The United Nations security council has adopted a landmark resolution demanding a halt to all Israeli settlement in the occupied territories after Barack Obama’s administration refused to veto the resolution.
A White House official said Obama had taken the decision to abstain in the absence of any meaningful peace process.
The resolution passed by a 14-0 vote on Friday night. Loud applause was heard in the packed chamber when the US ambassador, Samantha Power, abstained.
All remaining members of the security council, including the UK, voted in support. Egypt, which had drafted the resolution and had been briefly persuaded by Israel to postpone the vote, also backed the move.
Friday’s vote was scheduled at the request of four countries – New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela – who stepped in to push for action a day after Egypt put the draft resolution on hold.
Israel recalled its ambassadors to New Zealand and Senegal in protest on Saturday.
The resolution says Israel’s settlements on Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, have “no legal validity” and demands a halt to “all Israeli settlement activities,” saying this “is essential for salvaging the two-state solution”.
The resolution reiterated that Israeli settlement was a “flagrant violation” of international law.
The United States vetoed a similar resolution in 2011, which was the sole veto cast by the Obama administration at the security council.
The abstention decision underlined the tension between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made furious efforts to prevent such a move.
A resolution requires nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China in order to be adopted. Among those who welcomed the resolution was UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
“The secretary general takes this opportunity to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work with the international community to create a conducive environment for a return to meaningful negotiations,” said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
Explaining the US abstention, Power said the Israeli settlement “seriously undermines Israel’s security”, adding : “The United States has been sending a message that the settlements must stop privately and publicly for nearly five decades.”
Power said the US did not veto the resolution because the Obama administration believed it reflected the state of affairs regarding settlement and remained consistent with US policy.
“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,” Power said.
The US decision to abstain was immediately condemned by Netanyahu’s office as “shameful” which pointedly referred to Israel’s expectation of working more closely with Donald Trump.
“Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the UN and will not abide by its terms,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said. “The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN, it colluded with it behind the scenes,.
“Israel looks forward to working with president-elect Trump and with all our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.”
The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, bluntly told the council that the resolution would not have the hoped-for impact of spurring peace efforts.
“By voting yes in favour of this resolution, you have in fact voted no. You voted no to negotiation, you voted no to progress and a chance for better lives for Israelis and Palestinians, and you voted no to the possibility of peace,” Danon told the council.
The vote will, however, be seen as a major defeat for Netanyahu, who has long had a difficult relationship with the Obama administration.
Netanyahu had tried to prevent the vote by appealing to Trump, who will not be sworn in until late January, and to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatal al-Sisi.
While the resolution is largely symbolic, it will be seen as empowering an increasingly tough UN over Israel and will give pause to international companies who have interests in the occupied territories.
Originally drafted by Egypt, the original version of the resolution had been supposed to go to a vote on Thursday night, but was withdrawn by Sisi under pressure orchestrated by Israel.
Following the vote Trump, tweeted: “As to the UN, things will be different after Jan 20.”
Commenting on Trump’s attempted intervention, a White House official insisted that until Trump’s inauguration on 20 January there was one US president – Obama.
Pro-Israel senators and lobby groups also weighed in following the vote. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most influential lobby groups, said it was “deeply disturbed by the failure of the Obama administration to exercise its veto to prevent a destructive, one-sided, anti-Israel resolution from being enacted by the United Nations security council”.
It also pointedly thanked Trump for his attempts to intervene: “AIPAC expresses its appreciation to president-elect Trump and the many Democratic and Republican members of Congress who urged a veto of this resolution.”
The United Nations maintains that settlements are illegal, but UN officials have reported a surge in construction over the past months.
About 430,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and a further 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.
The resolution demands that “Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”.
It states that Israeli settlements have “no legal validity” and are “dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution”. ”