If Obama opposes Israeli settlement activity, why did US veto UN vote?

A United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements, which the US vetoed Friday, put the US in a difficult position at a time when Arabs are rallying for freedom and democracy.

A Palestinian man walks on his property overlooking the Israeli settlement Har Homa in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In the United Nations Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed a resolution condemning such settlements as illegal.

In its first United Nations veto, the Obama administration on Friday voted against a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as "illegal."

As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US used its power to overrule the other 14 Security Council members, all of whom voted for the resolution.

The UN vote puts the United States in a difficult position – particularly at a time when freedom and democracy are being fought for in the streets of Arab nations.

“The US has a long history of trying to prevent the United Nations from becoming an instrument to coerce Israel, but I think in normal circumstances the US veto would be less uncomfortable,” Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told Bloomberg News. “They have a huge priority not to change the subject of the conversation from oppression of Arabs and Muslims by their own autocratic governments.”

Still, the vote Friday is in line with stated US policy.

That is, it favors direct talks between the parties without a role for the UN in establishing a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors – especially with Palestinians. Friday’s veto was the 10th time in the past 11 years that the US has voted against a UN measure considered critical of Israel. Over a longer period, there have been dozens of such votes on behalf of Israel.

At the same, officials continue to make clear that the Obama administration strongly opposes expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Ambassador Rice: US opposes settlements

After voting on the resolution, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice emphasized that "our opposition to the resolution before this council today should … not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity.”

“On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Ambassador Rice said.

"The United States has been deeply committed to pursuing a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians," she said. "In that context, we have been focused on taking steps that advance the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, rather than complicating it. That includes a commitment to work in good faith with all parties to underscore our opposition to continued settlements."

To the extent that he can, President Obama has played a direct role in this most recent issue. For nearly an hour Thursday, he spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about the Security Council issue.

But Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to head off the proposed vote. The US favors instead a compromise measure that includes a call for a freeze on settlements, a visit to the region by a UN Security Council delegation, and a statement by the “Mideast Quartet” (the US, the European Union, the UN, and Russia) referring to 1967 borders in reference to a Palestinian state.

What the UN resolution said

The US-vetoed resolution, which had been sponsored by 130 countries, "reaffirms that the Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."

It also reiterated its “demand that Israel, the occupying power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory."

The US veto brought swift critical reaction.

"President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won't let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "What's needed from the Obama administration is a clear and consistent message that settlements on occupied territory are illegal and must be dismantled."

Since 2000, 14 Security Council resolutions have been vetoed by one or more of the five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States), reports Al Jazeera. Of those, 10 were US vetoes, nine of them related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Talks between Israel and Palestinian officials collapsed in 2010 over expiration of a moratorium on Jewish settlement building.

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