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Netanyahu cancels Washington visit after US abstains on Gaza ceasefire vote at UN

Israel’s PM says vote marks “a clear departure from the consistent US position” on the war while White House denies any change in American policy

Richard Hall,Andrew Feinberg
Monday 25 March 2024 19:26 GMT
Ceasefire talks: US secretary of state says 'gaps are narrowing'
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Tensions between the United States and Israel escalated further on Monday as Washington allowed the UN to pass a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, prompting a furious response from Benjamin Netanyahu.

The United States abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote, enabling the first ceasefire resolution since the 7 October Hamas attacks. Applause broke out in the chamber as the vote was passed.

Israel’s prime minister cancelled the planned visit of a high-level delegation to Washington DC in protest, and accused the US of “retreating” from what he said had been a “principled position”.

A statement from Mr Netanyahu’s office said the new resolution “regrettably” calls for a ceasefire “that is not contingent on the release of hostages.”

It added that the decision “constitutes a clear departure from the consistent US position in the Security Council since the beginning of the war.”

Not vetoing the ceasefire vote follows months of pressure on president Joe Biden’s administration from within his own party, as well as from international allies, to do more to constrain its close ally Israel’s offensive in Gaza as the death toll passes 32,000 and much of the besieged territory’s population is on the brink of famine.

The move is likely to further raise tensions between the US and Israel, who have been engaged in a public rift over Israeli plans to invade the Gazan city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are now sheltering after being displaced from elsewhere in Gaza.

Responding to US opposition to the plan to attack the city last week, Mr Netanyahu said the operation would happen with or without US support.

“I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone,” he said following a meeting with US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

The US has blocked three previous UN Security Council resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire, including one last month backed by Arab states for which it was the only country on the 15-member council to issue its veto. Since 1945, the US has vetoed 89 Security Council resolutions in total — more than half of those have been resolutions critical of Israel.

Mr Blinken, the top US diplomat, said in a statement that the US did not agree with “all provisions” reflected in the resolution’s final text, but stressed that it contained “adjustments” which he described as “consistent with our principled position that any ceasefire text must be paired with text on the release of the hostages”.

“This resolution further explicitly recognises the painstaking, non-stop negotiations being conducted by the governments of Egypt, Israel, Qatar, and the United States to achieve such a release in the context of a ceasefire, which would also create space to surge more lifesaving humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians, and to build something more enduring,” he said.

John Kirby, the White House National Security Communications Adviser, told reporters following the vote that the US abstention “does not — and I repeat, does not — represent a shift in our policy.”

“We’ve been clear ... we’ve been consistent in our support for a ceasefire as part of a hostage deal ... we wanted to get to a place where we could support that resolution,” he said, before adding that the US could not support it because it did not include “key language that we think is essential” such as a condemnation of Hamas.

Mr Kirby also expressed dismay at Mr Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the high-level Israeli visit.

“We’re very disappointed that they won’t be coming to Washington DC to allow us to have a fulsome conversation with them about viable alternatives to them going in on the ground in Rafah,” he said.

At the daily White House press briefing a short time later, Mr Kirby said the president and Biden administration officials were “a bit perplexed” by Mr Netanyahu’s decision, citing the resolution’s non-binding status and lack of restrictions on Israel’s ability to engage in self-defence.

“The prime minister’s office seems to be indicating through public statements that we somehow changed here. We haven’t — and we get to decide what the policy is. It seems like the prime minister’s office is choosing to create a perception of daylight when they don’t need to do that,” he said, adding later that the US still “has Israel’s back” and is “providing tools and capabilities so Israel can defend itself on what we agree is a viable threat”.

Algeria’s ambassador to the UN, Amar Bendjama, told the council after the vote: “The Palestinian people has suffered greatly. This bloodbath has continued for far too long. It is our obligation to put an end to this bloodbath before it is too late.”

It comes just days after the Security Council failed to pass a US-submitted resolution that declared the “imperative” of an “immediate and sustained ceasefire”, but did not make it a legally binding demand.

In that resolution, and others prior to Monday’s, the US had linked demands for a ceasefire with a similar demand for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza. The resolution passed by the Security Council on Monday demands the release of hostages but does not make it a condition of the ceasefire.

It has been nearly six months since Hamas killed some 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostage in a surprise attack on 7 October in southern Israel. Israel’s offensive in response has killed more than 32,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials, who told The Independent there have been at least 27 reported deaths due to starvation and dehydration, including 23 children.

While it was not immediately clear whether Mr Netanyahu or his right-wing coalition government would heed the UN Security Council resolution, a White House official told The Independent that the Biden administration’s understanding of the resolution is that Israel does not have to follow it because it does not create any binding legal obligations on any party, though United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed the opposite point of view in a post on X, writing that the resolution “must be implemented” and calling a failure to do so “unforgivable”.

But Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, said on X that there would be no halt in fighting.

“The state of Israel will not cease fire,” he said. “We will destroy Hamas and continue to fight until the last of the hostages returns home.”

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