBASSADOR RICE: The United States has not characterized settlement activity as illegal since, I believe, 1980. And – but what we do believe firmly and have reiterated forcefully, including today, is that continued settlement activity is not legitimate”…
Israel was officially pleased with the U.S. veto.
UPDATE: On Sunday, after the Shabbat shut-down from Friday night to Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the regular weekly cabinet meeting that “Over the weekend, US President Barack Obama decided to veto a draft UN Security Council decision condemning Israel. Israel deeply appreciates this decision and we remain committed to advancing peace both with our neighbors in the region and with the Palestinians. I believe that the US decision makes it clear that the only way to peace is direct negotiations and not through the actions of international bodies, which are designed to bypass direct negotiations. The most important thing in any negotiations that we conduct is the security component. The security component is critical to any peace agreement and I think that today, we can see what an unstable region we live in, a region in which Iran tries to exploit the situation that has been created in order to expand its influence by passing warships through the Suez Canal. Israel views this Iranian move with utmost gravity and this step, like other steps and developments, underscores what I have reiterated in recent years – Israel’s security needs will grow and the defense budget must grow accordingly”.
However, Attila Somfalvi reported on Israel’s YNet website on Sunday that one of several unnamed “state officials” told the publication that “Israel is becoming increasingly isolated from West European countries which consider settlements a red tag … Every time Israel issues another tender for construction in the settlements it distances the friendly European nations. We have a very serious problem and the fact that there is no peace process makes it harder to get Western European nations to support Israel. Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are angry with Netanyahu and do not accept the fact that the prime minister did not extend the freeze for an additional three months”.
YNet quoted other unnamed “sources in Jerusalem” who “warned of the possibility of damage to Israel and Europe’s financial relations. “It is estimated that the weekend vote will have financial consequences in relation to Europe. There are countries which already boycott Israeli goods and things may deteriorate further. The Europeans notice the fact that Ashton’s policy is equivocally anti-settlements. Settlements and construction contribute to Israel’s de-legitimization in all of Europe. In the past, European countries could have been influenced, but today it’s virtually impossible”. This is reported here.
The YNet article noted the generic comment often made, as it reports, by government senior officials, including top ministers, who have recently said: “Initiative should be taken to advance the political process. The current stagnation isn’t good for Israel in any way and we must do everything to return to the negotiating table”. YNet added that “In the past few days, rumors have spread in the political arena that Israel and the US are trying to form a political plan, both together and separately, which will be presented by US President Barack Obama. The plan aims to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. However, instability in the region prevents the process from progressing at this point”…
The U.S. explanation for its veto — widely and bitterly mocked as incoherent in comments by journalists and Middle East experts on Twitter Friday night — was that it did not think that Middle East peace should be negotiated in the Security Council — but instead in bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Palestinians have refused to re-enter these negotiations precisely because of Israel’s continued settlement activities.
The U.S, had pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to avoid putting the draft resolution on the table for a vote. The U.S. instead proposed an alternative strategy — a statement, instead of a resolution. [See. below, the comments of the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, for details…]
But, President Abbas refused — in his circumstances, after the Palestine Papers leaked on Al-Jazeera, he could hardly have done otherwise and kept his authority. He convened the Fatah Central Committee and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee to back him up, which they did.
There was a desultory pro-Abbas demonstration + extra security in downtown Ramallah Friday night as the U.S. cast its expected veto. After they had been dispersed by a relatively relaxed Palestinian Security force in Ramallah’s central downtown Manara Square. small groups of young teenagers with Abbas posters on wooden sticks sat on low rock walls under light from street lamps Friday night on Irsal Street, outside the Muqata’a.
In a State Department Conference call briefing after the veto, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said: “we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. We view Israeli settlement activity in territories that were occupied in 1967 as undermining Israel’s security, its democracy, and hopes for peace and stability in the region. The U.S. and other Council members are in full agreement on that, but also in full agreement about the urgent need to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, more urgent than ever, given recent developments in the region. And that resolution needs to be based on a two-state solution and an agreement between the two parties that establishes the viable, independent, and contiguous state of Palestine, once and for all”.
Rice added: “No outside country has invested more effort and energy and resources in pursuit of that peace than the United States has, and we will continue to do so. But the only way that that goal can be reached, the common goal of a two-state solution, is, as a practical matter, through direct negotiations between the parties. There’s no short cut to that end. And every potential action, including action in the Security Council, has to be measured against one test, and that’s whether it will move the parties closer to negotiations and agreement or take them further apart. And our judgment was that this resolution would not have advanced the goal of getting the parties closer to negotiations and agreement. On the contrary, it would have hardened the positions of one or both sides. Instead of the outcome we had today, the United States has been working very hard, and we put forward with the support of other members of the Security Council a constructive path that would have garnered the unanimous support of the Council and advanced the goal of peace. And we regret very much that this effort was not accepted and is no longer viable”.
No longer viable?
