US averts UN diplomatic crisis over Jewish settlements

Edith M. Lederer & Matthew Lee

The Independent  /  February 20, 2023

The Biden administration has averted a potential diplomatic crisis over Jewish settlements at the United Nations that had threatened to overshadow U.S. efforts to focus the world body on Russia’s war with Ukraine ahead of this week’s one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.

The Biden administration has averted a potential diplomatic crisis over Jewish settlements at the United Nations that had threatened to overshadow U.S. efforts for the world body to focus on Russia’s war with Ukraine ahead of this week’s one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Multiple diplomats familiar with the situation said Sunday that the U.S. had successfully managed to forestall a contentious U.N. Security Council resolution pushed by the Palestinians that would have condemned Israel for settlement expansion and demanded a halt to future activity.

To avoid a vote and a likely U.S. veto of such a resolution, the diplomats said the administration managed to convince both Israel and the Palestinians to agree in principle to a six-month freeze in any unilateral action they might take.

On the Israeli side, that would mean a commitment to not expanding settlements until at least August, according to the diplomats.

On the Palestinian side, the diplomats said it would mean a commitment until August not to pursue action against Israel at the U.N. and other international bodies such as the World Court, the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the highly sensitive negotiations.

The tentative agreement means the U.S. will not have to go ahead with a planned veto of the resolution that would have been a political headache for President Joe Biden as he approaches the 2024 presidential election.

Biden is struggling to balance his opposition to Jewish settlements and his support for a two-state resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict with moves to improve ties with the Palestinians that have wide backing among his progressive supporters.

And, although the administration has already denounced Israel’s latest settlement expansion and called the Palestinian resolution “unhelpful,” top congressional Republicans have warned Biden that a veto would have severe consequences for his legislative agenda.

A veto would also alienate U.N. member countries supportive of the Palestinians, like the United Arab Emirates, which was sponsoring the resolution in the Security Council, as it relates to Russia and Ukraine.

The U.S. will be looking to the UAE and other council members sympathetic to the Palestinians to vote in favor of resolutions condemning Russia for invading Ukraine and calling for a cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces.

The deal was arrived at on Sunday after days of frantic talks by senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Sullivan’s deputy Brett McGurk, the top diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, and special envoy for Palestinian affairs Hady Amr.

The Palestinian push for a resolution came as Israel’s new right-wing government has reaffirmed its commitment to construct new settlements in the West Bank and expand its authority on land the Palestinians seek for a future state.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The United Nations and most of the international community consider Jewish settlements illegal and an obstacle to ending the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

In December 2016, the Security Council demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.” It stressed that halting settlement activities “is essential for salvaging the two-state solution.”

That resolution was adopted after President Barack Obama’s administration abstained in the vote, a reversal of the United States’ longstanding practice of protecting its close ally Israel from action at the United Nations, including by vetoing Arab-supported resolutions.

Yet, the Ukraine situation looms large.

On Thursday, the 193-member General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the Russian invasion, reiterating its demand for a withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine and a cessation of hostilities. On Friday’s anniversary, the Security Council will hold a ministerial meeting on the invasion and its impact.

Lee reported from Washington