U.S. House Discusses Reaction to UN Anti-settlement Resolution

Some Republican committee members call to defund the UN over its treatment of Israel, while others argue the U.S. should use its funding to promote reforms within the organization.

In this Nov. 18, 2016, file photo. the American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome at sunset on Capitol Hill in Washington.
File photo: The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington D.C. Alex Brandon/AP

WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee held a special hearing Thursday to discuss the recent UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements and the challenges the Trump administration will face regarding Israel, the Palestinians and the United Nations. 

The hearing wasn't centered around any specific legislation, but a number of  of Republicans in Congress have proposed that Washington withdraw funding from the United Nations over its stance on Israel.

Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, opened the discussion by citing recent events involving Israel and the Palestinians including the Security Council resolution. She said they created "an opportunity to reassess our relationship and our objectives."

She said the United States should "take a long and hard look at what our role in the United Nations is," and she intended to reintroduce legislation aimed at reforming the international organization. 

Some of the Republican committee members called for a defunding of the United Nations over its treatment of Israel, while others – such as Illinois Republican Adam Kinziger – said Washington should use its funding, which amounts to almost a quarter of the UN budget, to promote reforms at the United Nations.

Kinziger warned against retreating from the organization in a way that could embolden America's enemies and increase Israel’s vulnerability. He added that calls to quit or defund the United Nations "can make for good domestic politics" but aren't good for U.S. foreign policy. 

A former congressman, Florida Democrat Robert Wexler, spoke at the hearing in his current role as president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. While Wexler harshly criticized the United Nations for having a "systematic obsession" and an "institutional anti-Israel bias," he joined those who have warned against cutting American funding.

Wexler said Washington should work with new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has expressed a desire to combat anti-Semitism and improve his organization's record on the issue. Wexler warned that cutting funding for the United Nations could put an additional burden on Jordan, Israel's neighbor and strategic partner that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. 

Wexler said the Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements failed to distinguish between isolated settlements that harm peace and settlement blocs that could become part of Israel in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He noted, however, that recent actions by the Israeli government, such as reviving a bill aimed at retroactively seizing private Palestinian land where settlement homes are built, have harmed Israel's diplomatic standing.

"It's a bill that even Israel's attorney general has concluded he will not enforce or defend because it violates Israeli and international law," Wexler said. 

Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under the Bush administration, told the committee that the United Nations had an "almost robotic hostility to Israel," but also advocated against a retreat from the organization.

"The U.S. needs to maintain diplomatic flexibility," he said, adding that Washington should support Israel's quest to become a member of the UN Security Council, for the first time since its foundation in 1948. 

At the hearing, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies offered a number of steps the administration and Congress could push for as part of a major reform at the United Nations. This included a change in how UNRWA – the UN agency responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees – would define refugees, and a reform in the UN terror-sanctions committee, which currently does not define groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as terror groups.

While UN funding is expected to remain a key issue on Capitol Hill in the coming months, it is still unclear what President Donald Trump's position on the matter will be. Trump harshly criticized the United Nations after the anti-settlement resolution passed in December, but since then has gone quiet on the issue.