North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

ABSTENTION: WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO?

Did the United States’ Abstention from the UN Security Council Resolution 2334 Have an Impact on the Israeli Settlements?

By: Kayla McGee

On December 23, 2016, an outburst of applause could be heard in the chambers of the UN Security Council.[1]  Samantha Power, the United States UN ambassador, raised her hand to abstain, allowing Resolution 2334 condemning the Israeli settlements in the West Bank to pass 14–0.[2]  This abstention marked a stark reversal of the United States’ standard policy of protecting Israel from such measures.[3]  The strongly worded resolution stated that Israeli settlements, in what is internationally considered Palestinian territory, have “no legal validity and constitut[e] a flagrant violation under international law” and act as an obstacle to peace.[4]  While the Resolution was generally lauded in the international community,[5]  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the resolution “shameful” claiming that it stood “in the way of peace” instead of helping to create a peaceful resolution.[6]  Additionally, members of both political parties in the United States have a negative outlook on this abstention; both the Senate majority and minority leaders have criticized the Obama administration for not vetoing the Resolution.[7]

All this extreme rhetoric raises the question: What, if anything, does this Resolution do or mean for the future of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem?  In the short term, the Resolution does not really have any immediate effects. [8]  Resolution 2334 merely lays out guidelines and recommendations.[9]  Even though the Resolution condemns the buildup of Israeli settlements and “demands” that Israel cease this buildup, it does not lay out any specific guidelines for future negotiations between Israel, Palestine, and other Middle Eastern parties regarding the disputed territory. [10]   Resolution 2334 also fails to enact any sanctions against Israel should the country refuse to follow the Resolution’s directives.[11]

Resolution 2334, however, may provide more enduring long-term effects.  Israel has stated that it rejects the Resolution and will not abide by its terms.[12]  However, according to the UN Charter all members “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.”[13]  Resolution 2334 laid out in no uncertain terms that the Security Council did not recognize the settlements of Jewish Israeli citizens in the disputed territory as being legally a part of Israel.[14]  The Resolution specifically states that the Security Council will only respect the border that was intact prior to June 4, 1967, unless all associated parties agree through negotiation to change it.[15]  This line, often referred to as the “green line,” reflects the border created at an armistice in the months after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; this line gave Jordan control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.[16]  This line remained intact until the Six-Day War during which Israel captured much of the disputed territory including the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.[17]  The definitive language of the resolution is a serious blow to the future validity of the Israeli settlements; Resolution 2334 explicitly states that the West Bank and portions of Jerusalem will never be recognized internationally as belonging to Israel unless Israel can convince all other parties to recognize these borders.[18]

We will not be able to understand the full impact of Resolution 2334 for some time.  If Israel remains steadfast in their decision to ignore the Resolution, Palestinian leaders could pursue a case against Israeli leaders in the International Criminal Court (ICC).[19]  However, it is also uncertain if a ruling by the ICC would have any meaningful impact as it is already conducting investigations into Israeli actions in these territories, and the ICC lacks any specific enforcement powers.[20]  Currently, the Resolution, and the United States abstention, appears to have had little impact on Israel’s plans; earlier this month Israel approved 2,500 new housing units to be built in the West Bank, blatantly defying Resolution 2334.[21]


[1] Somini Sengupta & Rick Gladstone, Rebuffing Israel, U.S. Allows Censure Over Settlements, N.Y. Times (Jan. 15, 2017, 9:21 AM), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/world/middleeast/israel-settlements-un-vote.html [https://perma.cc/4HST-HTR2].

[2] Id.

[3] The United States vetoed a similar measure in 2011. Id.

[4] S.C. Res. 2334, ¶ 1 (Dec. 23, 2016).

[5] See Press Release, Security Council, Israel’s Settlements Have No Legal Validity, Constitute Flagrant Violation of Int’l Law, Security Council Reaffirms, U.N. Press Release SC/12657 (Dec. 23, 2016).

[6] ‘Israel to Stop Funding UN Institutions,’ The Jerusalem Post (Jan. 15, 2017, 10:59 AM), http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Benjamin-Netanyahu/Netanyahu-Israel-will-stop-funding-the-UNs-institutions-476412 [https://perma.cc/8DCQ-PVQH].

[7] Burgess Everett, McConnell, Schumer Back Resolution Condemning U.N. over Israel Vote, Politico (Jan. 15, 2017, 11:10 AM), http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/un-israel-vote-mitch-mcconnell-chuck-schumer-233186 [https://perma.cc/WN2T-K3JF].

[8] Oren Liebermann, What the UNSC Resolution Means for the US and Israel, CNN (Jan. 15, 2017, 12:01 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/26/politics/understanding-unsc-resolution/index.html [https://perma.cc/5W66-HK62].

[9] See id.

[10] See S.C. Res. 2334, supra note 4, ¶ ¶ 2–8.

[11] See id.

[12] Adam Withnall, Israel Rejects UN Resolution Over Settlements and Says It Won’t Abide by Terms, Independent (Jan. 15, 2017, 12:4 PM), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-rejects-un-resolution-settlements-donald-trump-netanyahu-us-veto-a7493456.html [https://perma.cc/73UM-4B8D].

[13] U.N Charter art. 25.

[14] See S.C. Res. 2334, supra note 4 ¶ 1.

[15] Id.

[16] Isabel Kershiner, Elusive Line Defines Lives in Israel and the West Bank, N.Y. Times (Jan. 15, 2017, 1:22 PM), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/07/world/middleeast/07borders.html [https://perma.cc/J6KL-PW66].

[17] Encyclopedia Britannica, Six–Day War (Jan. 15, 2017, 1:31 PM), https://www.britannica.com/event/Six-Day-War [https://perma.cc/PJ7H-K7FX].

[18] See S.C. Res. 2334, supra note 4 ¶ 1.

[19] Liebermann, supra note 8.

[20] See id.

[21] Isabel Kershner, Emboldened by Trump, Israel Approves a Wave of West Bank Settlement Expansion, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 2017, 1:19 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/world/middleeast/israel-settlement-expansion-west-bank.html [https://perma.cc/6ASW-HKWT].

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