Washington remains Israel's strongest UN Security Council ally

Washington remains Israel's strongest UN Security Council ally
A reading of the US opposition to the UN Security Council resolution to end Israeli occupation.
7 min read
President Obama is reportedly frustated with Israel's leaders, but will continue to support Israel [Getty]

On Tuesday, December 30, 2014, the United States, along with  seven other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), voted against a draft resolution aiming to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

The version of the draft resolution which was presented to the Security Council by Jordan, on behalf of the Arab bloc at the UN, affirmed the need to attain a "just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution" to the Middle East crisis "no later than 12 months" from the adoption of the resolution.

The proposed solution would be based on the June 4, 1967 boundaries. The text, making explicit reference to previous UN resolutions and to the Palestinian territories as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, also envisaged an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories no later than 2017.

Other specific details discussed in the draft text include a "just" and "agreed upon" solution to the Palestine refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194 of 1948 and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the implementation of security arrangements overseen by a third party; and the ceasing of construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The draft text further explicitly referenced "just settlement of all other outstanding issues, including water and prisoners".

Despite the broad similarity between the language of the draft text and the United States' official position on the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Obama administration lost no time in scuttling the efforts to pass the resolution, with US Secretary of State John Kerry arguing that any UNSC resolution would serve only to exacerbate the conflict.

Washington spared embarrassment

While it failed to secure the minimum number of nine votes needed to pass a resolution at the UNSC, the attempts to pass the Arab draft resolution revealed the extent to which the United States was isolated in its unconditional and outright support for Israel.

Indeed, had the Palestinian leadership waited until the beginning of 2015 to present the draft resolution, then the United States might have been forced to use the veto to  prevent the Security Council from adopting it.

Such an eventuality would have embarrassed the White House, which does not seem keen on undermining the already fragile military alliance against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) that ties it to a number of Arab states, including Jordan, the sponsor of the draft resolution.

In line with the protocol of the Security Council, a "no" vote by any permanent member would not count as a formal veto against a draft resolution unless there was a majority of nine UNSC member states - including both permanent and non-permanent members - in favour of the draft.

     The United States and Australia were the only two countries to vote against the draft text.

The Jordanian-sponsored draft resolution won the backing of eight UNSC members, including three of its permanent members: France, Russia and China.

The United States and Australia were the only two countries to vote against the draft text. The United Kingdom, the remaining permanent member of the UNSC, was one of five countries to abstain from voting.

As 2014 drew to a close, the two-year rotating membership of five non-permanent members of the UNSC came to an end. The outgoing members included Australia, Rwanda, South Korea - which had reportedly abstained due to US pressure - and Luxembourg and Argentina, which had voted in favor of the draft proposal.

Nigeria and Lithuania, both of which abstained, reportedly due to US pressure, will keep their seats as rotating members of the Security Council through 2015.

States joining the Security Council as non-permanent members in 2015 include New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela, Spain and Angola, all of which are generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Notably, Spain's parliament was one of six European legislatures which recognized the State of Palestine, albeit symbolically, during 2014. An assessment of the situation suggests that the Palestinian leadership could have secured the nine votes needed for its resolution to pass, had it waited until the start of 2015, thereby compelling the United States to exercise its veto power.

Nabil Aburudene, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, stated that the Palestinian leadership would go back to the UNSC in pursuit of a resolution to end the Israeli occupation and establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories.

John Bolton, a former US envoy to the United Nations, and a staunch pro-Israel figure in Washington, expressed his fear of the prospects of a revised draft of this resolution coming back to the UNSC.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bolton suggested that minor amendments to the original draft text might see the Palestinian case win more supporters in the UNSC.

Bolton specifically named the UK - the parliament of which passed a non-binding resolution recognising Palestine during October 2014 - and Nigeria - which may want to make a goodwill gesture to the Islamic world in the wake of its confrontation with the Boko Haram extremist group - as countries which could vote in favour of a new Palestinian resolution, should it come up again in 2015.

Lithuania meanwhile, according to Bolton, may follow the UK's lead to maintain the unity of the European position. Given Australia's exit from the Security Council, Bolton expounded worriedly about the possibility that President Obama, free of re-election constraints, may conceivably decline to use the veto the next time this resolution comes around.

In an interview with Bloomberg View in March of 2014, President Obama cautioned that the US' ability to protect Israel in international arenas - and specifically at the Security Council - would be limited unless peace was achieved and the Palestinians were able to establish a geographically contiguous state.

According to the US president, it was no longer a question of American willingness to support Israel, but rather a reduced capacity to contain the fallout of increased international dismay at Israeli policies and the lack of any alternative future resolution.

     The prospect of the United States declining to use its veto power at the UNSC to protect Israel remains distinctly unlikely.

Nonetheless, the prospect of the United States declining to use its veto power at the UNSC to protect Israel remains distinctly unlikely. Given the bipartisan support which Israel enjoys in Congress, slacking US support for Israel at the United Nations could limit President Obama's ability to pursue his domestic and foreign policy agendas during the final two years of his presidency.

Thorny issue

The Arab-Israeli conflict will remain a thorn in the side of the Obama administration throughout the remainder of the president's term: so long as the White House is incapable of exerting any meaningful pressure on Israel that leads to a just settlement of the Palestinian plight, then the Middle East's problems will be only further complicated, and US entanglement in the region along with it.

The move by the Palestinian Authority to join 15 international conventions - including, most importantly, the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court (ICC) - signal that the conflict with Israel has entered a new phase of direct confrontation.

The ascension of Palestine to the ICC means that the Palestinian territories would come under the court's jurisdiction - notwithstanding the non-membership of Israel in the court - and that the Palestinian leadership could conceivably prosecute Israel for war crimes against the Palestinian people, including the possibility of proceedings being brought against Israel for settlement construction.

The Obama administration fears being dragged into exactly this sort of turn of events. While it faces immense domestic pressure to never swerve from supporting Israel, the White House knows better than most that Tel Aviv has consistently destroyed all chances for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Another worry for the White House is that Congress could cut $400 million of annual aid to the Palestinian Authority, which accounts for half of the budget for the Ramallah-based Palestinian government-in-waiting. Its cancellation could result in the Authority's total collapse.

Such a fear is founded on US legislation that requires an end to financial aid for the Palestinian Authority should it choose to prosecute Israel in international courts. 

In contrast, the White House may also find itself embroiled in Israeli counter-measures to bring charges in US courts against the Palestinian Authority of supporting terrorism. Unable to face up to Israel's supporters within its own country, the Obama administration will resort to pressuring the Palestinians.

This analysis was originally published by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.