Wednesday December 21: In a surprise move late on Wednesday Egypt circulated a draft of the resolution to other members of the Security Council and asked for it to be put to the vote the following day. It was put on the agenda for Thursday 6pm.
The last time that the 15 members of the Security Council voted on a motion calling for a freeze on settlement building was in February 2011. At that time the vote was 14 in favour and one against. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China were in favour and only the US against, but the US vote is a veto.
Obama said in the spring of 2015, when he had just 18 months of his term left, that it was too late to launch any new initiatives on Israel-Palestine, but in the last few months – since the summer – there has been speculation that he might nevertheless come up w
ith something in the transition period between the election of a new president in November and his or her inauguration in January.
American presidents have the opportunity when they leave office to continue to exercise power for about 73 days (in this case between November 8 and January 20). From a British perspective this doesn’t sound very democratic, but in America it is accepted as part of the system. Both President Reagan and President Clinton used their transition periods in ways that helped the Palestinians, in Reagan’s case by recognising the Palestine Liberation Organisation and in Clinton’s by holding the Taba peace talks.
Despite these precedents and despite a lot of careful position-taking by Obama during the autumn, suggesting he was at the very least keeping his options open, very few commentators picked up on the fact that the White House was planning an initiative. The few that did assumed that it would come in January when several new states join the Security Council.
So when the news agencies reported on Wednesday that Egypt had asked for a vote the following night, it had an electrifying effect, especially in Israel. It was seen as an attempt to gain the advantage of surprise, of leaving the Israeli goveernment with too little time to put pressure of the smaller, more vulnerable countries to change their minds. Netanyahu cleared 15 hours in his diary for a sustained campaign of lobbying. His aim was simple: to cajole, browbeat or bully Egypt’s President Sisi to take his motion off the table.
Thursday December 22: Thursday did not start well for Netanyahu’s team. They read in the Times of Israel an interview with the French Ambassador to Israel, Hélène Le Gal, saying she thought the draft motion circulated by the Egyptians was “balanced” and that France would probably vote for it.
She made it clear the Israeli government had only itself to blame for that. It was the vote in the Knesset in favour of a law to legalise illegal settlement outposts and the calls from more extreme MPs for a new wave of settlement construction that was pushing Egypt and other members of the Security Council to sponsor this anti-settlement motion, she said.
Netanyahu spent the day on the telephone and so did many of his officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By the middle of the afternoon, the word was that they were in celebratory mood. They had persuaded the American President-elect Donald Trump to call Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the phone and persuade him to postpone the motion.
What threats or promises were issued over the ether is not known but it would be surprising if it did not involve the possible reduction or withdrawal of the State Department’s annual allocation of $1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian Army.
Despite his celebratory (and self-congratulatory) mood, Netanyahu cautioned his colleagues against assuming the Egyptians had withdrawn their motion for good and pointed out that it was they had only agreed to postpone the vote. They could table it again after Christmas.
In the event the motion came back a lot more quickly than that. The Palestinian delegation at UN did not let the Egyptian reverse paralyse them and contacted four other countries who currently have seats on the Security Council, New Zealand, Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal.
It turned that all four countries were happy to pick up the resolution that Egypt had wanted to postpone. They issued a statement saying that if Egypt did not clarify by midnight whether it planned to call a vote on the resolution, then they reserved the right to table the motion themselves on Friday.
Friday December 23: The mood turned from joy to panic in record time when Netanyahu heard that the Spanish Chairman of the Security Council had put the motion on the agenda for Friday’s meeting, with a vote scheduled at 19.00 UK time, this time sponsored by New Zealand, Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal.
Netanyahu was back on the telephone, phoning foreign ministers, prime ministers, presidents, anyone he could reach in the 15 countries currently on the Security Council. His repertoire wasn’t limited to persuasion and rational argument. He quickly resorted to threats and sanctions.
The prime minister’s bureau announced that Israel’s ambassadors to New Zealand and Senegal had been recalled and that sanctions would be put in place against both countries.
A senior official in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem called New Zealand’s ambassador to Israel, Jonathan Curr, and warned that if New Zealand’s move came to a vote, Israel might close its embassy in Wellington in protest.
When this didn’t work, the Israeli PM called Murray McCully, the foreign minister of New Zealand, and told him: “This is a scandalous decision. I’m asking that you not support it and not to promote it.
“It will rupture the relations and there will be consequences. We’ll recall our ambassador to Jerusalem.”
