US averts UN diplomatic crisis over Israeli settlements

The Biden administration has averted a potential diplomatic crisis over Israeli settlements at the United Nations

ByEDITH M. LEDERER and MATTHEW LEE Associated Press
February 19, 2023, 4:09 PM

UNITED NATIONS -- The Biden administration has averted a potential diplomatic crisis over Israeli settlements at the United Nations that had threatened to overshadow Western efforts for the world body to spotlight Russia’s war with Ukraine during the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion this week.

Multiple diplomats familiar with the situation said Sunday that the U.S. had successfully managed to forestall a contentious U.N. Security Council resolution pushed by the Palestinians and their supporters that would have condemned Israel for settlement expansion and demanded a halt to future activity.

To avoid a vote and a likely U.S. veto of the draft resolution, which would be legally binding, the diplomats said the administration 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 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.

Instead of a resolution, the diplomats said the Security Council will adopt a weaker presidential statement along the lines of the resolution, probably on Monday. Presidential statements, which require support from all 15 council nations, become part of the council's record but are not legally binding.

The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the highly sensitive negotiations.

A veto of the settlements resolution would have been a political headache for President Joe Biden as he approaches the 2024 presidential election.

Biden is struggling to balance his opposition to Israeli settlements and his support for a two-state resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict with moves to improve ties with the Palestinians that have wide backing among his progressive supporters.

And, although the administration has already denounced Israel's latest settlement expansion and called the Palestinian resolution “unhelpful," top congressional Republicans have warned Biden that a veto would have severe consequences for his legislative agenda.

A veto would also alienate U.N. member countries supportive of the Palestinians, like the United Arab Emirates, which was sponsoring the resolution in the Security Council, as the West seeks support for Ukraine in the war with Russia..

The U.S. will be looking to the UAE and other countries sympathetic to the Palestinians to vote in favor of a resolution in the 193-member General Assembly on Thursday condemning Russia for invading Ukraine and calling for a cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces.

The deal was arrived at on Sunday after days of frantic talks by senior Biden administration officials with Palestinian, Israeli and UAE leaders. Diplomats said the intensive effort including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Sullivan's deputy Brett McGurk, the top diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, and special envoy for Palestinian affairs Hady Amr.

The Palestinian push for a resolution came as Israel’s new right-wing government has 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.

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.

Yet, the Ukraine war looms large, especially this week.

On Wednesday, Ukraine is holding a meeting focusing on human rights violations, prisoners and abducted children. More than 20 ministers are expected to be among the dozens of speakers in the General Assembly starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing ahead of Thursday's vote. On Friday’s anniversary, the Security Council will hold a ministerial meeting on the invasion and its impact.

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Lee reported from Washington.