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Obama Stands Up to Trump (and Israel); UN Condemns Settlements

by Phyllis Bennis

Just a few hours ago, the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, demanding a complete end to settlement activity, and holding the settlements a violation of international law. For the first time, the US allowed such a resolution to pass – abstaining rather than vetoing the resolution as it always had in the past. The resolution's passage was a huge slap in the face to Donald Trump’s overnight efforts, with Israel and Egypt, to seize control of Middle East diplomacy weeks before he is inaugurated as president. 

In the days before the vote, word had spread that the Obama administration was considering abstaining, rather than vetoing the resolution. Israeli officials reacted with predictable fury, bringing intensive pressure on Egypt to withdraw its draft resolution. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tweeted a late-night demand that the US veto the resolution. Trump responded with his own middle-of-the-night tweet, also insisting that the Obama administration veto the resolution. Trump – who was still, we should remember, a civilian with no governmental authority – then called Egyptian President Sisi, and held what Sisi’s spokesperson described as a wide-ranging discussion on Middle East issues, including the settlement resolution. In response to that call, Egypt announced it was withdrawing its own draft, with officials acknowledging that the goal was to provide the incoming Trump administration free rein to determine its own Middle East policy.

At that point four Council members (Malaysia, Senegal, Venezuela and New Zealand) decided to promote the Egyptian resolution without Cairo, and the discussion and vote were rescheduled for Friday afternoon. The vote was 14 in favor with one – Washington’s – abstention.

There are three important considerations regarding this vote. One, the resolution means the Obama administration is tacitly acknowledging the inadequacy of its earlier policy that claimed rhetorically to condemn settlements, but in fact vetoed any resolution that might actually have an impact on Israel’s settlement violations. (The US vetoed a similar Security Council resolution in 2011.) Despite UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s post-vote speech decrying how Israel is allegedly treated differently than every other country at the United Nations, the US position speaks volumes about the stark reality of Israeli violations. It is a huge contribution to Obama's legacy on the Middle East.

The resolution is also important because of its operative language - far stronger than most earlier Council drafts even attempted. It condemns the very establishment of the settlements in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory as having "no legal validity" and constituting "a flagrant violation under international law," while demanding that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities." In language clearly aimed at Israeli efforts to derail growing European prohibitions on allowing settlement-produced goods into the European Union, it calls on all countries "to distinguish...between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967." In its introduction it condemns "all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition" of the occupied territory, including "the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians." (There is also a condemnation of efforts to change the "status" of the occupied territory, which Israel could conceivably claim refers to efforts to build international recognition of Palestine as a "state," but the framework clearly implies condemnation of the actions of the occupying power, not the occupied population.)

And third, the process throws into even starker relief the threat posed by Trump’s off-the-cuff pro-Israel actions, far more extreme than those of even the most pro-Israeli administrations in US history - especially when those actions are tied to his assertion of unbridled power even before being sworn in. Trump is still a private citizen; it remains an open question – that should be immediately investigated by the US Justice Department – whether his direct engagement with the Egyptian president violates the Logan Act’s prohibition of any non-authorized US citizen negotiating US foreign policy with a foreign government.

The next four weeks – the last of President Obama’s term – will likely remain contentious as the Trump operation attempts to usurp more presidential power in the interest of Trump’s extremist agenda. Once he comes into power, Palestinian rights will likely be among the first to be threatened. After the historic UN vote, the Israeli ambassador called Friday “A bad day for this Council.” He was wrong. This was one of the Council’s best days in a while. We should savor it – without a lot of work, we’re not likely to see too many more days like this any time soon.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies & the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books includeUnderstanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, andCalling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.​

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