The UN Security Council is made up of 15 states – five permanent members with the power of veto (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK), and a shifting list of ten other states, elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly. In December 2016, Egypt was reaching the end of its first year on the Council.
On the evening of Wednesday, December 21, Egypt circulated a draft resolution – reportedly drawn up with the assistance of the UK – which asserted that the settlements in what it described as “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 including east Jerusalem” had no legal validity. It called upon Israel to “immediately and completely” cease all further construction, and upon all states to distinguish in their relevant dealings between “the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
The next day, Thursday, members expected to vote on it. To their astonishment, just a few hours before the Egyptian delegation, led by Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, were due to present their resolution to the Council, they withdrew it.
“A complete embarrassment to our diplomatic establishment,” was how Emad al-Din Hussein, editor-in-chief of the independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouq described the debacle, apparently a classic case of crossed wires. Egypt’s diplomatic team in New York, relying too heavily on the nation’s traditional pro-Palestinian anti-Israel stance, had forged ahead, failing to factor in two recent game-changing developments: the close collaboration that has developed between Egypt and Israel, as their forces jointly battle against the terrorist infrastructure in northern Sinai, and the total rejection by US President-elect Donald Trump of the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East.
One US commentator asserts that Cairo and Jerusalem are perhaps “closer than at any time in their history.” Egypt relies on Israeli security support at home, as well as diplomatic support internationally, including in Washington. Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry visited Jerusalem in June 2016, the first such visit in nearly a decade. His meeting with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated a growing willingness on Egypt’s part to make public its strong relationship with Israel.
As for President-elect Trump, his victory at the polls was met with delight in Cairo. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi saw it as bringing a welcome end to the Obama administration’s persistent badgering following his overthrow of the previous Muslim Brotherhood regime, and also the prospect of strong future support for his government’s battle against the Brotherhood and its jihadist followers, both hell-bent on toppling his administration.
Reacting to determined efforts by Israel to persuade Washington to block the resolution, Trump let loose on Twitter and Facebook. “The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed. As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.”
Trump followed this up with a telephone call to Egypt’s president. Sisi’s spokesman, Alaa Yousef, said the two leaders agreed to allow Trump’s incoming administration a chance to tackle the issue.
As a result, the Egyptian delegation at the UN were instructed by their president to withdraw their resolution. They had no alternative but to comply. The decision was met with incomprehension by the other members of the Security Council, four of whom – Malaysia, Senegal, Venezuela, and New Zealand – instantly agreed to put forward a resolution couched in exactly the same terms as the withdrawn Egyptian version. It was put to the vote on Friday, December 23, and of the 15 members of the Security Council, 14 voted in favor. The United States, in a move unprecedented in previous Security Council polls concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, did not use its veto, but abstained.
Sisi is not the only figure on the world stage to have had misgivings about the resolution. On Tuesday, December 27, Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Alexander Dubrovin, revealed in a radio interview that his country had tried to delay the vote but had been opposed by the other Security Council members. Whether or not Russia had been trying to align its policy with that of President-elect Trump, he said that Russia had wanted the discussion to continue, and was unhappy that the resolution focused only on the settlement issue in the complex Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Immediately after the vote Russia issued a statement criticizing the way the resolution was brought to the Security Council, only a day after Egypt had pulled its own proposal on the matter.
“Our experience shows convincingly that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is only possible through direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis without any preconditions,” said the Russian statement. “It is with this aim in view that Russia has been working and will continue working as a member of the Middle East Quartet… We would also like to reaffirm our readiness to host a meeting of the leaders of Israel and Palestine in Moscow.”
And then, on December 29, out of the blue, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, announced that had Australia been a member of the Security Council, it would have voted against the settlement resolution criticizing Israel’s presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. “In voting at the UN,” said Bishop,” the Coalition government has consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel.”
The Australian government’s position is that the status of territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war should be decided only by direct bilateral negotiations. This is consistent with the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which deemed those lands subject to “permanent status” negotiations.
In an interview with the Times of Israel in January 2014, Bishop said that West Bank settlements should not be referred to as illegal under international law. “I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution.”
Other members of the Australian government support this position. Attorney General George Brandis stated in June 2014 that Australia would no longer use “occupied” to describe eastern Jerusalem (which includes the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall). Shortly afterwards, Australian ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, said that Australia would not in future use “occupied” to describe the West Bank.
On January 5, the US House of Representatives in a motion supported by some 30 Democrat members, voted 342-80 to veto any similar UN resolution in the future. The Senate is expected to follow the House in a parallel vote shortly.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that an attempt to lay down the law on one of the thorniest issues in the complex Palestinian-Israeli dispute should give rise to misgivings and second thoughts in some quarters. Unfortunately Resolution 2334 does nothing to resolve them.