Since its creation, Israel has been condemned (directly or indirectly) in at least 80 UN Security Council resolutions. As we know, UNSC resolutions can only pass if the US, or any of the other five permanent members of the Council refrain from using their veto powers. It is thus a lie that this is the first time in history that the US has allowed a UNSC resolution against Israel to pass.
For instance, UNSC Resolution 611 from 1988, which was adopted after Israel’s attack on Tunisia “condemn[ed] vigorously the aggression perpetrated on 16 April 1988 against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Tunisia in flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and norms of conduct”.
In UNSC Resolution 1322 from 2000, the Council “deplore[d] the provocation carried out at Al-Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem on 28 September 2000, and the subsequent violence there and at other Holy Places, as well as in other areas throughout the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, resulting in over 80 Palestinian deaths and many other casualties”.
UNSC Resolution 672 “condemn[ed] especially the acts of violence committed by the Israeli security forces resulting in injuries and loss of human life”.
Indeed, the current resolution – UNSC Resolution 2334 – is distinguishable from past resolutions for other reasons than an abstention by the US.
In the past, the US has frequently threatened to veto resolutions that directly name Israel as the culprit in any attacks or actions. This is why many of the resolutions mentioned above condemn “the attack” or “the provocation”, rather than Israel’s attack; Israel’s provocation. On the other hand, the resolutions that do condemn Israel directly, such as Resolution 672, seem to at least refrain from describing the condemned act as a violation of international law, or of the UN Charter. This is significant, because a resolution “condemning acts of violence that result in injuries and loss of life” does not actually imply that Israel has done anything illegal. There are many examples of acts of violence that result in death that are perfectly legal under international law. Moreover, although nearly every UNSC resolution against Israel (including those above) has contained a paragraph “call[ing] upon Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations”, this language is also quite vague and hollow. It requests Israel to abide by its obligations, but doesn’t directly say that it hasn’t done so.
The point of all this is to say that the devil is in the details. While many resolutions in the past have indirectly condemned Israel for alleged unlawful acts, the resolutions have been drafted and re-drafted until the language is vague enough to say essentially nothing. And the reason for this is the US threatening to veto resolutions that are too direct against Israel. The one exception is possibly resolutions regarding the status of the Golan Heights. It seems to have been a cornerstone of US policy for many years to reject Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, and as such, resolutions have been passed that directly condemn Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights as a violation of international law.
Turning now to UNSC Resolution 2334. Paragraph 1 states that the establishment of settlements “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. It then “demand[s] that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities” and that it “fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard” (as opposed to just generally being called on to respect legal obligations, as per the resolutions above). Finally, in a bold statement, the Security Council “underlines that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations”.
What is becoming clear here, is that this resolution is not significant because the US abstained. It is significant because the US abstained, possibly for the first time in history, to a resolution that: A. contains very strong language that is not in the least vague, B. names Israel directly as the culprit, and C. describes Israel’s activities as a flagrant violation of international law. These aspects combined make the resolution significant. Part of me wonders whether the Obama administration decided to abstain as a ‘last hurrah’ to get back at Netanyahu for his unwelcomed speech to Congress in early 2015. In a way, it is a perfect move by the Obama administration. They can hide behind the fact that they did not initiate the resolution, nor did they help to draft it, and they merely abstained to support the development of peace in the region. Unfortunately, as explained above, the resolution is significant for the what the US didn’t do rather than what they did. Nevertheless, while the adoption of this resolution may be significant in theory, the reality is that it is unlikely to make much difference in practice.