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UN Jerusalem vote: What does the defeat mean for Israel, the US and Palestinians?

Breaking down a closely watched and controversial vote

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Thursday 21 December 2017 20:55 GMT
The United Nations General Assembly votes 128-9 to declare the United States' Jerusalem capital recognition 'null and void'

The United Nations held a major vote on the status of Jerusalem — one that could have broad implications.

In many ways, the vote was a matter of America and Israel against the world. It called into question Donald Trump’s foreign policy and underscored an uncertain path forward for the Middle East peace process.

Below, we break down some of the paramount questions about the vote.

What did they vote?

The resolution was a reaction to Donald Trump formally recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It emphasises that Jerusalem’s status must be resolved through negotiations and expresses “deep regret” at the change, which it also declares “null and void”. In a reference to Mr Trump’s vow to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it urges “all States to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem”.

It wasn’t close. The resolution passed in a 128-9 landslide that saw some three-quarters of nations voting yes (another 35 abstained and 21 were no-shows). The countries that sided with the US in voting against the measure were the Central American nations of Guatemala and Honduras; the island nations of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau; Togo; and, of course, Israel.

For a point of reference, the 2012 vote to give Palestine “observer status” at the UN passed 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions.

What happens now?

Not necessarily much. Keep in mind this was a resolution rejecting America’s stance, rather than a change in policy or an explicit call to action. That means its value is largely symbolic, though it could have concrete consequences for America’s diplomatic capital and working relationships with other countries.

America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that America “will remember this day” when “we are called upon once again to make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations” and when other nations ask America “to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit”. That could be rhetorical, or it could mark a real change in how America plans to navigate international relationships and disbursement of humanitarian aid— time will tell on this one.

What does this mean for Israel?

For Israel, this vote essentially confirmed the global status quo: while many Israelis view Jerusalem as their undivided, eternal capital, much of the world views Israeli control over the city as an illegal claim to the spoils of war seized in a 1967 conflict known as the Six Day War.

In 2016, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli actions “aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem,” singling out the building of settlements and the displacement of Palestinians (the United States abstained). A separate resolution adopted last year by the General Assembly asserted that Israel was violated the Geneva Convention for its actions in “Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.

Ms Haley also said earlier this year the US may leave the UN’s Human Rights Council over its “chronic anti-Israel bias”. The 47-member body has repeatedly voted on resolutions to condemn Israel for its perceived mistreatment of Palestinians.

All of this is to say that global condemnation of Israel’s assertion to sovereignty over disputed territories is nothing new for Israeli leadership. Nor is American backing of Israel that cuts against a global consensus. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lauded Mr Trump’s decision and thanked him and Ms Haley for their “stalwart defence of Israel”.

What about Palestinians?

This was a vindication for Palestinians. It illustrates that they enjoy broad support for their cause, including at the United Nations, an institution that has historically been sympathetic to their struggle. A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hailed the vote as “a victory for Palestine,” and suggested that Palestinian leadership views the international body, rather than America, as the better partner in their drive for self-determination.

“We will continue our efforts in the United Nations and at all international forums to put an end to this occupation and to establish our Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.

And Trump?

Again, it’s unclear. From the start, Mr Trump has been skeptical of America’s global obligations as he promotes an “America First” platform that focuses on domestic issues.

He has assailed what he sees as inadequate contributions by other NATO members, saying America has unfairly been asked to pay well above its share, pulled America from the UN-brokered Paris climate accord and has repeatedly strained longstanding alliances. In formally recognising Jerusalem the capital of Israel, he overrode objections from much of the international community.

He once again took the line that America pays too much to ungrateful allies this week, threatening to withhold aid to nations that backed the resolution, saying “this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollar” and “we’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer”.

As with Ms Haley’s reprimand, we shall see if that does translate into foreign aid cuts. But Mr Trump’s words and actions here have been fairly consistent with the “America First“ foreign policy views that have already animated his presidency.

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