In a 14-0 vote and with the U.S. abstaining, the UN Security Council passes a resolution reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements. What does it all mean, and what comes next?
December 24, 2016
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man
The UN Security Council on Friday passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, reaffirming their illegality, calling on Israel to cease all settlement activity, and rejecting any unilateral Israeli changes to the borders — including the annexation of East Jerusalem.
The big drama surrounding the vote was that the United States decided not to exercise its Security Council veto. The Obama administration, unlike previous administrations, had for the past eight years blocked all UNSC resolutions critical of Israel, and it was unclear how the U.S. would vote until the very last second.
What does it all mean? Why did it happen now? What comes next? Here are five quick takeaways:
1. This is far from the first UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, declaring that they are illegal, and calling on Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law vis-à-vis the occupied territories. With the exception of a few new references — to the French peace conference, for example — there is little new in the resolution. It does not introduce any new demands or interpretations of international law.
2. The key here is timing. This resolution came about because the Israeli government has become intransigent — it no longer even pretends to care about what the world thinks of its polices in the West Bank. The government is advancing a law to retroactively legalize the theft of Palestinian land. Senior ministers are declaring the end to the two-state era. Annexation of certain Israeli settlements is being seriously discussed. This was the Obama administration’s — and the international community’s — way of saying that it still cares. That despite far more pressing issues on the international agenda, the world’s position on Israel/Palestine remain steadfast.
3. In response to the threat of European (and American) pressure over settlements and Israeli policy in the West Bank, Israeli leaders have in recent years suggested that Israel does not need Europe — that it can build alternative partnerships and alliances with non-Western countries like Russia, China, India, and certain African states. This vote shows that although Israel might be able to find and develop common economic — and even strategic — interests with those countries, doing so will not make them look the other way when it comes to Israel’s settlement activities. The world’s position on Israeli settlements remains a consensus position — they are illegal and illegitimate.
4. The Security Council resolution is a clear statement that Israeli settlements and settlement activity are illegal, that the changes Israel is making in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal, and calls on the parties to continue working toward the two-state solution. What it doesn’t do is lay out any consequences if Israel continues to violate international law by expanding settlements, legalizing settlements it has committed to dismantling, or even if it annexes more Palestinian territory. In other words, who’s going to do anything about it?
5. One perceivable consequence of the Security Council resolution is that it might embolden the International Criminal Court prosecutor to decide to open a formal investigation into the Israeli “war crime” of building, expanding and populating settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. The prospect of Israeli political and military leaders facing prosecution for war crimes over their support and administration of the settlement enterprise is one of the few X-factors these days that could possibly alter the trajectory of Israel’s otherwise stable occupation of Palestine. It’s an unlikely scenario, but considering the clarity of international law on settlements — now explicitly reaffirmed by the UN Security Council — combined with the ICC’s desperate need to show that it does not only indict black African despots, it could be enough to move an investigation forward.
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