On Dec. 23, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 by a vote of 14-0. By abstaining, the United States chose not to veto the resolution’s criticism of Israeli settlements in lands occupied since the 1967 war. About 600,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A large number of settlements are unauthorized, although some have been retroactively legalized.
By contrast Palestinians’ requests for building approvals are routinely rejected and unauthorized constructions are promptly demolished by army bulldozers. With de facto colonization by stealth, the maze of barriers, checkpoints and fences no longer correspond to internationally recognized demarcation lines. Concerned Israelis, including former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have expressed fears of a creeping apartheid that could destroy Israeli society to protect the state.
The settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” In a 2004 advisory opinion, the World Court reaffirmed their illegality. Israel argues that all authorized settlements are legal.
Yet Israel’s foreign ministry legal counsel (and later president of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia), Theodor Meron, in an internal confidential opinion after the 1967 war to then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, warned that “civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The legal adviser of the U.S. State Department agreed in 1978.
Resolution 2334 reaffirms 10 previous resolutions between 1967-2008; reaffirms Israel’s obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention; condemns all measures aimed at altering the demographic balance of the occupied Palestinian territories; expresses grave concern the settlements imperil the viability of a two-state solution; emphasizes “the status quo is not sustainable”; reaffirms the settlements policy “has no legal validity and constitutes a … major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”; and asks all states “to distinguish” between Israeli and occupied territories.
The resolution’s co-sponsors were New Zealand, Senegal, Malaysia and Venezuela. Israel withdrew ambassadors from the first two in protest; it does not have diplomatic relations with the latter two. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully to warn him the resolution amounted to “a declaration of war.” It takes some skill to make an enemy of New Zealand. McCully explained that the resolution conformed to New Zealand’s long-standing policy on the Palestinian question and its view that the UNSC should actively support the peace process.
Netanyahu dismissed the resolution as “shameful” and vowed to reassess relations with the U.N. system. His main fury was directed at U.S. President Barack Obama. Israel played a high-risk end game to sabotage the resolution initially introduced by Egypt. Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump successfully lobbied Egypt’s president to withdraw the resolution. It was then reintroduced by the other four, reportedly with strong British encouragement.
We know Trump hates losing and holds losers in contempt. Will he hold Israel responsible for this loss of face on the world stage? Or will he double down on U.S. support for Israel, blame the U.N. for the humiliation, and belittle it? In which case will Israel be emboldened to annex occupied territories like Russia annexed Crimea?
Netanyahu’s office says Israel will work with Trump and congressional friends “to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.” But deal-maker Trump will be required to come to terms with the reality of needing U.N. authorization for some core U.S. goals. China, France, Russia and Britain are permanent members of the UNSC. He will also need broader coalitions to pursue many U.S. goals and these will be harder to build if he breaks the broad international consensus on the settlements.
Resolution 2334 highlights the hypocrisy of Israel’s liberal international facade of the pretense of a two-state solution while pandering to domestic hardliners in the coalition government who fiercely oppose it. Explaining U.S. abstention, Ambassador Samantha Power implied that Netanyahu was being disingenuous in simultaneously championing settlements expansion and a two-state solution.
In a Dec. 28 speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned “The status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation.” Considering Washington’s repeated warnings against the expanding settlements and Netanyahu’s many provocations, Obama has been remarkably restrained. Nor is he the first U.S. president to permit the passage of an Israel-critical UNSC resolution. Previous examples include Resolution 605 during the Reagan and Resolution 1515 during the Bush administrations in 1987 and 2003.
Resolution 2334 will embolden the boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) movement in relation to goods from the occupied territories (but not Israel proper). It could also pave the way for investigation of Israeli war crimes during the 2014 Gaza bombings by the International Criminal Court. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation two years ago, but has stalled it pending U.N. clarification on the territory’s status. Resolution 2334 provides her that but, given the ICC’s go-slow tactics in Afghanistan and Gaza, it is doubtful if she will risk a fierce U.S. backlash with a full criminal investigation in either theater.
The story contains two additional curiosities. Breaching diplomatic etiquette, Trump inserted himself as president-elect into active global diplomacy against the policy of the incumbent president. Second, Netanyahu accused Obama — who just three months earlier approved a $38 billion package of military assistance to Israel — of a “shameful ambush at the U.N.”
What is really shameful is the extent to which Washington subordinates its broader global interests to Israel. Unstopped expansion of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian land had already lost Israel much European goodwill. Netanyahu did everything possible to lose U.S. support as well. The settler population has increased by 100,000 on Obama’s watch. After the U.N. vote, senior adviser Ben Rhodes noted that Obama had warned Netanyahu about this for eight years. Having refused to take heed, Netanyahu had only himself to blame for the outcome.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.