24 Dec 2016

UN resolution to ban Israeli settlements passes as US abstains

3:34 pm on 24 December 2016

A UN resolution to ban Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories is a "victory for terror", says Israel, which has recalled its ambassador to NZ.

Israel has promised it will not abide by the resolution, proposed by New Zealand and three other countries and passed this morning.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his country would not abide by a new UN resolution.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his country would not abide by a new UN resolution. Photo: AFP

The resolution was put forward for a vote on Friday at the 15-member Security Council by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal, a day after Egypt withdrew it under pressure from Israel and US President-elect Donald Trump.

The United States abstained from the measure in a reversal of US practice to protect Israel from United Nations action, despite pressure from Mr Trump and Israel to veto it.

It was adopted with 14 votes in favour, to a round of applause. It is the first resolution the Security Council has adopted on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled Israel's ambassadors to New Zealand and Senegal for consultations following the vote.

A spokesman for the prime minister said he had also ordered the cancellation of the planned visit to Israel of the Senegalese foreign minister in three weeks and instructed the Foreign Ministry to cancel all aid programmes to Senegal.

The world reacts

Israel's UN ambassador, Danny Danon, condemned the resolution called it "a victory for terror".

"This resolution today will be added to the long and shameful list of anti-Israel UN resolutions.

"Instead of charting a course forward you are sending a message to the Palestinians that they should continue on the path of terrorism and incitement."

He told the Security Council the vote made peace less likely.

"We have presented the truth time and again to this council and implored you not to believe the lies present in this resolution.

"In voting yes, you have in fact voted no. You voted no to negotiations, you voted no to progress and a chance for better lives for Israelis and Palestinians."

A statement from the office of Mr Netanyahu described the vote as an anti-Israel resolution and said Israel would not abide by its terms.

Israel's ambassador to New Zealand Itzhak Gerberg, who was recalled by Mr Netanyahu, declined to comment.

The US abstention was seen as a parting shot by President Barack Obama, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Mr Netanyahu, and who has made settlements a major target of peace efforts that have proven ultimately futile.

After the vote, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said the continued settlement building seriously undermined Israel's security.

She said the US has been sending a message that the settlements must stop privately and publicly for nearly five decades.

"One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two state solution that would end the conflict. One had to make a choice between settlements and separation," she said.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters it was a day of victory for international law.

"A victory for civilized language and negotiation and a total rejection of extremist forces in Israel."

"The international community has told the people of Israel that the way to security and peace is not going to be done through occupation, but rather through peace, ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state to live side by side with the state of Israel on the 1967 line," Mr Erekat said.

Before the vote, Israel's ambassador to the UN had said efforts to bring a fresh resolution on the matter before the security council was a shameful move.

The White House dismissed criticism by President-elect Donald Trump of the US decision, saying there was only one president at a time and it would be Mr Obama until 20 January, when Mr Trump would take over.

Mr Trump had tweeted in response to the vote:

In a statement before the vote proposed by Egypt was withdrawn, the US president-elect said: "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.

"This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis."

Two people stand in front of a 'Trump make Israel great again!' sign in Israel

Israel asked Donald Trump's transition team to intervene on the earlier UN vote proposed by Egypt. Photo: AFP

The New Zealand side of it

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully welcomed the resolution, and said it was consistent with New Zealand's long-held positions on Palestine.

"It calls for Israeli settlement expansion to be halted and for incitement and acts of violence to cease. These have been established New Zealand policy positions for many years," he said in a statement.

"It is a sad fact that rather than making progress with talks between the parties, the most the Security Council is able to achieve is to attempt to stop the further undermining of the two state solution."

He was hopeful that Israel's attitude would eventually soften.

"I'm disappointed at the response from Israel but I think it was to be expected," he said.

"I hope though that on reflection we'll see a more measured response over time."

New Zealand ambassador to the UN Gerard van Bohemen told the council the resolution laid the groundwork for future negotiations.

 General view of The United Nations Security Council meeting on "transportation of humanitarian aid to Syria" in New York, USA on August 22, 2016.

A United Nations Security Council meeting in New York in August. Photo: AFP

He said it had been frustrating that the UN had not spoken out about the settlements for so long.

"There is no question that ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories is a significant obstacle in the return to negotiations, and a grave threat to the very viability of a future Palestinian state.

"As my foreign minister said earlier this month, these settlements violate international law and these settlements have created enemies where there should have been neighbours."

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer chaired the UN inquiry into the Mavi Marama incident, in which Israel blockaded a flotilla that was in support of Palestine and sent troops to board the lead ship leading to the deaths of nine people.

He said the UN resolution was an important piece of diplomatic work.

"My own experience in Middle-East diplomacy during the inquiry suggested to me that the issues there are so difficult and so ingrained and so entrenched that it is really difficult to make progress and it is, I think, to New Zealand's credit."

"Israel is in a very isolated position in all of this in the international arena and without the protection of the United States it cannot prevail.

"And I think the important thing to remember here is that the two-state solution is achievable, it can be achieved and it should be achieved because that is the only thing that is going to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

"Even if President-elect Trump when he becomes the legally empowered president wants to change this I don't think it's going to be easy to turn this resolution back ... I can't quite see this one being undone."

What does the resolution say?

The resolution demanded that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem" and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has "no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law."

A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.

The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Israel disputes that settlements are illegal and says their final status should be determined in talks on Palestinian statehood. The last round of US-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

The passage of the resolution changes nothing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians and likely will be all but ignored by the incoming Trump administration.

But it was more than merely symbolic.

The resolution formally enshrined the international community's disapproval of Israeli settlement building and could spur further Palestinian moves against Israel in international forums.

New Zealand efforts towards a peaceful solution

The votes followed an attempt last year by New Zealand to make progress on the matter.

At that time, New Zealand circulated a draft resolution calling on Israel to halt its settlements in the occupied territories and for Palestinians to stop taking cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It also called for both sides to refrain from provocative gestures and not to demonise each other with hostile rhetoric.

Behind the scenes, New Zealand officials met all members of the Security Council to talk about its plans.

It won sympathy from three members of the big five - Britain, Russia and China.

France set about arranging its own Middle East peace initiative and the US refrained from discussing the matter one way or another, causing the New Zealand proposal to languish and eventually die.

Since then, little has happened on the Middle East except that Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has repeatedly said the stalemate in the Middle East was unsustainable.

- RNZ / Reuters