WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration "could not in good conscience" vote against a resolution brought before the UN Security Council condemning Israel for its settlement enterprise, a senior White House official said on Friday afternoon, explaining US President Barack Obama's decision to abstain from the vote and let the resolution pass.
Obama's decision, which has infuriated the Israeli government and its allies in Washington, is "consistent with bipartisan US policy" opposed to Israeli actions that are "eroding" the prospects for real peace with the Palestinians, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a phone call.
"We've tried everything," Rhodes told The Jerusalem Post,
noting that US Secretary of State John Kerry has tried for years to bring both parties to the negotiating table and to convince Israel to end— or at least pause— construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians argue is a chief obstacle to peace talks. "Here we are," he said, "at least trying to establish that the international community is on the record."
Asked what the president thought the motion– formally numbered Resolution 2334– would accomplish, and whether the administration feared it was forcing Republicans entering power to react, Rhodes described the move as a last resort reached after years of struggling with an intractable Israeli government.
"Where is the evidence that not doing this will slow the settlement construction? We've tried a different approach for years here," Rhodes asked, noting that the resolution— which states that Israeli settlements have no basis in law— also condemns incitement to violence by Palestinian leadership.
"We have a body of evidence to assess how this Israeli government has responded to us not taking this kind of action, and that suggests that they will continue to accelerate the type of settlement construction that puts a two-state solution at risk," he said, adding: "We would have vetoed any resolution that we thought sought to impose a solution that sought to impose a view on the final status issue."
Acknowledging President-elect Donald Trump's opposition to the move— relayed publicly as well as privately by his transition team— Rhodes told the Post that Obama determined the incoming administration would attempt to reverse his policies on settlement activity regardless of how the vote unfolded.
"I think they've been quite clear and quite specific about their intentions and their policies, and that simply predates this resolution," Rhodes said.
"Before this resolution was even being discussed publicly, the incoming administration announced their intention to move our embassy to Jerusalem– and I think they've sent a very clear message about what their approach to this issue is going to be through the person that they selected as their ambassador nominee," Rhodes continued, speaking of David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and adviser to Trump on Israel who has long supported the settler movement.
"That tells you what you need to know about the position of the incoming administration, and I think it would be, frankly, ignoring those very clear facts and statements that are available to everybody to see to suggest that somehow this resolution informs those positions."
Indeed, there was little disagreement between the president and president-elect on this front: In a tweet, Trump said that things would change in the US-Israel relationship come January 20, the date of his inauguration.
In a statement on the vote, Kerry said the US chose to act with one primary goal in mind: Preservation of a two-state solution.
"That is why we cannot in good conscience stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace," Kerry said. "While we do not agree with every aspect of this resolution, it rightly condemns violence and incitement and settlement activity and calls on both sides to take constructive steps to reverse current trends and advance the prospects for a two state solution. And it does not seek to impose on the parties a solution to the conflict. It preserves the ability for the parties to negotiate the end of conflict."
After speaking with Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and his UN ambassador, Samantha Power, the night before, Obama conveyed his final decision to National Security Advisor Susan Rice just hours before the vote, after "drama" unfolded Thursday evening. Egypt— which originally pioneered the resolution— chose last minute to pull the draft, prompting New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal to resubmit the same language.
A White House official said that Obama kept his willingness to abstain close to the chest, telling few in the administration. The US did not inform other Security Council members ahead of Power's in-person vote, the official added.
Kerry has plans to deliver more extensive remarks on the vote, and on Obama's closing argument on how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should proceed, before departing office.
The US is the only party that abstained from the resolution. Fourteen nations chose to vote for it.
Jewish organizations the nation over— from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents and the Anti-Defamation League— condemned the outgoing administration for its actions. J Street, however, praised Obama's decision to abstain as a welcome step.
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