Israelis called Trump to weigh in ahead of UN Security Council vote

Story highlights

  • Israeli government appealed to Trump to intervene on their behalf
  • Egypt delayed a potential showdown vote at the Security Council on the resolution

Washington (CNN)The Israeli government reached out to President-elect Donald Trump for help in pressuring the Obama administration to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement activity, a senior Israeli official told CNN.

Egypt delayed a potential showdown vote at the Security Council on the resolution after pressure from the Israelis, a Western official said Thursday. That put off a potential standoff between the US and Israel and prompted what some analysts called unprecedented interference from the US President-elect.
But the Israeli official told CNN that his country also approached the Trump campaign after it felt that it had failed to persuade the Obama administration to veto the planned vote. The official said that Israel "implored the White House not to go ahead and told them that if they did, we would have no choice but to reach out to President-elect Trump."
"We did reach out to the President-elect and are deeply appreciative that he weighed in, which was not a simple thing to do," the official said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi called Trump and spoke with him about the UN Security Council vote, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the call and an aide Trump. The call was first reported by Reuters.
Publicly, the resolution drew condemnations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump, who called on the White House to veto it. Having a President-elect weigh in to influence US policy is highly unusual, analysts said.
"It's unprecedented that a President-elect would pronounce on a matter of US policy before he became president," said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, "let alone say publicly that the administration should not vote for the resolution."
Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller said the transition team gave the White House a heads up before it sent the statement out Thursday morning about the Security Council vote.
Trump's election has brought the fraught Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the fore in recent days, with his appointment of an ambassador designate to Israel who supports Israeli settlement construction and his call for the US Embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly sensitive issue designated for final peace talks since Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital as well.
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His attempt to publicly pressure the White House on the vote highlights a split between his incoming government and the Obama administration, which has grown increasingly frustrated by Israeli settlement construction that it has repeatedly warned could foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution.
The Egyptians, who sponsored the resolution, told the Security Council they wanted to postpone the vote -- which had been set for 3 p.m. ET -- until after an Arab League meeting Thursday afternoon to review the text.
The postponement put off a chance for the Obama administration to make a strong statement of disapproval about Israeli settlement building, widely considered illegal under international law.
While the US makes a point of shielding Israel at the UN and other international organizations, a senior US official said that this time, the administration was debating whether to abstain or vote yes. That marks a departure, and even the public admission of an internal debate serves to show how unhappy the administration is with the Israeli government.
The White House was not considering a veto, the US official said, but added that if the resolution is amended, US officials will need to review it before deciding how to vote.
Trump, meanwhile, made his unhappiness with the resolution clear, saying in a statement that the US should issue a veto if it is brought to a vote.
"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," Trump said. "This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis."
Trump's statement put the White House in a bind and "undermines US credibility," said Miller of the Wilson Center. Even if the Obama administration decided to back the resolution, Miller said, it would be clear to the rest of the international community that the incoming administration wouldn't stand by it.
"It's fortunate for them the Egyptians are walking away," Miller said of the White House.
As recently as October, the US berated Israel for announcing plans to build a new settlement, part of a string of Israeli construction activity that could eventually bisect the West Bank, making it physically impossible to form a contiguous Palestinian state.
The US "strongly condemned" the news, State Department Mark Toner said at the time, adding that the plans "would seriously undermine the prospects for a two-state solution."
Settlements, he said, are "cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state."
President Barack Obama, whose relations with Netanyahu have been famously tense, is reportedly considering setting out parameters of a peace deal before he leaves office.  
For now, a showdown over the resolution has been averted.
A draft of the resolution calls on Israel to "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem." It also declares that the establishment of Israeli settlements, "including in 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."
The draft wouldn't make the settlements illegal, as they have been declared in previous resolutions, but would reiterate that point.
Egypt might have pulled back the resolution because of the opposition from Trump and Netanyahu, said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an Egypt expert.
Sisi has been "trying to advance talks between Israelis and Palestinians for a year now," Trager said. "Given Trump's reaction, given Netanyahu's reaction, he must have realized this resolution would not advance the peace process."
Secretary of State John Kerry scrapped plans to deliver a speech before the vote laying out the US vision for peace in the region. Kerry spoke with Netanyahu on Thursday morning and with Egypt's foreign minister, the White House said.
Israel has been intensely lobbying the US since early Thursday morning to cast a veto, as it did in 2011, the last time a draft resolution regarding West Bank settlements was put forward.
Netanyahu said, "I hope the US won't abandon this policy; I hope it will abide by the principles set by President Obama himself in his speech in the UN in 2011: That peace will come not through UN resolutions, but only through direct negotiations between the parties." It was the only Security Council veto of Obama's time in office.
The Israeli mission to the UN said that the delay by the Egyptians "is an important step, however we realize that this issue is not yet resolved. We are continuing our diplomatic efforts on all fronts to ensure that this disgraceful resolution will not pass the Security Council."

'Unprecedented' move by Trump

Israeli officials argue that by allowing the resolution to pass, the Obama administration would have been tying Donald Trump's hands once he takes office.
"What is unprecedented is to undermine an incoming administration in this way," an Israeli official said.
The officials say they believe that Trump will seek to make good on his pledge to negotiate what he has called the "ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians.
"This action at the UN would make it harder for him to do that," the official said.
Earlier this year, Trump told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he would "love to be neutral if it's possible" in negotiating Middle East peace.
"It's probably not possible because there's so much hatred," Trump said, adding that he opposed UN intervention in the peace process.
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"I don't like the United Nations getting involved in the negotiation," Trump said. "This has to be a deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This has to be that. You can't force a deal down the throats of both but you know it will be a bad deal for Israel if they do that. So ... if the United Nations forces a deal, I would veto that deal immediately."

Shift of Israel policy

The resolution would have marked the biggest international step on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which saw the beginning of direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO. It would also have marked a dramatic departure from decades of US foreign policy, which has held that peace will come only through negotiations. But the peace process has stalled in recent years. The last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, initiated by Kerry, collapsed in April 2014, with both sides blaming each other.
At the time of the US veto in 2011, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the US "rejects in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity," but stressed that peace would not come through resolutions.
The tone in official Washington might be set to change once Trump takes office. His ambassador designate to Israel, David Friedman, is a New York-based bankruptcy lawyer who keeps an apartment in Jerusalem and has helped raised millions of dollars for a West Bank settlement.
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Israeli officials are calling for a shift as well. Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, called on Trump to make good on his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem at an embassy Hannukah party on Tuesday. Moving the diplomatic mission would be a "great step forward to peace," and wouldn't upset Arab nations, Dermer said.