In a move seen by critics as a last ditch slap at Israel by President Obama before he leaves office, the administration allowed the U.N. Security Council to push through a resolution Friday that called Israeli settlement construction on territory Palestinians want for an independent state a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Despite heated criticism from President-elect Donald Trump, other leading Republicans and some prominent Democrats, Mr. Obama broke with long-standing U.S. tradition of vetoing such resolutions — instead simply abstaining from Friday’s vote on a measure that demands a halt to “all Israeli settlement activities.”
Critics slammed the development, which came a day after Egyptian diplomats, who worked with Palestinians to draft and put the resolution before the Security Council, had postponed a vote on it amid behind-the-scenes pressure from Israel, whose leaders were wary the Obama administration might embrace the measure.
Sen. John McCain said the administration’s decision not to veto, but to abstain, was essentially equivalent to supporting the measure. “The abstention of the United States has made us complicit,” the Arizona Republican said in a statement.
The development “marks a troubling departure from our nation’s long, bipartisan history of defending our ally Israel in the United Nations,” said Mr. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This resolution will serve as yet another roadblock to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and embolden the enemies of Israel.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, went further, calling the situation “absolutely shameful.”
“Our unified Republican government will work to reverse the damage done by this administration, and rebuild our alliance with Israel,” he said.
Some key Democrats were also dismayed.
“It is extremely frustrating, disappointing and confounding that the administration has failed to veto this resolution,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the newly-elected Senate Minority Leader from New York. “Whatever one’s views are on settlements, the U.N. is the wrong forum to settle these issues.”
“The U.N. has been a fervently anti-Israel body since the days of ‘Zionism is racism,’” Mr. Schumer added, in a reference to the 1975 U.N. General Assembly-approved resolution that called Zionism — the movement for developing and protecting a Jewish nation in Israel — “a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
The Obama administration defended its decision not to veto Friday’s resolution on grounds the measure accurately chastised Israeli settlement activity, which Palestinians and others in the international community blame for endangering the pursuit of a so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the decision not to veto was made with “one primary objective in mind: to preserve the possibility of the two state solution.”
“While we do not agree with every aspect of this resolution, it rightly condemns violence and incitement and settlement activity and calls on both sides to take constructive steps to reverse current trends and advance the prospects for a two state solution,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement.
But other administration officials were less resolute. Senior White House aide Ben Rhodes pushed back during a conference call with reporters Friday at the notion that decision not to veto had made the administration complicit in using the U.N. as a forum to smear Israel.
“We did not draft this resolution,” said Mr. Rhodes. “We did not introduce this resolution.”
He also argued that the administration has, over the years, “been willing time and again to support Israel” and has “stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself.”
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said Friday’s development did not “in any way diminish our steadfast and unparalleled commitment to the security of Israel,” but fit with a message the U.S. has sought for decades to make clear to Israeli leaders: “the settlements must stop.”
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said the U.S. had abandoned Israel by abstaining and not vetoing. “This is not a resolution against settlements, it is an anti-Israel resolution, against the Jewish people and the state of the Jews,” he said.
“The United States tonight has simply abandoned its only friend in the Middle East,” Mr. Steinitz, who is close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Channel Two News, according to Reuters.
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama have clashed repeatedly over Israel’s settlements during recent years. Some 600,000 Jewish settlers are said to now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas the Palestinians want as part of a future state, along with the Gaza Strip.
Israeli forces captured those territories in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel also effectively annexed east Jerusalem — home to sensitive religious sites — in a move that was not internationally recognized. The West Bank remains divided between autonomous Palestinian zones and Israeli-controlled territory.
There was no explicit comment Friday from Mr. Trump, who had issued a statement Thursday calling on the Obama administration to veto the resolution. The president-elect did, however, issue a tweet suggesting his disgust with the development.
“As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
While the Security Council vote was believed Thursday to have been delayed indefinitely, diplomats from several other nations in the 15-member body suddenly banded together Friday to overcome Egypt’s postponement and bring the resolution forward for a vote.
With Ms. Power abstaining for the U.S., the Council’s 14 other member nations voted unanimously to approve the resolution, a development that was met with loud applause in the Council’s packed chamber at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called the Obama administration’s handling of the vote “flat-out reckless.”
“I anticipate this vote will create a backlash in Congress against the United Nations,” he said. “The organization is increasingly viewed as anti-Semitic and seems to have lost all sense of proportionality.”
“The Middle East is on fire and Israel is surrounded by threats,” Mr. Graham added. “Regardless of the terrorist attacks they suffer, or the number of rockets fired their way, Israel is always the bad guy in the United Nations.”
Rep. Nita Lowey, New York Democrat, called the development a “stain on the United States’ long and consistent record of defending Israel against one-sided UN Security Council resolutions.”
“Today’s resolution will not further the cause of peace,” she said. “It will only harden both sides and make direct negotiations all the more difficult to ever resume.”