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What the UN Security Council resolution means for the US and Israel

Oren Liebermann, CNN, December 26, 2016

Israel has bitterly denounced the resolution
They warn it harms, not helps, the peace process

Jerusalem (CNN) — The United Nations Security Council on Friday passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The United States abstained on the resolution, allowing it to pass, rather than vetoing it — as it usually does with resolutions it sees as overly critical of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned the US ambassador and launched a scathing attack Sunday on the Obama administration.

Here are nine questions about the vote at the UN.

1. What are the immediate effects of the UNSC resolution?

The resolution may have no immediate practical effects on Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process. That’s because the resolution is non-binding, effectively creating guidelines and recommendations. The resolution would require follow-up action at the United Nations for it to have an immediate effect.

Israel is concerned about exactly that type of action. Specifically, Israel is worried about a resolution that would set conditions for negotiations. Such a resolution would issue parameters for some of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, the status of Jerusalem as a contested capital, Palestinian refugees, and a time-limit for negotiations.

An international peace conference in Paris scheduled for January 15 could be the forum for discussing such a resolution. That would give the international community time to introduce the resolution at the United Nations Security Council before the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office. Israel has vowed not to attend the conference. The Palestinians say they will attend.

2. What are the long-term effects?

The biggest blow is to Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This resolution has left little room for negotiation about the legality of the settlements, stating that Israel’s settlements have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

When it comes to borders, the resolution does leave an opening for negotiations, saying there will be no changes to the June 4, 1967 “other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”
The resolution also calls on countries to recognize a difference between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories when dealing with Israel. That could lead to sanctions against products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders say they will wait to see if Israel abides by the resolution. If not, they can pursue cases against Israeli leaders at the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the Geneva Convention. The ICC is already conducting an ongoing investigation into Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

3. Will President-elect Donald Trump be able to repeal the resolution?

Theoretically, yes, the incoming administration could repeal this resolution. Trump would have to introduce a new resolution that revokes this one entirely. Then he would need at least nine countries to vote for it and ensure that none of the Security Council’s other permanent members — Russia, UK, France, and China — vetoed it.

Realistically, that is incredibly unlikely to happen. There is a broad international consensus that settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal and that they constitute an obstacle to peace. It is extremely unlikely that Trump would be able to find eight other nations on the Security Council willing to support revoking the new resolution. Even if he did, a permanent member veto is likely.

4. Will the US and Israel take diplomatic action against the UN?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has threatened to cut US money to the United Nations over this resolution. The US currently provides 22% of the UN’s budget.

But if it happened, such a move may have the opposite effect. The US cut funding to UNESCO over a perceived anti-Israel bias in 2011. In response, UNESCO suspended the voting rights of the US at UNESCO, preventing the US from protecting Israel at the United Nations’ cultural arm. At the time, the US contributed $80 million a year to UNESCO.

Israel has already cut funding to five different UN organizations, totaling nearly $8 million, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced. Netanyahu said Israel would reevaluate its relationships with UN representatives in Israel.

5. What about Israel’s diplomatic actions against the countries that voted for this resolution? What are the effects of those?

On Christmas Day, one day after the Security Council vote, Israel summoned the ambassadors of the United States and 10 of the countries that voted for the resolution to express his disappointment about the vote. Netanyahu followed that up by limiting working ties and high-level visits with the embassies of those countries who voted for the resolution and instructing his ministers to limit travel to those countries.

More than anything else, the intent of these diplomatic steps was to make a statement about how angry Netanyahu was about the vote. The decision to suspend working ties with embassies, even if there is no date for resuming those ties, is largely symbolic and has little practical effect on the relations between the nations. It does not affect trade, security cooperation, or other aspects of the relations.
Notably, Netanyahu did not suspend working ties with the American embassy, even though most of his anger was directly at President Barack Obama.

6. Is this the first UNSC resolution regarding settlements?

No, but it is the first resolution directly addressing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1980. Resolution 465, passed on March 1, 1980, condemned “the decision of the Government of Israel to officially support Israeli settlement in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967.”

Other Security Council resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been passed, but none addressed settlements.

7. Is this the first time an American president has taken action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his final days in office?

No. In fact, it’s not all that uncommon. In 1988, Ronald Reagan began dialogue with the PLO before the end of his second term. In 2000, Bill Clinton laid out his vision for peace, now known as the “Clinton Parameters.” And in 2008, George W. Bush’s envoy voted in favor of Security Council resolution 1850, which called for a renewal of the peace process.

8. Is this the first time an American president has declined to use his veto at the Security Council?

No, other presidents have either declined to use their veto power or voted in favor of Security Council resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is the first time President Barack Obama has declined to use his veto. Obama has exercised the veto power of the United States at the Security Council on every other resolution relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Most notably, he vetoed a 2011 Security Council resolution that was critical of settlements. At the time, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said, “We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.” But, she added, “This draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations.”

In abstaining from this vote and allowing the resolution to pass, current US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said, “It is precisely our commitment to Israel’s security that makes the United States believe that we cannot stand in the way of this resolution as we seek to preserve a chance of attaining our longstanding objective: two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”

9. So why all the Israeli criticism pointed at President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry?

Because this is the first Security Council resolution in more than 35 years to deal with Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The resolution lays out guidelines for dealing with the settlements, which is something no US President has done at the Security Council since 1980.