Understanding the UN Settlements Resolution

Blog Post

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UN headquarters in New York City (Shutterstock)

On Friday, the United Nation Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which calls on Israel to cease building settlements in territories it occupied in 1967. The Obama administration decided to abstain from the vote, allowing it to pass 14-0.

What exactly did UN Security Council Resolution 2334 say?

The resolution, among other things:

  • reaffirmed that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are all illegal, and that no changes to the 1967 borders would be recognized outside of an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians;
  • demanded that Israel stop building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem;
  • called for all countries to distinguish between the settlements and the State of Israel within its internationally recognized 1967 borders in all their “relevant dealings”;
  • called for both sides to prevent violence against civilians, condemn and combat terrorism, refrain from incitement and comply with their obligations under international law
  • urged both parties and the international community to intensify efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

What are the effects of this resolution?

The resolution makes it clear to Israel that the world, including many of its most important allies and trading partners, is united in both its support of Israel’s existence and security and its opposition to Israel’s settlement program. If the Netanyahu government believes it can supplant its trade and other ties with Europe, should they be diminished due to Israel’s ongoing settlement activities, by turning to Russia, China and other Eastern countries, this resolution demonstrates that they too will distinguish between Israel and its settlements.

In the short term, this resolution is unlikely to affect Israeli plans for settlement expansion. But it would be wrong to suggest, as some have, that this resolution will not influence realities on the ground in the long run. First, it makes an explicit call to distinguish between Israel and its settlements. This will help to defend against any law which punishes businesses, NGOs, or individuals for making such distinctions.

While this resolution may be justly criticized for failing to establish any specific consequences either for Israel continuing to expand its settlements or for other countries supporting the settlement enterprise or failing to distinguish between Israel and the settlements, it does pave the way for such action in the future. The resolution establishes that nothing that has happened in the past fifty years of Israeli occupation mitigates the illegality of Israel establishing unilaterally establishing facts on the ground in occupied territory over which it has no recognized sovereignty. That could lead to sanctions or criminal charges against Israeli leaders should the international community decide to pursue such a course.

Did the United States betray its commitment to protect Israel at the United Nations by abstaining from this vote?

Absolutely not. Every president since 1967 has allowed UNSC resolutions critical of Israel to pass. Indeed, with less than one month remaining in his administration, Barack Obama was poised to become the first U.S. president not to do so. In fact, Obama did more to protect Israel from international action at the Security Council even for clear violations than any of his predecessors. As Lara Friedman pointed out last April, Ronald Reagan allowed 21 UNSC resolutions critical of Israel to pass, including some which greatly angered Israel. Yet he is considered Israel’s greatest friend among US Presidents.

No president been faced with such fierce accusations of being anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic as Obama has. These accusations are not based on the realities of the history of US-Israel relations, and certainly not on a sober analysis of eight years of support for Israel from Obama, which has included more monetary aid than ever before, and a level of military and intelligence cooperation that even Netanyahu has called “unprecedented.”

Did this resolution come about because President Obama is leaving office, or was there some other motivating factor?

The end of Obama’s term in office certainly made it politically easier for him to decide to abstain from this vote. But this resolution was motivated by the realities on the ground. The expansion of settlements poses a grave threat to the two-state solution. Indeed, many believe it has already precluded the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The difficulties the Israeli government has faced when it has attempted to evacuate even small outposts deemed illegal under Israeli law provide further evidence that evacuating settlements in the event of a peace agreement is very problematic.

A key factor in the administration’s decision was the so-called “Formalization Law,” according to which Israel would retroactively legalize a number of far-flung settlement outposts. The current Israeli government includes major figures such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, all of whom have been outspoken about their view that the West Bank is an integral part of the Jewish homeland and that Israel has the right to build its settlements wherever it pleases. These combined factors have created a sense of urgency at the United Nations to send a clear message to Israel that the international community has not changed its view of the settlements.

If the resolution is only about settlements, why did Israel and many supporters of the current government react with such harsh statements?

In the past few years, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken a massive effort to erase the distinction between Israel and the settlements. They have repeatedly referred to the West Bank as part of Israel, and insisted that the settlements be treated as part of Israel. Supporters in both Europe and the United States have lobbied to support the idea of treating the settlements as part of Israel, including by pushing legislation at both the state and federal levels in the United States. This resolution represents a clear statement, from nations all around the world, that the international community continues to see the settlements as separate from Israel. The Israeli government does not wish to acknowledge the fact that there is an overwhelming international consensus supporting this view, so they have chosen instead to cast the resolution as an attack on Israel itself.

Is it true that the resolution designates the Western Wall as “occupied territory”?

The resolution makes no mention of the Western Wall or any other holy site. However, the resolution refers to all the “the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” It also recalls an earlier UNSC resolution, UNSCR 478 (August 20, 1980) that declares the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem null and void. The new resolution simply re-states that all the territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war is occupied territory under international law, and this does include the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

Can Donald Trump undo what Obama has done?

President-elect Trump made clear his disapproval of this decision. Indeed, in a serious breach of the customary role of the president-elect, Trump was reported to have interceded with Egypt directly to try to derail this resolution. There will be little he can do to reverse this decision now. Trump has indicated that he supports Israeli settlement expansion in the past, but this resolution will mean that even the United States’ closest allies, as well as leaders Trump seems to have relationships with like Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will not support that policy. The resolution is unlikely to change Trump’s own policies, but it will be something he must contend with, just as Netanyahu will, if he chooses to support the further expansion of Israeli settlements.