On February 18, 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution sought by the Palestinian Authority and introduced by Lebanon, declaring Israeli settlements to be “illegal.” In fact, the U.S. was the only Security Council member to vote against the measure. Countries supporting the resolution in a 14-1 vote, rather than at least abstaining, included the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
However, the Obama administration wasted no time in trying to have it both ways. It piled on Israel with denunciations of its settlement policies in as strident a manner as the Palestinians and the terrorist-ruled state of Lebanon.
In her formal statement to the Security Council explaining the United States’ decision to veto this particular Security Council resolution, Ambassador Susan Rice told the council that it “risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.”
But Rice also told the council not to interpret America’s opposition to the resolution as support for Israel’s settlement activities. America rejects “in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” she said. “Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace…[W]e agree with our fellow Council members – and indeed, with the wider world – about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.”
In other words, Rice is signaling to Israel’s enemies: don’t worry about the fate of this particular piece of paper in the Security Council. The United States still backs Israel’s enemies in blaming the impasse in peace negotiations on Israeli settlements. Rice was merely continuing along the lines of President Obama’s decision early in his term to come down hard on Israel by demanding a complete freeze on settlements – including on any growth in existing settlements – without requiring any meaningful concessions in return from the Palestinian side.
Rice also referred in her statement to the idea of a “contiguous” state of Palestine, essentially repeating what President Obama had said in 2009 to the United Nations General Assembly in support of “a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation.” Neither President Obama nor Ambassador Rice bothered to explain how this would be possible without cutting Israel in half. Moreover, there is still that pesky problem of the rift within the Palestinian community itself between the terrorist Hamas organization that controls Gaza and the more “moderate” Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank.
For days before the Security Council vote on the anti-Israel resolution, the Obama administration had tried to find ways to lend its support to a censure of Israel, short of a one-sided resolution that explicitly declared the settlements “illegal” and which the council’s members would have been legally obligated to enforce. For example, the U.S. negotiators had informed Arab governments that it would support a Security Council Presidential Statement stating that the Security Council “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, which is a serious obstacle to the peace process.” The statement would also have included a condemnation of “all forms of violence, including rocket fire from Gaza.”
How such a statement would not have hardened the positions of both sides as much as Rice had claimed the resolution would do is anyone’s guess. But it became moot after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rebuffed President Obama’s personal efforts to reach a compromise during a lengthy telephone call between Obama and Abbas the day before the Security Council vote.
Despite the U.S. veto, the Palestinian Permanent Observer Riyad Mansour boasted to reporters at the press stakeout outside the UN Security Council chamber about all of the support shown by the resolution’s sponsors. Israel was alone in the world in supporting its own settlements, he said.
Lebanon’s ambassador, Nawaf Salam, told reporters that his country’s main reason, as a current member of the Security Council, for introducing the resolution was because the “main objective of this institution is to uphold international law. That is why we came to the Security Council, and that is why we will continue to come back to the Security Council.”
Rather than appear in person at the UN press stakeout to answer questions about the U.S. veto, Ambassador Rice scheduled a conference call with some reporters. Responding to a question why the Obama administration was willing to support a Security Council Presidential Statement condemning Israel’s settlements but not a Security Council resolution saying much the same thing, Rice said that the United States had supported what it thought was a more constructive 3-part alternative. She described the 3-part alternative as including a Russian proposal for a trip by the Security Council representatives to the region, “a very strong Presidential Statement from the Security Council which would have gone further than we have gone of late on the issue of settlements and other important issues,” and using the “upcoming Quartet [on the Middle East] statement for making some new and important statements on core issues including territory, as well as settlements.”