Photo: Construction in the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem. (Atef Safadi/EPA)
By Ruth Eglash and Carol Morello
December 28 at 7:12 AM
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Jerusalem municipality on Wednesday to wait on approving new housing units in a bid to avoid further strain in U.S.-Israeli relations, a local official said.
Jerusalem’s Municipal Planning and Construction Committee had been scheduled to finalize construction plans for some 492 new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, despite a resolution approved Friday by the United Nations Security Council that views the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as having “no legal validity” and as a barrier to achieving peace with the Palestinians.
The resolution, which was approved by 14 votes to 0, passed because the United States, in a break with long-standing policy, decided to abstain instead of using its veto power.
The latest move is a surprising turnabout by Netanyahu after days of attacks against President Obama and his advisers, who were accused of failing to protect Israel and “colluding” with the Palestinians to draft the resolution and push it to a vote.
It also came hours before Secretary of State John F. Kerry was scheduled to give a speech Wednesday morning outlining his vision for resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
U.N. Security Council passes resolution on Israeli settlements
For the first time in 36 years, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution critical of Israel’s Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. The United States abstained. (Reuters)
Ahead of Kerry’s speech, Israel’s minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, said that if Kerry lays out principles for a peace deal at the last minute before leaving office, it would end up ensuring that the Palestinians never agree to negotiations with Israel. He called the U.S. position “pro-Palestinian,” “pathetic” and a sign that the Obama administration does not “understand what is happening in the Middle East.”
Hanan Rubin, a member of Jerusalem’s city council, confirmed that the request to postpone construction plans came directly from the prime minister, who wanted to avoid deepening the rift. He said the zoning committee agreed to abide by it because they had no interest in “causing a political storm.”
“Our goal is to provide solutions to residents of Jerusalem. We have a problem building in central Jerusalem, and this is a natural expansion for the city,” he said. The 492 housing units are part of a wider plan to build in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians would like to see as their capital of a future state.
On Tuesday, the Israeli government appeared to be stepping up its battle with the Obama administration, saying it had solid proof that the United States orchestrated the resolution.
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“We have ironclad information that emanates from sources in the Arab world and that shows the Obama administration helped craft this resolution and pushed hard for its eventual passage,” David Keyes, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, told reporters. “We’re not just going to be a punching bag and go quietly into the night.”
State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner denied that the administration had “precooked” the resolution. But the U.S. explanation did little to quell fears in Israel that another Security Council censure may be forthcoming, even though U.S. officials insisted that no more U.N. resolutions are expected.
On Wednesday, an Egyptian website El-Youm el-Sabaa said it had a copy of minutes from a meeting held between senior U.S. officials and a Palestinian delegation 10 days before vote.
According to those protocols, the United States allegedly said it was willing to withhold its veto power if the resolution was balanced. The position was purportedly stated in a meeting attended by Kerry, national security adviser Susan E. Rice, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Saeb Erekat and Majid Faraj, commander of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service.
“There is no truth to the notion that we discussed the text of any resolution or that we previewed any position we might take on a hypothetical resolution in those meetings,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment on private deliberations.
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Meanwhile, new details started to emerge about the behind-the-scenes diplomatic scramble that preceded the resolution, which declared that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have “no legal validity” and are a “flagrant violation under international law.” It called the settlements an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution and peace with the Palestinians.
A diplomat from a Security Council nation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, largely backed up the Obama administration’s account that it played no role in bringing the resolution to a vote. It had been discussed among Security Council members for months, and the U.S. position was well known.
The United States never told anyone how it would vote, not even in a consultation room where the 15 members of the Security Council gathered before they filed in to vote, according to the diplomat. The U.S. officials in attendance said they were still in “consultations” over the resolution, the diplomat said.
In Israel, the newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that Britain, not the United States, appears to have been the driving force behind the resolution after Egypt, which had initially sponsored the resolution, withdrew. It described Netanyahu as being sharp and caustic in a phone call to New Zealand’s foreign minister, Murray McCully, calling the resolution “a declaration of war.”
Haaretz said Netanyahu vowed to recall Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand but that McCully rebuffed the threat.
The report said that after Egypt backed down, diplomats from the Palestinian Authority and Arab Persian Gulf states urged the four co-sponsoring nations to move on with the resolution anyway. The message was driven home by Britain, which had worked directly with the Palestinians on drafting the language.
A last-minute glitch came up when Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, proposed postponing the vote until after Christmas, according to an interview the deputy Russian ambassador to Israel gave on Israel Army Radio. This reportedly followed a phone call between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The other Security Council ambassadors refused to wait, however.
Morello reported from Washington.