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Obama was just spared from a major fight over Israeli settlements

The hotly anticipated UN Security Council vote exposed rifts in US-Israeli relations

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The United Nations Security Council postponed voting on a high-profile resolution calling for an immediate halt to Israeli settlements — a development that spares the Obama administration from a last-minute fight with both the Israeli government and President-elect Donald Trump.

The resolution, which some diplomats are now saying could be put off “indefinitely,” would’ve forced the Obama administration to decide between either going the traditional route of siding with Israel by vetoing the resolution or tacitly expressing its discontent with Israeli settlement policy by abstaining from voting. According to CNN reports, the White House was even considering the rarer step of voting in favor of the measure.

The vote was hotly anticipated by foreign policy observers, because it was truly impossible to predict how the Obama administration would come down on the vote — the last one before it winds down and hands the reins to the Trump administration.

Hours before the vote, Trump took the highly unusual step of publicly arguing that Obama should block the resolution. "The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed," Trump said in a statement posted on Facebook. "As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.”

Trump’s plea echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the measure, which he described as an “anti-Israel resolution” on Twitter.

The uncertainty of how Obama would come down on the vote only drove home the stark differences between his outlook and Trump’s and Netanyahu’s. In their eyes, refusing to strike down the resolution would make the US complicit in the UN’s long history of criticism of Israeli policy.

The draft resolution was introduced by Egypt and declares a freeze on settlements "essential for salvaging the two-state solution.” It says the ones that exist represent a “flagrant violation under international law.” The language put the US in a tough bind — on one hand, its formal policy is to oppose Israeli settlements; on the other hand, it typically serves as Israel’s only shield from international criticism at the UN. An abstention would’ve been the best way to avoid contradicting its stance on settlements while criticizing Israel at the same time.

But hours before the vote, Egypt moved to delay it, saying that it came under pressure from Israel to do so. Given the absence of any concrete timetables at the moment, it’s possible that the vote will be delayed until after Obama leaves office.

Obama is leaving office at a relative low point in US-Israeli relations. While he provided Israel with a bigger military aid package than any president in history and vetoed UN condemnations of settlements in the past, he had a tense and at times outright hostile relationship with the right-wing Netanyahu. Among other things, they clashed over Israeli settlement expansion and the terms of the Iran deal. Obama failed to ever get talks started regarding a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; if an enduring Israeli-Palestinian deal is ever struck, Obama will not be considered a contributor to the accomplishment.

If the vote on the settlement resolution is held when Trump takes office, it’s safe to assume it will be vetoed. Trump’s time in office is likely to align US foreign policy with Israel’s most hawkish tendencies on dealing with Palestinian territory. His pick for ambassador to Israel, a bankruptcy lawyer named David Friedman, has expressed a series of stances that, in the words of my colleague Zack Beauchamp, represent the “most hard-right approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of any US ambassador to Israel in history.”

Friedman rejects the two-state solution, vocally supports expanding settlements in the West Bank, and wants to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He’s such a staunch advocate for Israeli expansionism that he’s argued that liberal American Jews who advocate for the two-state solution are “worse” than kapos — Jews who helped Nazis run concentration camps in exchange for special privileges.

Regardless of what happens with this UN vote, the Israeli hard right is eagerly awaiting January 20.

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