A young Palestinian man sits in the foreground of Modin Illit, an Israeli… (Oliver Weiken / EPA )
Reporting from Jerusalem and Washington — The Obama administration, opposing 14 other United Nations Security Council members, exercised its veto power for the first time Friday to kill a resolution calling for Israeli settlements to be condemned as illegal and seeking to halt construction.
Though the resolution largely echoed long-standing criticism by the U.S. and international leaders about Israel's construction on land seized during the 1967 Middle East War, the Obama administration rejected the proposal, saying the U.N. is not the proper forum and the dispute should be handled during peace talks.
The Arab-backed resolution called Israel's settlements a major obstacle to Mideast peace talks.
"The American veto does not serve the peace process," said Nabil abu Rudaineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "It only encourages Israel to continue in its settlement activities and to avoid meeting its peace obligations. We are surprised by this position, which will only further complicate the situation in the Middle East."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice called the resolution "unbalanced and one-sided" and said the veto decision came in the interest of preserving conditions for future negotiations. The U.S. remains focused on the goal of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians and considers Israeli settlement activity "corrosive to the process," she said.
U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down last fall over Palestinian protests about Israel's resumption of settlement expansion.
"Our judgment was this resolution wouldn't have advanced the goal to get the parties closer to an agreement," Rice said.
The other 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution Friday.
The vote was seen by both Israelis and Palestinians as a crucial test of American loyalty. After two bumpy years between Israel's right-wing government and the Obama administration, Israelis were looking for reassurances that the U.S. would continue to protect their interests in the U.N. body as past presidents have done. Most recently, Israelis accused Obama of "abandoning" his allies in the region, such as deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Palestinian Authority officials saw the vote as a measure of Obama's ability and willingness to act as an unbiased intermediary in Mideast peace talks and to stand up to Israeli pressure. Some critics said the U.S. veto exposed what they called American hypocrisy.
"President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won't let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Faced with a choice that was certain to alienate one side or the other, the administration worked frantically in recent days to convince Palestinians to withdraw the resolution. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Abbas and offered to substitute the resolution with a nonbinding statement from the council's presidency.
Israeli leaders signaled that they would accept the nonbinding statement, but Palestinians dismissed the idea. Egypt's U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, told reporters in New York that the last-minute compromise was "too little too late."
At a final meeting Friday evening in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Palestinian leaders decided to proceed with the resolution despite U.S. pressure. Abbas aide Yasser Abed-Rabbo declined to comment on whether the U.S. threatened to retaliate against the Palestinian Authority by withholding funds.
U.S. officials undoubtedly would have preferred avoiding the veto, said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. There is a fear inside the administration that young Arab protesters, while welcoming U.S. support for freedom from autocrats, may see this veto as U.S. unwillingness to bend when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Miller said.
An abstention by the U.S. would have infuriated Israelis, who are feeling increasingly insecure in the region after Mubarak's ouster in neighboring Egypt. Such a move also would have been likely to cost Obama political capital at home. Numerous lawmakers from both parties called on Obama to support Israel by vetoing the resolution.
The U.N. vote is the latest sign that Palestinians are shifting away from relying on U.S.-sponsored peace talks — which have failed to yield results for two decades — and moving toward a new campaign to secure international recognition for statehood, even without an accord with Israel.
In recent months, half a dozen South American countries have joined the list of nations formally recognizing a Palestinian state.
Friday's resolution was seen by some as a dry run for a possible September effort to seek U.N. recognition of statehood.