The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Today’s Adoption of a Presidential Statement on Israeli Settlements
This morning (20 February), the Security Council adopted a presidential statement expressing “deep concern and dismay” with Israel’s 12 February announcement regarding the expansion of settlement activity and reiterating that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperiling the viability of the two-state solution (S/PRST/2023/1).
The Council was initially expected to vote on a draft resolution on Israeli settlements authored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in coordination with the Observer State of Palestine. However, on 19 February, following talks between high-level US, Palestinian, and Israeli officials, the UAE informed Council members that it would not pursue a resolution and would instead focus on drafting a presidential statement—a formal Council outcome which carries less weight than a resolution and is adopted by consensus.
This is the first presidential statement on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” adopted by the Council in over eight years and the first formal Council outcome since resolution 2334, which was adopted in December 2016 with 14 votes in favour and one abstention by the US.
The Observer State of Palestine’s initiative to pursue a Security Council resolution came against the backdrop of escalating violence in the West Bank and Israel and a recent Israeli decision to advance settlement activity. On 12 February, the Israeli government announced that it will retroactively authorise nine West Bank outposts which were built without the permission of Israeli authorities. The statement, which was issued by the Israeli Security Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says that the decision was taken in response to recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. The statement further announced the approval in the following days of the construction of new residential units in existing settlements. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly said that 10,000 units were due to be approved. (For more background, see our 17 February What’s in Blue story and our January 2023 Forecast Brief.)
On 15 February, the UAE circulated the first draft of a resolution on Israeli settlements to Council members. The UAE held a readout of the draft the following day (16 February) and invited members to submit comments until the morning of 17 February. A vote on the final draft was expected to take place today (20 February), the same day as the regular monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.
Several paragraphs contained in the initial draft resolution reiterated or were based on language from resolution 2334. For instance, the draft resolution reaffirmed that “the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. The draft text also reiterated the Council’s demand “that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”.
The draft resolution included new language condemning “all attempts at annexation, including decisions and measures by Israel regarding settlements, including settlement outposts”. Similarly to the text of a 17 September 2015 press statement, the draft resolution called for “upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and in practice”.
It seems that some members successfully asked for language condemning terrorism to be included in the draft resolution. Noting that language on terrorism was included in resolution 2334 but was absent from the initial draft under consideration, these members apparently felt that this inclusion would be important to achieve a balanced text. It appears that at least one member asked to strengthen language on protection of civilians in line with international law.
On 17 February, the UAE put a revised draft under silence until the afternoon of 18 February. The revised draft also contained new language added by the penholder noting “with deep concern instances of discrimination, intolerance and hate speech motivated by racism or directed against persons belonging to religious communities, in particular cases motivated by Islamophobia, antisemitism or Christianophobia”.
It seems that the US, Israel’s strongest ally on the Council, did not engage substantively on the draft resolution. Instead, from the early stages of this initiative, the US lobbied in favour of avoiding a Council vote and attempted to convince Palestinian officials to accept a presidential statement on the issue of settlements in lieu of a resolution.
A vote on the draft resolution would have put Washington in the politically difficult position of potentially using its veto power on a resolution on settlement expansion—an issue which the US ostensibly opposes. In a 14 February joint statement with France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, the US said that it is “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s announcement of the expansion of settlement activity. Similarly, on 16 February, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Washington is “deeply dismayed” by the Israeli announcement and that the US “strongly opposes these unilateral measures”. However, when questioned about the draft resolution on the same day, Principal Deputy Spokesperson of the US Department of State Vedant Patel said that “the introduction of this resolution is unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary to advance negotiations for a two-state solution”, adding that the US does not “view the UN as the most practical or useful forum for discussing this issue”.
The dynamics around UN General Assembly activity on Ukraine may have influenced the US’ attempts to avoid a vote. Some analysts have noted that a US veto on the draft resolution could have undermined support for a General Assembly resolution on Ukraine that is set for a vote during the 11th Emergency Special Session (ESS) on Ukraine, which will start on 22 February.
On 18 February, the UK broke silence on the draft resolution, apparently to convey its preference for the adoption of a presidential statement instead of a resolution. On the same day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the readout of the call issued by Palestinian news agency WAFA, Abbas briefed Blinken on the decision to seek Council action and Blinken confirmed that he would “reach out to the Israeli government in an effort to stop the unilateral Israeli actions on the ground”.
Yesterday morning (19 February), reportedly citing “positive talks between the parties”, the UAE informed Council members that it would not call for a vote on the draft resolution and would instead focus on drafting a presidential statement that would garner consensus.
Media reports differ on the understandings reached by US, Palestinian, and Israeli officials (see, for instance, Axios, The Associated Press and The Times of Israel). However, they seem to converge on the fact that the Palestinian Authority agreed to drop the vote on the resolution in exchange for a commitment from Israel to temporarily freeze new settlement announcements and demolitions of Palestinian homes, among other measures.
Last night, the UAE circulated a draft presidential statement and placed it under silence until 9:45 am today (20 February). The Council adopted the statement this morning, ahead of the meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.
The presidential statement expresses the Council’s “deep concern and dismay” at Israel’s 12 February announcement and reiterates that “continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-State solution”. It also opposes “all unilateral measures that impede peace”, such as “Israeli construction and expansion of settlements, confiscation of Palestinians’ land, and the ‘legalization’ of settlement outposts, demolition of Palestinians’ homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians”. The statement further calls for full respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of the civilian population.
Language from resolution 2334 reaffirming that the establishment of settlements “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”, which was included in the draft resolution, is not contained in the presidential statement. Similarly, language demanding that Israel ceases “all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard”, originally from resolution 2334, does not appear in the statement. Language condemning “all attempts at annexation, including decisions and measures by Israel regarding settlements”, and referring to the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by force—which was present in the first draft of the resolution—is also not included in the presidential statement.
The statement condemns all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terrorism, and calls for the strengthening of “efforts to counter terrorism in a manner consistent with international law, and for all parties to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism”. It further “reiterates the obligation of all parties regarding the pursuit of accountability for all acts of violence targeting civilians, and recalls the obligation of the Palestinian Authority to renounce and confront terror”.
The statement retains language on “upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem” and includes a reference emphasising the special role of Jordan, which serves as the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. The statement retains the language proposed by the UAE on discrimination, intolerance and hate speech motivated by racism or directed against persons belonging to religious communities, in particular cases motivated by Islamophobia, antisemitism or Christianophobia. Speaking to reporters ahead of today’s meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh (UAE) said that this was the first time that a Council product featured language rejecting Islamophobia, antisemitism and Christianophobia.