McCully must have wondered whether he was hearing correctly on the telephone line when he heard the voice say: “If you continue to promote this resolution, from our point of view it will be a declaration of war.”
Netanyahu’s threats are perhaps unprecedented in relations between Israel and another Western country. Israel has a population smaller than London’s (8 million) but it has the fourth best-equipped armed forces in the world according to international defence publications. Nevertheless the foreign minister of New Zealand (population 4 million) refused to budge.
Indeed Netanyahu’s threat is being treated as a joke in his own country. As the Haaretz columnist Zvi Barel said: “A country that declares war on members of the Security Council is either a superpower or a joke. And Israel, despite the fancy dress, isn’t a superpower. Its prime minister has gone out of control, and it has become a country that shoots wildly in all directions, thereby destroying any chance of mobilizing an international coalition to deal with its real threats.”
Netanyahu made similar phone calls to Senegal, a developing country in West Africa that is taking its turn on the Security Council. The Israeli PM has been boasting in recent months of his successful strategy of building up support for Israel among African, Asian and Latin American countries.
He had courted Senegal in particular and felt betrayed by its support for the motion. So he instructed his Foreign Ministry to end all aid programs to the West African country and to cancel a planned visit to Israel by the Senegalese foreign minister.
As the hours ticked by, none of these threats seemed to be having the desired effect. Then, a few hours before the vote, Netanyahu called the Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin asked for a closed consultation of the Security Council. A Western diplomat said that Churkin shocked the other ambassadors when he proposed postponing the vote until after Christmas. He said the problem was not the content, but the timing. He got no support at all. They all wanted to go ahead. Churkin backed down.
At 7pm the Spanish chairman called the meeting to order and asked the Malaysian representative to introduce the motion. The speeches were not long. The arguments were familiar. After all it has been the near unanimous view of nearly every country for years that Israeli settlements are illegal and that settlement building should stop. This has been the view of the United States for a long time too, even though Obama found an excuse to veto the last resolution to come before the Security Council in February 2011. The only issue was whether he would tell the US representative, Samantha Power, to veto again or to abstain. For many weeks the answer from the White House had been the same. No decision has been taken. It will depend on the wording. A decision will be taken nearer the time.
Sooner than expected, the Spanish chairman suggested they should move to a vote. There was a strong mood of expectation in the Security Council. The chairman called for those in favour. 14 hands went up. He called for those against. No one stirred. Samantha Power’s hands could be seen on the table in front of her. He called for abstentions. She raised her hand. The chairman read out the result: Resolution 2443 carried by 14 votes to nil.
Ever since President Jimmy Carter in 1980 Israeli governments have felt secure in the belief that – whatever they did – the Americans would guard them from any serious consequences at the United Nations by wielding their veto on their behalf if necessary.
This meant that Israel enjoyed impunity and the United Nations suffered impotence. The Israeli government could flout international law without fear of consequence. The United Nations were powerless and more and more discredited. Obama’s abstention was “a breath of hope in a sea of darkness and despair” according to Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy.
It’s worth sticking with Gideon Levy for a moment. He is no dewy-eyed admirer of Obama. “We must ask U.S. President Barack Obama in fury: Now you’re doing something? And we must ask the world in frustration: What about actions?” But even though it’s too little, too late, it does nevertheless put on public record a truth that will survive all attempts by the Israeli government to change the subject or to discredit the speaker.
In another column Gideon Levy says to his fellow Israelis: “So you can say ‘the entire world is against us.’ You can scream ‘anti-Semitism!’ You can ask ‘What about Syria?’ But in the end this clear-as-crystal truth will remain: The world thinks that the settlements are a crime. All the settlements and all the world.”
The fact that the entire world had spoken, the Security Council of the United Nations had passed a resolution, without dissent, did not in any way inhibit Prime Minister Netanyahu from giving vent to his fury. Within minutes the internet was reporting that he had said the resolution was “crazy”, “absurd”, “underhand”, “reckless” and “destructive”.
Israel’s relations with the United Nations, he said, would be reviewed, and as a first step, Israeli funding for UN institutions that he said were particularly hostile would be halted immediately.
As a parting shot, the Prime Minister’s Bureau accused President Obama of “colluding” against Israel at the UN. “The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN, it colluded with it behind the scenes,” the bureau said following the vote.
“Collusion” is a loaded word. A Palestinian delegation came to Washington in early December for the explicit purpose of urging the State Department to lift its veto and discussing with them the wording that would be most likely to enable them to do so. This is a part of normal diplomatic process.
