clock menu more-arrow no yes

The controversial new UN resolution on Israel, explained in under 600 words

Netanyahu Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Obama administration secretly “colluded” with Jerusalem’s adversaries on a United Nations Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements. For good measure, Netanyahu has also likened Obama to former US President Jimmy Carter, whom he pointedly derided as “hostile” to Israel.

The Obama administration denies any such collusion, saying that the resolution merely “reflects the facts on the ground” and that’s why it did not veto it.

With the two governments continuing to trade blows, the fight over the resolution has gotten ugly fast. Understanding why requires first understanding what the measure does — and, just as importantly, what it doesn't do.

The resolution, one of the harshest the UN has ever passed during the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demands that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” and declares that the establishment of settlements by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

That’s stronger language than the United States has ever officially used to describe Israeli settlement activity before. Although the standard US position has for three decades been that such settlements are “obstacles to peace,” the United States has always stopped short of describing them as “illegal” under international law.

Palestinian leaders are already saying that they’ll use the resolution to seek International Criminal Court indictments of Israeli leaders, push for a formal probe into whether Israel is violating the Geneva Conventions, and get foreign governments to ban the import of any products made in Israeli settlements.

It’s important to pause here for a second and note that the resolution itself doesn’t do any of those things.

It’s a nonbinding measure, which means Israel won’t face any financial sanctions or other punitive measures if it chooses to ignore the resolution and continue to expand existing settlements or build new ones (Netanyahu’s government has already announced plans to do both).

The Security Council would have to pass an additional resolution if member nations wanted to actually penalize Israel for its settlement policies. The incoming Trump administration, which has questioned the very idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, would veto such a resolution on sight.

That’s what makes the current fight so jarring — and so potentially dangerous for Israel and its supporters in Washington.

It’s not a surprise that Netanyahu would be furious over the administration’s unwillingness to veto a resolution explicitly questioning its claim to Jerusalem. But the Israeli leader has made the fight personal, blasting the administration in unusually harsh terms and effectively accusing the president himself of being hostile to Israel.

That puts Israel’s allies in the Democratic Party in a bind. Many of those lawmakers would normally condemn the UN vote, but Netanyahu’s attacks on Obama mean that criticizing the measure would look like they were criticizing their own president, too.

Netanyahu has also publicly embraced the incoming administration to a degree never done before by an Israeli leader, leaving no doubt that he believes the new president will be friendlier to his country than Obama had been. In a statement after the vote, Netanyahu said he looked forward to working with “President-elect Trump ... to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.”

Netanyahu’s aides have gone even further, making the remarkable assertion that they had uncovered evidence that Obama had secretly worked with other nations to shape the resolution. Israeli officials say they’ll provide that information to Trump after the inauguration.

Obama and Netanyahu have been spoiling for a fight for years. A toothless UN resolution has finally lit the spark.

Watch: The Israel-Palestine conflict, explained

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.