USA Foreign Policy First Look

Trump weighs in on UN settlement resolution, following Israeli request

Donald Trump spoke by phone with the president of Egypt, whose delegation had sponsored – then abruptly postponed – the measure criticizing Israeli settlements.

A general view shows a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank on December 22, 2016.
Baz Ratner/ Reuters
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The Israeli government requested that US President-elect Donald Trump push to postpone the UN's vote on a resolution criticizing Israel's settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem after learning that the Obama administration was planning to let the measure pass, an official said Friday.

The United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has made a habit of vetoing resolutions of the sort. This time, the Obama administration – which has been at odds with that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal – intended to abstain from voting on the Egypt-sponsored resolution, all but guaranteeing its passage, two Western officials told Reuters.

The resolution would have urged a halt to Israel’s settlement activities in occupied territories claimed by Palestinians and declared that existing settlements had “no legal validity,” according to the Associated Press.

Israeli officials reached out to Trump after realizing that the Obama administration had made a decision to "ambush" Israel on the issue, one Israeli official told Reuters, calling it "a violation of a core commitment to protect Israel at the UN."

Mr. Trump spoke by phone with the president of Egypt, whose delegation abruptly postponed the vote earlier Friday. 

Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi agreed on "the importance of giving a chance for the new American administration to deal in a comprehensive way with the different aspects of the Palestinian issue with the aim of achieving a comprehensive and a final resolution," according to an Egyptian statement.

Absent some other last-minute gesture by President Obama, the maneuvering may cap off a period of strained relations between the US and Israel, and inaugurate one of greater warmth – that may upend the two-state peace solution that has until recently been the bipartisan consensus in the US.

Trump's election has brought on “nothing short of euphoria” for Israeli conservatives, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in November.

"The right is convinced that anything is possible now," Shlomi Eldar, a columnist for Al Monitor Israeli Pulse, told the Monitor. "The two-state solution can be erased, there will be no problem building in the settlements – the Messiah has come."

Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a hardline supporter of the settlements, and the incoming president has also vowed to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in what could upset regional US allies like Saudi Arabia, as the Monitor reported this week.

Netanyahu himself has sometimes been caught between the Israeli far-right and the US, but has done little to pursue a two-state solution in recent years, as West Bank settlements continue to multiply. But Trump's presidency could actually put the Israeli prime minister in a new bind, according to Nathan Sachs, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

“So far, Netanyahu has played a two-level game: blaming Obama for the halt in settlement construction when talking to settlers, and blaming the settlers for the defunct [peace] negotiations when talking to the Americans,” Mr. Sachs told the Monitor earlier this week.

“I’m not sure that Netanyahu himself is interested in unfettered settlement expansion, and without international pressure to blame he will have to provide some answers to the question – what does he really want? What is his solution to the conflict? Right now, it doesn’t seem like he can provide those positive, long-term answers.”

Palestinian leaders did not immediately react to the diplomatic fracas.

"Despite the Israeli occupation,” said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in a Christmas greeting on Friday, according to the AP, "our presence in our homeland and the preservation of our cultural and national heritage are the most important form of resistance in the face of the darkness of a foreign colonialist occupying power."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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