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U.S. Vetoes Palestinian Bid at UN to Halt Settlements

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The U.S. vetoed a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would have declared Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal and demanded a halt to such activity.

The U.S., while “rejecting in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” voted against the measure out of concern for the impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Ambassador Susan Rice said.

The Obama administration sought until the final hours before yesterday’s vote to reach agreement with Arab diplomats on a compromise statement that would have increased pressure on Israel to cease settlement construction, while stopping short of calling it illegal or demanding a moratorium.

The Palestinian Authority rejected the proposal and notified U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a statement from the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Clinton stressed yesterday that finding a “two-state solution” remains a top U.S. goal.

“It’s been American policy for many years that settlements were illegitimate and it is the continuing goal and highest priority of the Obama administration to keep working toward a two-state solution with both Israelis and Palestinians,” Clinton told ABC’s “This Week” taped yesterday and scheduled to air tomorrow.

The U.S. was alone in opposing the measure on the 15-member council, the UN’s principal policy-making panel. It was the administration’s first veto of a UN resolution and marked the 10th time in the past 11 years that the U.S. has voted against a text considered to be critical of Israel.

Risk to Negotiations

“Every potential action must be measured against one overriding standard: Will it move the parties closer to negotiations and an agreement?” Rice said. “Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations.”

The veto, coming amid widespread protests against autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa, may divert attention toward anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments in the region and complicate Obama administration efforts to mediate peace talks, Middle East analysts said.

“The U.S. has a long history of trying to prevent the United Nations from becoming an instrument to coerce Israel, but I think in normal circumstances the U.S. veto would be less uncomfortable,” Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in an interview. “They have a huge priority not to change the subject of the conversation from oppression of Arabs and Muslims by their own autocratic governments.”

Veto Impact

The peace talks, which broke down in September after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in the West Bank, will be more difficult for the U.S. to restart following the veto, according to Robert Danin, onetime aide to former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy for the Quartet, which is comprised of the U.S., the UN, Russia and the European Union.

“The administration will feel they offered a very strong package in the form of a statement critical of Israel and instead were forced to cast the veto, something they did not want to do,” Danin said in an interview. “There will be a lot of frustration with the Palestinians and with Israel for not having been helpful on the settlements issue.”

Offer to Arabs

Palestinian Authority Ambassador Riyad Mansour said Rice offered U.S. support for stronger statements on settlement construction and other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the Security Council and the Quartet, and suggested the U.S. would consider backing a proposed Security Council trip to the Middle East. In exchange, the Palestinians would have had to agree to withdraw the resolution.

The Arabs and Palestinian Authority rejected the deal, saying their resolution incorporated previous language on settlements used by the U.S. government and the Security Council. The Press Trust of India reported that in a phone conversation Feb. 17 President Barack Obama told Abbas there would be “repercussions” for the U.S.-Palestinian relationship in the event the resolution was put to a vote.

Palestinian Goal

“Our overreaching goal remains to bring an end to Israeli colonization of our land and destruction of the two-state solution and create an appropriate environment and dynamic for the continuation and ultimate success of genuine peace negotiations,” Mansour said after the vote. “It is high time to send a clear and firm message to Israel that it must comply with international obligations.”

Obama last year offered Israel a package of incentives to halt settlements that included a pledge to block such proposed resolutions in the Security Council, and then abandoned attempts in December to broker a freeze on construction after Israel refused to halt building.

About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war. The UN says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory.

Criticism of U.S.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a statement criticizing the U.S. veto as undermining enforcement of international law.

“The U.S. government’s opposition to accurate language in the Security Council resolution erodes the unified international message that Israel should change its settlement policies,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director, said. “What’s needed from the Obama administration is a clear and consistent message that settlements on occupied territory are illegal and must be dismantled.”

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

“Direct negotiations have been and still remain the only way forward to resolve the longstanding conflict in the region,” Israel’s Ambassador Meron Reuben said. “This process in its adversarial nature is likely to harm ongoing attempts to resume negotiations. It sends the wrong message to the Palestinians, signaling they can avoid the negotiating table.”

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