NEW YORK – As she began explaining President Barack Obama’s decision to abstain from a vote on Friday at the Security Council condemning Israel for its settlement activity, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power opened with words from a former Republican president.
“The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period,” she read, quoting president Ronald Reagan.
“Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
Power noted that every US president in the last five decades has characterized Israel’s settlement enterprise as a lamentable project damaging its long term prospects for peace. Yet most of those presidents also considered the UN an inappropriate venue for the airing of this policy and vetoed most resolutions on Israel throughout their presidencies.
Amnesty International, which supported Obama’s move, noted in their statement lauding the vote that it was “the first time in almost four decades that such a resolution has been passed.”
Indeed, US affirmative votes or abstentions in recent years have not been on the issue of settlements.
In 1967, after Israel won the war with neighboring Arab states and secured the West Bank, the Golan Heights east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, president Lyndon B.
Johnson immediately pushed a “land-for-peace” policy that would have respected the “territorial integrity” of all states involved in the conflict. Supporting a UN resolution seen at the time as a more palatable option to Israel than alternative drafts supported by the Soviet Union, Johnson supported a motion, Resolution 242, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories in exchange for the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Subsequent presidents supported similar motions that were based on this framework for a general Arab-Israeli peace – but they declined to litigate details in the Security Council. President Richard Nixon, for example, supported Resolution 338, which called for full implementation of 242. His UN envoy advised the White House during that time that “the expropriation or confiscation of land, the construction of housing on such land, the demolition or confiscation of buildings, including those having historic or religious significance, and the application of Israeli law to occupied portions of the city are detrimental to our common interests in [Jerusalem].
“The United States considers that the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the June war, like other areas occupied by Israel, is governing the rights and obligations of an occupying power,” Charles Yost wrote.
Yost’s successor under Gerald Ford called settlements “illegal,” but the US did not vote at the time to reflect his position.
While Reagan maintained US policy in opposition to settlement activity, he never sought to codify that position in the UN Security Council, where he ultimately vetoed 18 Israel-related resolutions.
His successor, George H.W. Bush, a former UN ambassador, supported several resolutions on the Palestinian conflict that were condemnatory of Israel. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, repeatedly said that Israel’s settlement activity was designed to predetermine terms of a deal with the Palestinians, but his position did not take the form of a UN resolution.
President Bill Clinton also maintained this policy without supporting it at the Security Council.
President George W. Bush was in office when the international body first passed a resolution supporting a twostate solution, in 2002, and he supported one other resolution calling on Israel to end its destruction of Palestinian infrastructure around Ramallah during the second intifada.