UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a watered-down statement strongly opposing Israel’s continued construction and expansion of settlements Monday. The vote came after high-stakes negotiations by the Biden administration succeeded in derailing a legally binding resolution that would have demanded a halt to Israeli settlement activity.
The Palestinian-backed draft resolution was the subject of frantic talks by senior Biden administration officials including Secretary of States Antony Blinken with Palestinian, Israeli and United Arab Emirates leaders. Those discussions culminated in a deal Sunday to forego it in favor of a weaker presidential statement that is not legally binding, according to multiple diplomats familiar with the situation.
The deal averted a potential diplomatic crisis, with the U.S. almost certainly vetoing the resolution, which would have angered Palestinian supporters at a time when the U.S. and its Western allies are trying to gain international support against Russia for its war with Ukraine. The war marks its one-year anniversary of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion this week.
But U.S. support for the presidential statement angered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His office issued a blistering statement saying the Security Council statement “negates the rights of Jews to live in their historical homeland, ignores Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem in which 10 Israeli citizens were murdered this month, turns a blind eye to the fact that the Palestinian Authority subsidizes terror and pays the families of terrorists, and diminishes the antisemitism that led to the murder of millions of Jews.”
In an unusual criticism of Israel’s closest ally, the U.S., Netanyahu’s statement said: “The declaration didn’t need to be said and the United States didn’t need to join it.”
By contrast, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, welcomed the presidential statement telling reporters: “We are very happy that there was a very strong united message from the Security Council against the illegal, unilateral measure” announced by Israel on Feb. 12 to construct 10,000 new housing units and legalize nine new outposts in the West Bank.
He also cited the council statement that Israeli settlement activities “are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution.” It envisions Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace based on borders before the 1967 Mideast war.
Mansour said 14 of the 15 council members supported the resolution, but one member — a clear reference to the United States — didn’t want to use its veto. “I think the fact that we reached a unanimous agreement on a presidential statement is a very important step in the right direction,” he said.
To avoid a vote on the draft resolution, the diplomats said, the U.S. managed to convince both Israel and the Palestinians to agree in principle to a six-month freeze in any unilateral action they might take.
On the Israeli side, that would mean a commitment to not expanding settlements until at least August, according to the diplomats. On Monday, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not greenlight any new wildcat settlements in the West Bank beyond nine outposts that it approved retroactively earlier this month.
On the Palestinian side, the diplomats said it would mean a commitment until August not to pursue action against Israel at the U.N. and other international bodies such as the World Court, the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Human Rights Council. But Mansour said the U.N. General Assembly’s request to the U.N.’s highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice also known as the World Court for an advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli politcies in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem is going ahead.
The Palestinian push for a resolution came after Israel’s new right-wing government reaffirmed its commitment to construct new settlements in the West Bank and expand its authority on land the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The United Nations and most of the international community consider Israeli settlements illegal and an obstacle to ending the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
The presidential statement does not condemn Israeli settlement activity or demand a halt. It does condemn “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terrorism.”
On settlements, the Security Council statement also “strongly opposes all unilateral measures that impede peace including … Israeli construction and expansion of settlements, confiscation of Palestinians’ land, and the `legalization’ of settlement outposts, demolition of Palestinians’ homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians.”
UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, the council’s Arab representative who sponsored the resolution, commended the U.S. role and said the statement is “the first output from the Security Council in six years on the situation in Palestine.”
In December 2016, the Security Council demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.” It stressed that halting settlement activities “is essential for salvaging the two-state solution.”
That resolution was adopted after President Barack Obama’s administration abstained in the vote, a reversal of the United States’ longstanding practice of protecting its close ally Israel from action at the United Nations, including by vetoing Arab-supported resolutions.
The presidential statement was read at the start of the council’s monthly Mideast meeting by its president, Malta’s U.N. Ambassador Vanessa Frazier.
U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland then warned the council that “we are witnessing” a surge in violence “including some of the deadliest incidents in nearly 20 years,” expressing concern that the negative trajectory is “gaining in both pace and intensity.” He said responsible leadership is urgently needed.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield also urged Israel and the Palestinians to immediately “break the cycle of violence and de-escalate.”
“We strongly oppose Israel’s announcement that it will advance thousands of settlement units. And we strongly oppose Israel’s announcement that it begin a process to retroactively legalize nine outposts in the West Bank that were previously illegal under Israeli law,” she told the council.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.