Paul Heinbecker, a former ambassador to the UN, is with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the Balsillie School and Laurier University in Waterloo
Since just before Christmas, when the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 on Israeli settlements, the drama of the fractious personal relationships of Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and Barack Obama has dominated media coverage. A lot of this commentary is missing the point: The resolution, which passed 14-0-1 (the United States abstained), and its strong objections to Israeli settlement building are more portentous than the transitory political theatre surrounding it.
Resolution 2334 is important because it joins other milestone UN resolutions, including General Assembly resolution 181 that partitioned Palestine and led to the proclamation of Israel; resolution 194 which resolved that peace-minded refugees of the 1948 war should be permitted to return to their homes; and Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 that emphasized the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." Together these and a small handful of other resolutions guide the judgments of the vast majority of UN member-state governments on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Resolution 2334 was passed under Chapter VI of the UN Charter on the peaceful settlement of disputes and thus does not entail enforcement options. The language of resolution 2334 is nonetheless unequivocal that Israel's settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have "no legal validity," that they constitute "a flagrant violation of international law," and that they are "a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."
Israeli and Palestinian narratives notwithstanding, resolution 2334 reflects what the world thinks. It does not constitute a minority view or even a very divided view. If this resolution of the 15-member UN Security Council were put to a vote in the 193-member General Assembly, the outcome would scarcely be different.
The resolution does not question Israel's right to exist; in fact, if anything it reinforces that right. The resolution invites UN member states to distinguish "in their relevant dealings between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967." At the same time, these distinctions could encourage less positive consequences for Israel. For example, importing states could demand certificates of origin for goods produced by Israeli firms in the occupied territories.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's follow-up valedictory speech this week endorsed the resolution and detailed the Obama administration's frustration in managing relations with Jerusalem, and in its vain efforts to negotiate peace based on a two-state solution. Mr. Kerry's speech – some called it a eulogy for a Palestinian state – was directed variously at Americans, Israelis and the international community and echoed many of the themes of the resolution. Mr. Kerry uncharacteristically directly criticized the Israeli government for being, in Mr. Netanyahu's own words, "more committed to settlements than any in Israel's history" and expressed particular frustration that the settler agenda, which opposes a Palestinian state, was defining Israel's future. "If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it cannot be both and it will not ever really be at peace," Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Kerry was mindful that influential voices in Mr. Trump's transition team and in the Israeli cabinet, including ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have spoken favourably of Israel's annexing the West Bank altogether. Meanwhile, a Pew poll earlier this year found that nearly half of Israeli Jews said Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel and that 79 per cent of Israeli Jews agreed that Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews.
Mr. Kerry used his speech to suggest six goals to guide future peace negotiations: secure and recognized international borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps; two states for two peoples with mutual recognition and full equal rights for their minority citizens; a just, agreed, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue; Jerusalem as the capital of both states; an end to the occupation; and renunciation of all claims by both sides. But Mr. Kerry appeared to scotch the rumour that the Security Council would endorse these principles before Mr. Obama leaves office.
Mr. Netanyahu is apparently counting on his ability to persuade president-elect Trump and the U.S. Congress to back his policies. But even if they do, neither will be able to erase resolution 2334. The great majority of UN member governments, including powerful ones like Russia and China, still want to see a two-state solution, and U.S. veto power is unavailing in these circumstances. Nor would U.S. defunding of the UN reverse this resolution; the U.S. has defaulted on its contributions before and the UN has survived. And, if the U.S. were to walk away from the UN, as some suggest, who would shield Israel then? Perhaps as a precaution, nevertheless, we should dust off plans for the UN to move to Canada.