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In what many see as a final defiant diplomatic move, US President Barack Obama has allowed a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, a move highlighting the stark deterioration of US-Israeli relations
The US abstained from a UN Security Council vote on Friday allowing all remaining 15 members of the Council to pass the first UN resolution since 1979 to condemn Israel’s settlement policy.
President Obama’s decision not to block the vote signalled a startling break from longstanding US policy in the Middle East.
In the past, Washington has vetoed all UN resolutions related to the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the grounds that differences must be solved through negotiations.
In explaining the decision, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said on Friday, “it is because this resolution reflects the facts on the ground – and is consistent with US policy across Republican and Democratic administrations throughout the history of the state of Israel – that the United States did not veto it.”
The landmark move has unleashed a diplomatic furor and revealed deep divisions in the traditionally strong alliance that binds Israel to the US.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “anti-Israel” and “shameful”, adding that Israel would not abide by its terms.
Netanyahu said he had instructed his foreign minister to review engagements at the United Nations, including funding for UN agencies and the presence of UN representatives in Israel.
He accused the Obama administration of failing to “protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN” and even colluding with its detractors.
Much of the criticism aimed at the US has focused on the president’s timing. Questions have been raised as to why, after nearly eight years in office, the Obama administration has only now decided to allow the resolution to be approved.
White House officials responded swiftly saying they had been watching draft resolutions in circulation for a least a year and were ready to take a stand when one made it to the table.
US ‘tried everything’
The White House added that it had repeatedly tried to convince Israel that building on Palestinian land was sabotaging hopes for peace.
Deputy national security adviser to Obama, Benjamin J Rhodes, said in a report published in the New York Times yesterday that the US president had tried everything.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu had the opportunity to pursue policies that would have led to a different outcome today,” Rhodes said.
“Absent this acceleration of settlement activity, absent the type of rhetoric we’ve seen out of the current Israeli government, I think the United States likely would have taken a different view,” he said.
It’s a position that was reiterated earlier this month by US Secretary of State John Kerry who told a US-Israeli forum in Washington that right-wing members of Netanyahu’s government were trying to destroy hopes for a two-state peace deal.
AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby group in Washington said: “By adopting this resolution, the United Nations has once again served as an open forum to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Netanyahu views the abstention, which comes after months of closed-door deliberations, as the ultimate betrayal saying that the US had “failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN”.
Adding fuel to the fire, and in an unprecedented move for a US president-elect, Donald Trump attempted to intercede by asking Egypt Thursday to postpone the vote. Later, after hearing the outcome of the resolution, he implied in a tweet that he could punish the United Nations at a later date.
It is no secret that relations between Netanyahu and Obama have been frosty at best. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that Obama’s decision has had as much to do with diplomatic differences as mutual animosity.
Indeed, ideological differences had put the two men, one a liberal democrat the other a conservative premier, at odds from the very start.
“They have a fraught relationship and it’s fueled by a belief on the part of both of them that the other is trying to screw them, trip them up, thwart their policies, corner them, ambush them,” Martin Indyk, Obama’s former special envoy to the Middle East, told the New York Times last year.
The most damaging rupture in Israeli-US relations came with the Iran nuclear deal signed in July 2015. The US brokered deal sought to lift international sanctions in exchange for constraints on Iran’s nuclear capability. Netanyahu was so incensed he flew to Washington to address Congress to try to stop the deal going ahead.
Nonetheless, the US is still set to give Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade — the largest such aid package in US history — but relations have never fully recovered.
US special envoy to the peace process Frank Lowenstein said after the decision Friday that US Secretary of State John Kerry would in the coming days unveil plans to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Uzi Arad said of the rift in a New York Times article last year that, “it was a gradual thing that widened over time”.
On the legacy of this schism, he said: “History will probably say that both leaders mismanaged their relationship. It’s not one party.”