What the UN vote on Israel settlements means for an outgoing Obama and incoming Trump


The United States struck a diplomatic blow at Israel on Friday in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, abstaining from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements. 

The move drew cheers from supporters of Palestine and sparked condemnation of the outgoing president from conservative and hawkish liberal Israeli allies alike, who said he'd abandoned the region's sole democracy.

The larger question remains: Once the initial passions from the unusual vote cool, what will be the lingering effects on President Barack Obama's legacy? And how does the vote position President-elect Donald Trump as he takes control of the Oval Office?

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The measure, which passed the Security Council to applause in a 14-0 vote with one abstention, denounced Israel's West Bank settlements as a "flagrant" violation of law that endanger hopes of a two-state solution for peace.

On a hastily arranged press call following the vote, White House officials called the abstention "consistent with longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy" that opposes the settlements and the "incitement of violence." 

The officials also adamantly defended the Obama administration's support for Israeli security and condemnation of "Palestinian terrorism." They said the White House had hoped to help foster a two-state solution and had conveyed publicly and privately "for years" that Israel had isolated itself by pursuing settlements in the disputed West Bank. 

Trump, for his part, tersely responded publicly to the vote on Twitter:

The original vote was delayed, so there was no shortage of public notice that the issue was on the table and the world stage. Trump had already made his position clear, calling the resolution "unfair" to Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the strongest voices of the U.S. Israel lobby, attacked the resolution in a statement as "destructive" and "ruinous" and cold-shouldered Obama while praising Trump:

It is particularly regrettable, in his last month in office, that the president has taken an action at odds with the bipartisan consensus in Congress and America's long history of standing with Israel at the United Nations. AIPAC expresses its appreciation to President-elect Trump and the many Democratic and Republican Members of Congress who urged a veto of this resolution.

Obama also fielded criticism from both sides of the aisle in Congress, including from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat: 

Broadly, Trump won his upset presidential victory in November over Democrat Hillary Clinton in large part by promising to be the anti-Obama.

Among his campaign-trail promises: to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, to yank the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to pursue a more muscular foreign policy stance with the Middle East.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said he did not expect Trump's "embrace of the Israeli hard right" to change as a result of the United Nations action, said the following to Mic:

What this resolution does, however, is it brings the international community together with one voice to say the two-state solution is mortally threatened by Israeli settlement expansion. I and many other observers believe it is already dead, but policymakers have been hesitant to accept that because doing so means confronting that reality and [changing] course. But with Trump coming in, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and green-lighting Israeli settlements, who could credibly still speak of two-states? We will look back at this resolution as a moment when the world agreed on what was killing it and that is important.

The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group J-Street sounded a strikingly similar note in a statement, saying, in part: 

We urge all actors, including the incoming US administration, to recognize that this resolution is now the benchmark set by the international community and must be respected as such. Steps to abrogate or ignore it would not only damage Israel's future and the prospects for a two-state solution, but undermine American interests and standing in the world.

Around the globe, reaction to the vote and how it reflected upon Obama and Trump was predictably mixed:

Presidential expert Darrell West of the Brookings Institution said to Mic he considered Friday's abstention "consistent with Obama's stated goal to be a fair-minded broker in the Middle East. The administration allowed the resolution to pass without actually supporting it. That expresses disapproval of the settlements without voting against them."

Trump, on the other hand, "is violating long-held tenets that a president-elect defers to the actual president on foreign policy until he takes office," West said. "There can be only one president at a time, and Trump should respect that norm."

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Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the entire affair "shows dramatically that we've got back-to-back presidents who couldn't be more different in policy and temperament."

Bottom line, he said: "Much of Trump's term will be spent erasing Obama's legacy, and this is just another example."