Letter from the UN: After the U.S. Veto on Settlements
Graham Usher
United Nations
United States


Letter from the UN   After the U.S. Veto on Settlements

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By Graham Usher

Obama’s first veto in defense of Israel at the UN was of a Security Council draft resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in language reflecting the administration’s own stated policy. The draft, supported by all other UNSC members, forced the U.S. to choose between undermining its credibility internationally and alienating constituencies at home. For the Palestinians, insistence on tabling the draft in defiance of Washington was seen by some as a first step in an “alternative peace strategy” involving a turn away from the Oslo framework in favor of the UN. After reviewing the context of the resolution, the author analyzes the stakes for the various players, the repercussions of the veto, and the diplomatic prospects in its wake.

On 18 February 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution that would have condemned as illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. Palestinian insistence on submitting the resolution incurred America’s wrath. But the Council’s fourteen other member states (including permanent members Britain, France, China, and Russia and nonpermanent powers Germany, Brazil, India, and South Africa) all voted for the resolution. And a colossal 123 countries cosponsored it, including every Arab and African state except Libya (which rejects a twostate solution to the conflict).

Israel “deeply appreciated” the American veto—understandably so. Rarely had it been left so alone internationally, with even close allies like Germany ignoring appeals to abstain.

For the Americans, Obama’s first veto in defense of Israel at the United Nations came at a time when he wanted to appear at least rhetorically on the side of young Arab protestors who from Morocco to Yemen had been demanding change, rather than with the ancien régimes defending inertia. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice’s contortions were palpable as she tried to explain a veto that violated elemental justice, international law, and until recently her administration’s own stated policy on settlements—all in the name of a peace process that no longer exists. The veto “cost the Americans blood,” admitted Israel’s Maariv newspaper, paraphrasing a “sharp” exchange between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the aftermath.

It also cost Obama in the occupied territories. In Ramallah, some 3,000 mainly Fatah members staged a “day of rage” against the veto, with the West Bank Palestinian Authority’s (PA) usually pro-American Prime Minister Salam Fayyad incandescent: “The Americans have chosen to be alone in disrupting the internationally backed Palestinian efforts,” he said. Smaller Fatah anti-America demonstrations occurred in Qalqilya, Hebron, Jenin, and East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian and Arab decision to take the resolution to the UN was born of the beaching of the U.S.-steered “peace process” after the Israeli government’s refusal last September to renew a partial moratorium on West Bank settlement starts. It was the first run of what has been called the PA’s new “alternative” diplomatic strategy. Combined with the promise of new elections in the West Bank and Gaza, moves toward reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and the approaching climax of Fayyad’s state-building agenda in September, the alternative strategy involves freeing the Palestinian case from the grip of American tutelage in order to anchor it again on UNSC resolutions and international law. How serious is the alternative?

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GRAHAM USHER is an author and journalist who has covered the Middle East and South Asia, especially the Palestine issue, for the past twenty years. Recently he has been based in New York, covering Middle East issues at the UN.

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