US vetoes settlement resolution: reaction and analysis

As uprisings continue to spread across the Middle East - particularly Libya - in a small corner of New York, the United States has taken a stand which could inflame the region further.

As uprisings continue to spread across the Middle East – particularly Libya – in a small corner of New York, the United States has taken a stand which could inflame the region further. President Obama wielded his first veto in the United Nations Security Council on Friday; ending Palestinian attempts to reaffirm the illegality of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The United States was the sole member of the 15-seat council to vote against the motion as all the other members voted to support it, including Britain, France, Germany, South Africa and India.

Moreover, more than two-thirds of the membership of the UN – almost 130 countries – sponsored the resolution.

The three key European Union members of the Security Council issued a joint statement on why they voted with the Palestinian Authority, saying:

“…our views on settlements, including east Jerusalem, are clear: they are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace, and constitute a threat to a two-state solution. All settlement activity, including in east Jerusalem, should cease immediately.”

Senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said the vote:

“…proved that Israel is isolated internationally and is only protected by the American veto.”

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appears to agree, saying that the isolation of Israel leaves it in “political collapse”; Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close aide to the Palestinian President, added:

“The American veto does not serve the peace process and encourages Israel to continue settlements, and to escape the obligations of the peace process.”

Influential NGOs reacted with equal vehemence. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said:

“President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won’t let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way.

“What’s needed from the Obama administration is a clear and consistent message that settlements on occupied territory are illegal and must be dismantled.”

Small protests broke out across the West Bank after the vote, with an official day of protest planned for Friday.

The international community is right to be deeply frustrated by President Obama’s decision to veto the resolution – and contradict his previous rhetoric on settlements – but we should not be overly shocked by it.

This vote is America’s 80th deployment of its veto since its first in 1970. Amazingly, more than half of these votes – 42 – have been used to defend Israel from censure. Since 2000, the US has resorted to its veto eleven times, ten of which related to Israel.

This is not the first time the US has contradicted its own rhetoric on Israel in the UN. In July 2002, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, issued a statement that the US would veto any resolution on Israel that did not specifically condemn terrorism. It would become known as the ‘Negroponte Doctrine’.

In 2006, however, the US vetoed two resolutions condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza while simultaneously condemning Hamas rocket fire and calling for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Moreover, this is not the first time the US has found itself completely isolated on the Security Council on the issue of Israel. Defending Israel, America has been unanimously voted against on 16 occasions – the last time being in March 1997, when President Clinton vetoed a joint British-French motion condemning settlement construction in East Jerusalem.

But this record does not mean that Friday’s veto will sit well with the Obama administration; in fact, it will leave America in a more uncomfortable position than in previous years. It is the first veto of a President who came to power ostensibly on a wave of optimism and change, saying:

“This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

It also comes at a time when the US will be challenged by new democratic forces in the region. The growing empowerment of Arab populations will no doubt carry with it an increased willingness to confront the western allies of their formally dictatorial governments. It could be, as Israeli journalist Ami Kaufman asserted, that:

“America’s role in the region is finished”

On paper the Palestinian Authority lost the vote, but in reality it was a devastating blow to Israel, as the world rallied against Israel’s settlement programme and by association, the United States.

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