Israel rebuked at United Nations. Will Security Council take action?

Israel is used to weathering criticism at the United Nations, particularly over settlement activity. But now, Palestinians and their supporters are threatening to seek Security Council intervention.

Israel’s approval last week of 238 new Jewish housing units in Arab East Jerusalem provoked widespread condemnation in a United Nations Security Council session Monday focused on the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At least one country speaking at the meeting – Nigeria – bluntly characterized the resumption of settlement construction as “a move to kill direct talks” between the two parties, and it called on Israel to “rescind” recent settlement approvals.

Egypt, representing the Non-Aligned Movement (which sets forth the interests of 118 developing countries), suggested that the time is quickly approaching when the international community will be left with no alternative but to impose the conditions of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Israel is accustomed to weathering criticism in the Security Council, particularly over settlement activity that is illegal under international law. The UN’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, repeated this view of the illegality of Israel’s settlement activity in his report to the Council. He added, “If the door to peace closes, it will be very hard to reopen.”

But Monday’s Security Council session on “the Palestinian question” drew particular interest because the Palestinians, and their supporters in the Arab League, are threatening to seek Security Council intervention if Israel does not pave the way for direct talks to resume through renewal of a settlement moratorium. Palestinians and others are even contemplating whether they could obtain Council approval of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of an independent state.

President Obama launched direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the beginning of September, but they stalled after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a moratorium on settlement construction that ended Sept. 26. Since then, hundreds of new Jewish housing units have been either started or announced for the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Neither the Palestinians nor Arab countries proposed specific Council action at Monday’s meeting. The Arab League, at a meeting earlier this month, voted to give US efforts to revive the talks a month, during which time it called on Palestinian leaders not to formally abandon the talks.

Still, several countries on Monday raised the prospect of far more divisive sessions in the Council – even a resumption of violence in the region – if the peace talks do not proceed.

Britain declared the options that surfaced at the Arab League meeting as “less than ideal,” but added that they were bound to garner increasing attention if the two parties failed to find a way to “get the talks back on track.”

Egypt said that if Israel’s “illegal actions” continue, it will be up to the Council to act. “The international community should put forward a formula for a final settlement ... based on the well-known and internationally agreed parameters,” the Egyptian permanent representative to the UN said.

The United States, which has become Israel’s chief supporter and protecting power on the Council, pointedly stated that it is “disappointed” by Israel’s approval of new housing in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration has offered the Israeli government a package of incentives for extending the settlement moratorium – if only for 60 days – that includes a commitment to veto any Security Council action against Israel in the coming year.

Monday’s Security Council meeting suggested that some UN action against Israel may be proposed. As South Africa said in its statement to the meeting, “The Security Council has to shoulder its responsibility for ending the Israeli occupation and [for] ensuring the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination is met.”

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