West Bank protesters - Reuters - Feb 19, 2011
Protesters in the West Bank town of Bil’in on Friday, opposing the U.S. veto of an anti-settlement resolution by the UN Security Council. Photo by Reuters
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The United States used its UN Security Council veto on Friday, for the first time since President Barack Obama took office, to stop passage of a resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction. The resolution was supported by the Security Council's other 14 members.

The veto, which contradicted America's expressed policy on the settlements, and the Arab world's response to it are expected to further deepen the crisis in the peace talks.

Following the veto, the Palestinian Authority is to call this week for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly to condemn Israel. That resolution is expected to pass easily.

Meanwhile, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres on Saturday called PA President Mahmoud Abbas to urge him to return to negotiations. But Abbas rejected the request and subsequently issued a statement saying that while the Palestinians were committed to a two-state solution, construction in the settlements and in East Jerusalem would have to stop before talks could resume.

Sources in the Foreign Ministry said the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, is looking into the possibility of invoking General Assembly resolution 377 from 1950. That resolution states that an emergency General Assembly session can be called within 24 hours to circumvent the veto of a Security Council resolution.

Obama spoke with Abbas for 50 minutes on Thursday to urge the Palestinian president not to bring the resolution to a vote. According to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, Obama told Abbas that the resolution could damage U.S. interests in the Middle East and could induce the U.S. Congress to halt aid to the PA.

Obama reportedly suggested that in lieu of bringing the resolution to a vote, Abbas accept an alternative package of benefits, including a presidential statement on the settlements by the Security Council. Such a statement would be nonbinding, but could be couched in harsher terms. The package would also have included a Security Council visit to Ramallah to express support for the PA and denounce the settlements, and a statement by the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers that, for the first time, would call for the boundaries of the Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 lines.

On Friday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Abbas with an even more sharply worded message.

But Abbas told both Obama and Clinton that settlements were the reason for the breakdown in the peace talks, and the Palestinian people would not back down on this matter.

After the phone calls, Abbas called a joint meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and the leadership of his Fatah party. Mansour told the participants by phone that Arab missions to the UN wanted the resolution to move forward no matter what. They then voted unanimously to bring the resolution to a vote.

Following the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice gave a speech in which she attempted to explain the contradiction between the veto and the U.S. administration's clear opposition to construction in the settlements.

"While we agree with our fellow Council members and indeed, with the wider world about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians," Rice said. "We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution."

The British ambassador read a joint statement by Britain, France and Germany that said that construction in the settlements, including in East Jerusalem, contravened international law.

Netanyahu released a statement immediately after the Security Council meeting expressing Israel's appreciation for the American veto.

In contrast, anti-American rallies were held yesterday in Bethlehem, Tul Karm and Jenin. Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi called for a "day of rage" against the U.S. veto, and Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the veto encouraged Israeli construction in the settlements.

The veto garnered praise from pro-Israeli American lawmakers and numerous Jewish groups that had been working energetically over the past few weeks to secure it.

But the Obama administration is reportedly worried that the veto will degrade America's status in the Arab world.

And an Israeli official in New York warned that "the Palestinian initiative was thwarted, but it increased Israel's isolation." Israel's claim that the Palestinians are responsible for the stalled talks falls on deaf ears at the UN, he added.

Abbas' rejection of Obama's request will help him politically, as the Palestinian public will not be able to accuse him of buckling under U.S. pressure, as it did in 2009 when American reservations led the PA to postpone a UN Human Rights Council vote on the Goldstone report on Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza earlier that year. Moreover, given the anti-government protests now sweeping the Arab world, Abbas apparently wanted to demonstrate that it is not afraid of a showdown with the White House.