At a later stage British lawyers and diplomats were working directly with the Palestinians on the wording of the resolution even before it was distributed by Egypt the first time on Wednesday evening.
The British objective was to advise on how to make the resolution acceptable to Obama without the need for the Americans to intervene directly in formulating it. Again, this is part of normal diplomatic process.
The venom against Obama is likely to continue, especially from Netanyahu, ignoring the fact that from any objective perspective he has been one of the most pro-Israeli presidents in history.
As Haaretz columnist Barak Ravid described the scene after the vote: “The prime minister let loose with a campaign of attacks on Obama that seemed like fake news on a delusional right-wing website in the US. The most bizarre accusation was that Obama was part of a conspiracy with the Palestinians and had in fact abandoned Israel and stabbed it in the back. Yes, the same Obama who just a few weeks ago gave Israel $38 billion in security aid. Netanyahu doesn’t dare say even one tenth of such things about Putin, May or Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
Sunday December 25: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to summon the ambassadors of the UN Security Council member states. An Israeli official said each ambassador would be personally reprimanded.
It wasn’t quite clear whether the American ambassador Dan Shapiro was summoned or “asked to come in” but the result was that he had to see Netanyahu on Christmas Day.
The calling or summoning of the American ambassador was considered a most unusual step. Even more unusual is the fact that unlike the other envoys who were summoned on Sunday to the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu conducted the conversation himself at his office.
Netanyahu also decided to cancel a visit by Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who was scheduled to arrive in Israel in the coming week. A senior official in Jerusalem noted that the decision was taken in light of Ukraine’s vote at the UN.
Tuesday December 27: Netanyahu had said on Friday that nothing would change as a result of the vote. And, as if to prove him right, an article in the Israeli press revealed that the Jerusalem Local Planning and Construction Committee was expected on the following day to approve permits to build 618 new settlement units in East Jerusalem in the West Bank.
It pointed out that, since President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, there has been a sharp increase in the number of plans being submitted and subsequently approved for Jewish housing for in East Jerusalem. So far this year plans for 1,506 housing units have been approved, compared to 775 units in 2014 and only 395 units last year.
Until recently, there had been a marked slowdown in the number of plans approved for East Jerusalem, with city planning officials repeatedly complaining that the Prime Minister’s Office was blocking plans seen as diplomatically sensitive.
No one can fault American Secretary of State John Kerry for effort. During what became known as the Kerry initiative he travelled endlessly and worked tirelessly with both the Israelis and the Palestinians for nine months to try to move the peace process forward.
It was supposed to end with a great speech in which Kerry would reveal his blueprint for peace, but the talks finally broke down in April 2014 when the Israeli government made yet another announcement of new settlement building.
On Wednesday John Kerry finally got to make that speech and was finally able to say what he had thought all along. It’s clear he puts the blame mainly on the Israelis.
“The Israeli Prime Minister publicly supports a two state solution, but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements.
“The result is that policies of this government – which the Prime Minister himself just described as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history” – are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.
“If the choice is one-state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both and it won’t ever live in peace.
“The US and our partners have encouraged Israel to resume the transfer of civil authority to the Palestinians in Area C, consistent with the transition called for by Oslo.
“Israel has increasingly consolidated control over much of the West Bank for its own purposes – effectively reversing the transition to greater Palestinian civil authority called for by the Oslo accords the vote in the UN was about preserving the two state solution.
“Let’s be clear: settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security; many settlements actually increase the security burden on the IDF.
“If we had vetoed this resolution, the United States would have been giving license to further unfettered settlement construction that we fundamentally oppose That’s the bottom line: If we are serious about the two state solution, it is time to start implementing it now.
“We reject the criticism that this vote abandons Israel. On the contrary, it is not this Resolution that is isolating Israel. It is a policy of permanent settlement construction that risks making peace impossible.
“Virtually every country in the world other than Israel opposes settlements.”
In an official UK government response Theresa May said: “We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” she said.
“The government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”
“We continue to believe that the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is illegal, which is why we supported UN security council resolution 2334 last week.
“But we are also clear that the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long.”
However the US state department reacted with some bluntness to May’s statement. A spokesperson said: “We are surprised by the UK Prime Minister’s office statement given that Secretary Kerry’s remarks—which covered the full range of threats to a two state solution, including terrorism, violence, incitement and settlements—were in-line with the UK’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations last week.”
The statement also said: “We are grateful for the strongly supportive statements in response to Secretary Kerry’s speech from across the world, including Germany, France, Canada, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others.”