Just a few days ago, with less than 30 days left of the Obama administration, the US took a historic step with regards to UN deliberations over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the first time in over 35 years, the United States declined to use its veto on a Security Council resolution, calling for an end to Israeli Settlements. This resolution does not call for direct action against the continued construction of Israeli settlements, and the US did not vote for the resolution, instead opting to abstain- so why is it so important?
The action itself is largely symbolic. Since 1967, the United Nations has officially recognized internationally agreed upon borders delineating the areas belonging to Israelis and Palestinians, respectively. These boundaries are the ones that would be identified in settlement of a two-state solution, which is the answer that the United Nations, Palestine, and Israel remain committed to – at least in words.
However, in action, Israel has also been committed to the expansion of settlements across 1967 lines. This means that the Israeli government has actively been supportive of the construction of military outposts and civilian homes in what is considered Palestinian territory for 50 years. This stance on settlements is entirely incompatible with the idea of a two-state solution because it prompts an influx of Israelis into Palestinian land. According to the UN, this flow runs the risk of “altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967.”
While the international community has condemned the expansion of these illegal settlements which have deepened the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States, a longtime ally of Israel, has repeatedly refused to condemn their continued construction explicitly. In fact, since 1980, the United Nations Security Council has been unable to pass any resolution that made mention of settlements because of the threat or use of a US veto almost exclusively. This is critical because of the controversial veto power. The right of veto was built into the UN charter to limit the power of the five permanent members of the Security Council, but it has somewhat ironically given the P5 the power to veto any resolution, regardless of international support. So why has the United States had a change of heart?
United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers made one thing very clear: That the United States’ decision to abstain with regards to Resolution 2334 (2016) had to do with the US’s commitment to Israeli Security. In a rather roundabout way, Mrs. Powers is correct. The continued expansion of Israeli settlements not only threatens the reality of the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it also provokes a considerable backlash from Palestinians themselves. Direct acts of violence aside, even non-violent protests have a tendency to spiral out of control when Israeli Defense Force soldiers come into contact with Palestinian protesters. It is not uncommon for a protest to escalate into a bloodbath.
However, in addition to Mrs. Powers framing of the decision in terms of Israeli interests, Mrs. Powers also dedicated a considerable amount of time to condemning the United Nations for treating Israel unfairly. But the question is this: When a member state is in direct violation of international law, is it enough to point fingers and maintain that punishment is unjustified because of the way other countries are treated? Maybe the question should not be “How do we treat Israel more fairly?”, but “How can we hold all member states to the same standard?” To say that the United Nations does not treat all nations equally is not the same as saying that individual countries should not be held accountable for their actions because of that inequality.
We would do well to remind ourselves that this Security Council resolution is not the end of the road for the Israeli-Palestinian question. Israel has already stated that they intend to ignore the resolution entirely. What will be required by the United Nations now is their continued support for the cessation of settlement activity, whether it be the imposition of sanctions or action by the International Criminal Court? This will be largely dependent on US cooperation. Actions speak louder than words, but only time will tell if the UN is finally willing to use its teeth, and if the US is willing to allow it.