Nothing is stopping Obama from acting on what he promised Abbas in alternative statement on settlements before US veto on draft UNSC resolution…
But, Ambassador Rice said that because of the lack of unanimity in the Security Council – due, in this case, to the U.S. veto – the U.S. suggested statement was no longer viable.
Pressed by AP’s Matthew Lee to explain, she replied: “Our aim was to advance this process through a three-part constructive proposal that had the support of many members of the Security Council and we think would have been unanimously embraced. And that (1) included the proposal that the Russians had put forward for a trip to the region, which would be the first such trip in 30 years – over 30 years by the Security Council, not only to Israel and the Palestinian territories but other states in the region; a (2) very strong presidential statement from the Security Council, which would have gone further than we have gone of late on the issue of settlements and other important issues that would have been agreed by the Council; and (3) we had also been willing to use the upcoming Quartet statement as a vehicle for making some new and important statements on core issues, including territory, as well as settlements. That’s – it is – in our view, very unfortunate that this proposal, which would have gotten the unanimous support of the Council, was not accepted because it would have taken the process forward rather than lead to the outcome that we had today. But the proposal of the trip to the region seems even more complicated today than it was yesterday. And I think its viability is quite questionable at this point”.
Is this diplomacy?
An interesting footnote, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad apparently did not agree with the strategy of Palestinian President Abbas. Fayyad issued a Tweet before the vote — and the veto — saying “Its not the right time to proceed with a UN resolution on Israeli settlements. We must not abandon it, but we need to rethink proceeding now”.
He, or his office, later added, or clarified: “I never said we should abandon the UN resolution, I said it is wise to delay it”.
Fayyad seems to like urging people to rethink things…
On Sunday, during a visit to the northern West Bank town of Jenin, Fayyad reportedly “urged the Americans to ‘reconsider their approach’ after vetoing a Security Council resolution that would have declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to be illegal. The measure was supported by the council’s 14 other members. ‘The Americans have chosen to be alone in disrupting the internationally backed Palestinian efforts’, Fayyad said in an interview with The Associated Press”. This report was published here.
And, on Saturday, the PLO’s Yasser Abed Rabbo reportedly said the strategy after Friday’s US UNSC veto will be to go now to UN General Assembly in “uniting for peace” move — the “Emergency Special Sessions” have deliberately been left open for quick resumption. So, if this is serious, next week the UNGA could meet. But, then what?
After the vote, Ami Kaufman was scathing in his criticism, in the Jerusalem Post, of the American action: “Let’s not forget, the US was willing to dish out billions of dollars just so Israel would extend the settlement construction freeze by three months – just 90 days! All the US had to do in this case was abstain from the vote. What’s the worst that could have happened? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would have gotten angry? Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would have frowned? Honestly, what’s the worst thing that could have happened from just sitting back and letting the world show some solidarity with the Palestinians? Was the heat from AIPAC that bad? What other explanation could there be? US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice had a strange answer. She said that a onesided UN vote would hamper the chances of reaching a deal through negotiations. But what negotiations was she talking about exactly? The ones America failed to renew? And how can she claim anything is one-sided when the US was the only one, out of 14 countries, to vote against this resolution? They’re not ‘illegal’, they’re ‘illegitimate’. Classic. A masterpiece. A masterpiece of hypocrisy. ‘Pathetic’ is an understatement. ‘Irrelevant’ is much more appropriate. The US has lost any ounce of credibility it had left with this latest move. It’s time for someone else to take over this show. Since President Barack Obama has taken office, he’s shown nothing but incompetence when it comes to maneuvering between the powers of the Middle East, and a gross misunderstanding of the conflict”.
But, the truth is, the U.S. veto doesn’t change much.
[It later emerged that diplomats saw much in the British explanation of vote (a possible “European plan”?) — which we shall post about later…]
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement after the vote that “The International Court of Justice in a 2004 advisory opinion noted the widely-accepted view that the Geneva Conventions not only prohibit forced population transfers, ‘but also any measures taken by an occupying Power in order to organize or encourage transfers of parts of its own population into the occupied territory’. Israeli settlement policies also violate international human rights prohibitions against discrimination. Human Rights Watch recently documented Israel’s two-tier system for the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish populations in the 60 percent of West Bank area that Israel controls and in East Jerusalem. Israeli policies deliberately withhold basic services from Palestinians, causing tremendous hardships by preventing and punishing the construction of homes and infrastructure for their communities, while providing generous financial benefits and infrastructure for Jewish settlements. Such differential treatment lacks any security rationale, but is meted out on the prohibited basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin. UN sources told Human Rights Watch that the US government attempted to persuade the Palestinian Authority to forgo a vote on the resolution by offering to support a statement from the Security Council president condemning settlements as ‘illegitimate’, instead of clearly identifying them as ‘illegal’, as provided in the resolution. As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States is obligated ‘to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’.” This HRW statement is posted here.