Harsh UN resolution on Israeli settlements suddenly withdrawn by Egypt

An unusually harsh U.N. Security Council resolution on the illegality of Israeli settlements introduced by Egypt and to be voted on Thursday was suddenly and mysteriously withdrawn by President el-Sisi.

A change of heart precipitated by President Obama?  Not on your life.  Reuters is reporting that the U.S. was going to abstain on the vote, allowing its passage, as Obama sought a parting shot at President Netanyahu.

The United States intended to allow the U.N. Security Council to approve a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, two Western officials said on Thursday, a major reversal of U.S. practice, which prompted Israel to ask President-elect Donald Trump to apply pressure.

In a day of intense diplomatic wrangling on one of the thorniest Middle East conflicts, Egypt, which had proposed the draft resolution, abruptly put off a vote that had been scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Diplomats said Cairo had acted under pressure from Israel and to avoid alienating Trump, who spoke to the Egyptian president and urged the White House to use its veto.

By late Thursday, four Security Council members had given Egypt an ultimatum and threatened to put the draft resolution to a vote.

The two Western officials said President Barack Obama had intended to abstain from the vote, a relatively rare step by the United States to register criticism of the building on occupied land that Palestinians want for a state.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Obama, believes the Obama administration had long planned the council vote in coordination with the Palestinians, the senior Israeli official said.

"It was a violation of a core commitment to protect Israel at the U.N.," the official said.

The White House had no immediate comment.

U.S. officials have voiced growing fears that a "two-state" solution is imperiled by Israeli settlement building and have been more willing to voice open criticism, including, the two Western officials said, via Thursday's planned vote.

A U.S. abstention would have been seen as a parting shot by Obama, who has made the settlements a major target of his - ultimately futile - peace efforts.

Speculation on why Egypt's president el-Sisi withdrew the resolution centers on pressure from Israel and the desire of the Egyptian government not to antagonize Donald Trump, who came out against the resolution.


The remaining question is why President Sisi withdrew the resolution. Press reports all say it was Israeli pressure, which is a negative way of saying he did so because he values Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations and was asked to pull the resolution by Prime Minister Netanyahu. That’s a good thing; the United States should itself value cooperative Israeli-Egyptian relations. Others have suggested that Sisi wanted to avoid a confrontation with the incoming Trump administration, which was clearly against this text. That’s also a good thing.

But note this: none of the news stories suggest the Egyptians acted because of the Obama administration. Just as with the Russian-Turkish-Iranian meeting to discuss Syria (The New York Times’s story began “Russia, Iran, and Turkey met in Moscow on Tuesday to work toward a political accord to end Syria’s nearly six-year war, leaving the United States on the sidelines….”), the Obama administration apparently played no role in Egypt’s decisions. In large part this is because the Obama administration has left friends confused as its objectives and foes without fear of consequences for opposing the United States. Defenders of the administration will say it’s just lame duck status that explains the lack of concern for the wishes of the White House, but I can’t agree. At the very end of the George W. Bush administration, there was a vigorous negotiation in the Security Council over a resolution on the fighting in Gaza, and the United States was at the center of it–right up into January, 2009. Now it’s December, 2016 and we are being ignored. That’s the result of eight years of policy choices, not lame duck status.

Beyond the Obama administration being irrelevant in world affairs is the realization that the center of gravity of power is no longer in Washington; it is in Trump Tower, where the president-elect has gone beyond dabbling in foreign policy and is actually impacting world events. 

This is unprecedented and has happened simply because Trump has asserted himself while President Obama has abdicated.  For example, Russia announced that it is working on a ceasefire in Syria, with President Assad, Turkey, Iran, and Moscow being involved in the talks. 

The U.S. State Department was not invited to participate in one of the most important peace conferences in the last decade.

As for Egypt, they are only expressing in a public way what other Sunni Arab states are saying privately: Iran is an existential threat, and Israel is going to be a key ally in holding their hegemonic designs in check.  The Arab street may say they care most about the Palestinians, but their governments see the big picture quite differently.

As the scope and impact of Obama's foreign policy failures become clearer, it would appear that it will take more than one administration to repair the enormous damage done to U.S. prestige and power. 

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