128 votes in favour, 9 against, and 35 abstentions: the United Nations declares President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel “null and void.”
The emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly on Thursday 21st December resulted in a resounding rejection of Trump’s decision to deviate from decades of US policy on the status of Jerusalem, the Eastern-part of which Israel came to occupy during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
East Jerusalem, home to holy sites for Muslims, Jews and Christians, is seen by Palestinian leadership as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and as such the status of the city has long been a sticking point in peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The US will become the first country to base its embassy in the city.
No Tangible Effect on Policy
Defeat on the floor of the United Nations is an important rebuttal of the Trump administration’s politics, but will have no tangible effect on policy; the vote is non-binding and therefore unlikely to change the direction of Trump’s foreign policy. For the Trump administration, the vote is more of a PR issue, and will have embarrassed an image-conscious President, whose threats in the lead-up to the vote resulted in accusations of blatant, overt bullying.
President Trump has faced a backlash for threatening to curb United States aid to countries that supported the UN resolution, telling a cabinet meeting, “We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.” The President’s comments added weight to the warnings from his ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, that “the US will be taking names,” and can be taken as a prime example of the administration’s mentality of ‘I am strong therefore I am right.’
As for the Israeli response to the vote, it has been predictably hostile. At the opening of a hospital in the Israeli city of Ashod, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his dedication speech to attack the United Nations vote, denouncing the organisation as a “house of lies.” Just over a week on from a New York Times article that revealed the prolific use of President Trump’s favourite rhetorical tool, the “fake news” jibe, by dictators and strongmen the world over, one could be forgiven for thinking “house of lies” sounds awfully similar.
Interestingly, frustration with a lack of support for the United States at the UN is nothing new. A 2003 Heritage report found that since 1983 voting coincidence with the US position surpassed 50% only twice. So, in thirty years of voting, the United Nations consensus was opposite to the United States position in all but two cases.
This is perhaps a surprising statistic for the many who view the United Nations as a tool for United States foreign policy, and a statistic that has led to concern in the US Congress. According to the report, Congress has previously highlighted the issue of foreign aid recipients opposing US interests at the UN, with recommendation of countries’ voting record being considered when allocating US development funds, which in essence would not be far short of a cash-for-votes system, and constitutes a dangerous conflation of politics and international development priorities.
The threats made by President Trump and his administration have exposed the dangerous disregard for the sovereignty of countries that receive US assistance; choosing aid recipients based on political sway in that state is a risky business. But this should not all be about Trump, and his heavy-handedness has distracted away from the subject of the vote in the first place; Jerusalem, and the delicate balance of peace between Israel and the Palestinian territories that has been risked by the US move to consider the city as the legal property of the state of Israel.
In defending the move, the US President has argued that his administration is only being pragmatic, that Jerusalem has been the functioning, de-facto capital of Israel for some time. But symbolism is important, especially to a people who consider their homeland occupied by a hostile power.
The United States has been a key ally of Israel ever since the state’s formation in 1948, but pre-Trump there had always been some balance to the relationship. On many occasions, the US has acted as a mediator between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and spearheaded initiatives for peace. In recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, this has all changed.
The declaration by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that “the United States has chosen to lose its qualification as mediator” is not mere bluster, a mediator must be accepted by both parties in a negotiation, and the United States has lost all support amongst Palestinians.
Perhaps President Trump underestimated the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinians; perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing. Either way, the United States has lost any ability it had to facilitate peace in Israel/Palestine, furthering the growing trend of reduced US influence in the Middle East.
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