A day filled with diplomatic drama ended Thursday evening, when Egypt withdrew an anti-settlement resolution it intended to submit to the UN Security Council just over an hour after President-elect Donald Trump came out squarely against it.
“The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed,” Trump said in a statement.
“As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations. This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position, and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
Until Trump’s statement, there was a sense in Jerusalem that President Barack Obama – an ardent opponent of the settlements – might not use the US veto in the Security Council to shield Israel from the resolution.
This sense was broadcast by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted overnight that “the US should veto the anti-Israel resolution,” and issued an even sharper statement again just before the Egyptians announced that they were pulling back the resolution.
“Israelis deeply appreciate one of the great pillars of the US-Israel alliance: the willingness over many years for the US to stand up in the UN and veto anti-Israel resolutions,” he said. “I hope the US won’t abandon this policy; I hope it will abide by the principles set by President Obama himself in his speech in the UN in 2011: that peace will come not through UN resolutions, but only through direct negotiations between the parties.”
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, posted on Twitter that Israel “deeply appreciates” Trump’s “clear and unequivocal call” to veto the resolution.
Although Israel had been concerned for months that the Palestinians might push an anti-settlement resolution, or that New Zealand – currently a Security Council member – might bring forward a new Middle East resolution, it was taken by surprise by the Egyptian move, diplomatic officials admitted.
The officials said that Netanyahu, Foreign Ministry officials and members of the National Security Council worked through various channels – talking to leaders in a number of different countries – to get the Egyptians to rescind the resolution. The Trump team was among those contacted.
Netanyahu, who convened the Security Council in the late afternoon to discuss what he thought would be the upcoming vote, instead briefed them on the diplomatic developments behind the scene that led to its cancellation. It was not immediately clear whether a vote on the matter would be rescheduled for a later date.
Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon urged caution, saying that while “the delay of the vote is an important step,” the issue is not yet resolved. “We are continuing our diplomatic efforts on all fronts to ensure that this disgraceful resolution will not pass the Security Council,” he said.
“Everyone in Israel is kind of celebrating, but it was delayed, it wasn’t canceled,” one diplomatic source in New York said. “It could be delayed for two hours, it could be delayed until tomorrow, and it could be delayed to somewhere in January.
“If it’s anytime between now and the end of December, it’s the same question: Will there or will there not be a veto?” the source added, pointing out the possibility that the vote was delayed in order to review the resolution and “soften” its language so the United States would “feel okay abstaining” in the next vote.
Arab League officials were scheduled to meet Thursday night in Cairo to discuss the issue, or possibly to pressure Egypt to put the draft resolution back on the table of the Security Council.
An Egyptian diplomat suggested that Cairo may have put off the vote to maintain good relations with the incoming Trump Administration.
“We [Arab states] are all looking for a way to ensure constructive relations with this new administration,” said the diplomat. “It’s not clear if this [resolution] helps that, or if it might even hinder.”
One Western diplomatic source, however, had a different take, telling The Jerusalem Post that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “caved” to Israeli pressure. “This is a resolution that the Egyptians spearheaded and introduced, only to shelve it under Israeli pressure,” he said.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said that the Palestinians do not have “clear information” why the postponement took place.
“I don’t think this means it is the end of the story,” he said in Beit Jala.
“We wanted this resolution, but we are not members of the Security Council.” According to Barghouti, if the resolution is not introduced at all and Trump is inaugurated, “that doesn’t mean we will not stop struggling on the diplomatic level.”
Secretary of State John Kerry had scheduled a speech some three hours before the vote to explain Washington’s position, but canceled it when the vote was postponed.
Egypt circulated the draft on Wednesday evening. The proposal stated that the settlements “have no legal validity,” are a flagrant violation of international law, and are “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
The resolution, a bit more mild than a draft the Palestinians themselves circulated in recent weeks, called not only for Israel to stop all building in the territories and east Jerusalem, but also called upon the nations of the world to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
This was the most significant clause in the resolution, since – while not binding – it could be used to make life for Israel difficult in various ways. For instance, under this stipulation banks may no longer be willing to provide financing to their Israeli counterparts with dealings in the settlements.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.