The Obama administration has cast its first veto in the U.N. Security Council, killing a resolution that would have declared Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands illegal. The administration was under intense domestic political pressure to support Israel.
The final vote was 14 in favor, one against. But that one was the United States, a permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told the council after the vote that her government is "deeply committed" to pursuing a comprehensive and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians with a two-state solution.
"Our opposition to the resolution before this council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace."
The text of the failed resolution reaffirmed that Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peace. The resolution also sought to demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activity in Palestinian areas.
More than 120 countries co-sponsored the document, which was first circulated several weeks ago.
At first, diplomats said, the Americans would not even discuss the text of the draft. But as the Arabs moved towards pushing for a vote earlier this week, the U.S. ambassador summoned the Palestinians and some Arab envoys to offer a compromise that included a non-binding statement from the council rejecting the legitimacy of settlement activity but stopping short of calling for it to stop. Ambassador Rice referred to this offer in the council.
"In recent days, we offered a constructive alternative course forward that we believe would have allowed the council to act unanimously to support the pursuit of peace. We regret that this effort was not successful and thus is no longer viable."
In Washington, though, members of Congress issued strong statements in the lead-up to the vote urging the Obama administration to firmly support Israel and not make a "major concession to the enemies of the Jewish State and other free democracies."
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour said it was unfortunate that the council failed to uphold its responsibilities to hold Israel to its international obligations.
"The proper message that should have been sent by the Security Council to Israel, the occupying power, is that its contempt of international law and the international community will no longer be tolerated," said Mansour. "We fear, however, that the message sent today may be one that only encourages further Israeli intransigence and impunity. This must be remedied."
But Israel’s ambassador, Meron Reuben, said the defeated resolution should never have come before the Security Council in the first place and could ultimately harm the peace process.
"Instead the international community and the Security Council should have called upon the Palestinian leadership in a clear and resolute voice to immediately return to the negotiating table without pre-conditions and to renew direct negotiations in order to resolve all outstanding issues. This is the way to achieve peace," said Reuben.
Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled since late last year when a 10-month long Israeli moratorium on most settlement building expired and construction resumed.