JERUSALEM — President-elect Donald Trump thrust himself into one of the world’s most polarizing debates Thursday by pressuring President Obama to veto a United Nations resolution critical of Israel, the newly elected leader’s most direct intervention in foreign policy during his transition to power.
Trump spoke out after Israeli officials contacted his team for help in blocking the draft resolution condemning settlement construction even as they lobbied its sponsor, Egypt. Within a couple of hours, Egypt withdrew the resolution, at least temporarily, and its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, called Trump to discuss how “to establish true peace in the Middle East,” according to an aide to the president-elect.
Trump’s forceful intervention into the matter amounted to a rare effort by a new president to shape international events even before taking office. While new presidents typically refrain from weighing in on current issues during the interregnum between their election and inauguration, Trump’s statement underscored that he does not plan to wait for the swearing in.
He has already upended decades of US policy by speaking directly with Taiwan’s leader, and he has spoken out regularly on events like this week’s terrorist attack in Germany. But his push to stop a UN resolution criticizing Israel was more directly aimed at decisions still being made by his predecessor in his final days in office.
The move also highlighted the stark shift on Middle East policy ahead when the new administration takes over in a month. Combined with his pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and his selection of a pro-settlement ambassador to Israel, Trump’s involvement Thursday signaled an intent to play an active role in Middle East peace issues as a strong ally of Israel.
The Egyptian-sponsored resolution would have condemned Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank as a “flagrant violation under international law” that was “dangerously imperiling the viability” of a future peace settlement establishing a Palestinian state. The United States has routinely used its veto at the Security Council to block similar measures, including under Obama in 2011. But Obama would not commit to doing so again this time.
Trump said flatly that he should. “As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations,” the president-elect said. “This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
Trump amplified his position by posting the statement on Facebook and Twitter as well, but a transition official insisted on anonymity to confirm the president-elect’s conversation with Sissi because of the sensitivity of the matter. Trump’s words echoed the positions expressed by Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has welcomed Trump’s election as a breath of fresh air after years of clashes with Obama.
Frustrated by two failed efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians during his tenure, Obama has been considering an effort to lay out a US framework during his final days in office. Palestinian leaders and their allies had hoped he would allow the anti-settlement resolution at the UN to pass as an expression of frustration at Israeli policies.
A Palestinian delegation traveled to Washington this month to urge Obama’s team to support the anti-settlement resolution or at least abstain. Obama’s advisers did not disclose a position and were holding out until the vote to watch how the matter developed.
The Palestinians were unable to meet with Trump’s aides and expressed disappointment Thursday with his position. “A veto means support of settlement activities,” Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said after the resolution was pulled. “A veto means abandoning the two-state solution and peace efforts.”
The return of the Palestinian cause to the world stage could serve the interests of some Arab leaders eager to turn public attention away from troubles at home. The government of Sissi, which sponsored the resolution as the Arab representative on the Security Council, faces domestic challenges stemming from a deteriorating economy, a persistent Islamic terrorist insurgency, and this month’s bombing of a Coptic Christian cathedral.
At the same time, it could distract from Netanyahu’s efforts to forge stronger relations with Sunni Arab states on the basis of shared antipathy toward Iran, dominated by a Shi’ite theocracy that has threatened Israel’s existence and challenged Arab interests in the region. Arab leaders, who have largely overlooked the Palestinian issue in recent years, may feel pressured to distance themselves from Israel again if their own publics are angered at the treatment of Palestinians.
Arab officials met in Cairo on Thursday night to consider their next move.
If the White House had let the resolution pass, it would have been a symbolic blow to the diplomatic shield that the United States has always offered Israel.
It would also have sent a strong signal of international disapproval over the construction of settlements, regarded by many as illegal under international law.