WASHINGTON – The Obama administration exercised its first UN Security Council veto Friday when it nixed a resolution calling Israeli settlements “illegal” and demanding they be immediately halted.

The 14 other current members of the Security Council, including Britain, Germany and France, all backed the measure, submitted by Lebanon on behalf of the Palestinians after intensive American diplomacy failed to keep it from being considered.

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In explaining the veto, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said: “Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.”

The sentiment was echoed by Israel’s temporary UN Ambassador Meron Reuben, who declared that the measure “should never have been submitted,” and warned that that it was “likely to harm” efforts to restart direct peace talks.

The Palestinian UN observer, Riyad Mansour, agreed that the veto set back negotiations, but put the blame squarely on Israel.

“We fear,” he said, “that the message sent today may be one that only encourages further Israeli intransigence and impunity.”

Though the US was unwilling to sanction the language of the resolution, which Rice termed “one-sided,” Rice did note that America should in no way be seen as supportive of settlement activity.

“We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” she told the UN body after casting her vote.

“Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”

However, in a conference call with reporters following the vote, Rice noted that US policy since 1980 had been not to term settlements “illegal.”

The US was unwilling to sign off on a legally binding resolution that gave such a designation, but it had offered a compromise that still criticized settlements.

That compromise, in the form of a presidential letter – which is not as powerful as a resolution – would have labeled the settlements illegitimate and “a serious obstacle to the peace process,” as well as condemned “all forms of violence, including rocket fire from Gaza,” among other components.

The US pushed the Palestinians to accept the compromise language in a 50-minute phone conversation US President Barack Obama had with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday, and a separate call from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday.

The vote comes amidst a stalemate in the peace process after talks broke down in September over the issue of continued settlement construction, as well as at a time of sensitivity toward the role of the United States in the region following the ouster of long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak from the Egyptian presidency.

Asked about the potential for the veto of the resolution, heavily backed by Arab states and garnering more than 100 co-sponsoring countries, to hurt America’s image in the Middle East, Rice said continued US support for a twostate solution remained the most important influence.

“We fully understand the sensitive and even emotional nature of the conflict for people in the region as well as the issue of settlements,” she said. “But we are going to remain focused on the goal that is shared throughout the region and is a core objective of the United States – which is achieving an independent sovereign state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel.”

Soon after the vote Friday afternoon, several members of Congress released statements welcoming the veto, which followed letters and other messages they had sent urging the Obama administration to torpedo the resolution.

Republican and Democratic House leaders took a rare bipartisan stand of unity praising the administration for its veto.

“Moving forward, we must continue to make it clear that peace cannot be imposed; it must be negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer in a statement released after the vote. “It is high time that the Palestinians return to the negotiating table, rather than skirt the peace process by bringing biased, unproductive resolutions to the United Nations.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also lauded the decision, but took issue with the Obama administration for considering backing a presidential statement that would have reprimanded Israel over settlements and not clearly stating in the days leading up to the vote that it would veto the resolution.

“The administration’s display of angst and its hesitation to use its veto is a major victory for those extremist elements who relish in demonizing Israel,” she said in a statement. “And for the administration to go as far as calling the choice to veto regrettable is simply shameful.”

Many pro-Israel entities also welcomed the administration’s decision, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“AIPAC expresses our appreciation that the Obama administration utilized its veto to prevent another onesided, anti-Israel resolution from being enacted by the UN Security Council,” the group said. “AIPAC shares the administration’s dedication to reaching a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through bilateral negotiations.”

But not all Jewish organizations supported the veto.

Ahead of the vote, both Americans for Peace Now and J Street expressed reservations about vetoing a resolution which was consistent with US policy critical of the settlements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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