On Thursday President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian delegation to the United Nations to delay voting on a motion condemning the ongoing building and expansion of settlement outposts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Egypt had presented the motion to the UN’s security council on Wednesday. As described in a report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it was milder than versions presented by the Palestinian government in the past two weeks. An amended version of the Palestinian proposals, Egypt’s motion focused on pushing the Security Council to demand the immediate halt of construction of settlement outposts, and to assert again that Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is an occupation, that its parameters are limited to its pre-1967 war borders and, most importantly, to request that member states differentiate between Israeli land and occupied Palestinian land.
For the government of Palestine, everything was going in a positive direction: an important motion was in front of the Security Council, there was unusual international momentum against Israel’s illegal settlement outposts, there were signs that the US wouldn’t intervene to save Israel this time, and most importantly, the UN Security Council is full of countries that oppose Israel’s crimes, including Venezuela, Malaysia, Senegal, Japan, New Zealand and France.
The importance of the motion
Since all talks between the two parties occur through international mediators, the Palestinian government must continuously reassert that settlement outposts violate international law in order to support its position in future negotiations.
The main Israeli concern, were the motion in question to pass, was its effect on the Israeli position in future talks with Palestinian authorities, as US President-elect Donald Trump wrote on social media on Thursday: “This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
For many reasons, the current moment is a unique opportunity for Palestine to take international action against Israel in general and against settlement outposts more specifically, and this led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu to repeatedly urge the United States to save Israel from imminent condemnation. No one expected the response to come from Egypt.
The bill to retroactively formalize unauthorized settlement activity
The Israeli government faces widespread local and international condemnation for building and expanding settlement outposts on Palestinian lands.
Full settlement communities have built up due to Israelis building on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank over the years since 1967, including on land owned by Palestinian individuals, without permits from the Israeli government. Many well-established legal analysts consider the Israeli government’s tacit permission for these practices a war crime and a serious violation of the law of military occupation (section 6, article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention and article 46 of the Hague Regulations).
The settlement outposts are also illegal in the eyes of Israeli law. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a large settlement outpost in the West Bank must be dismantled, triggering a crisis for Netanyahu’s government. As the deadline for the evacuation of the area approached (December 25, 2016), Israeli estimates found that between 2500 and 4000 housing units built on lands owned by Palestinians could face the same fate.
To face this crisis on a local level, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation unanimously approved a law last November aiming to legalize settlement outposts in the West Bank. The Knesset followed suit, giving the bill an initial approval, which leave three more rounds of voting before it becomes law. Several world powers were fast to condemn the bill as a violation of international law, including the US, France and Germany, as well as the UN secretary general and its high commissioner for human rights. Egypt also condemned the law at the time. Legal experts known for their support of Israel said that the law could provide basis for a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Israeli reports relayed that Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, expressed concerns that they could end up at the ICC because of it.
Trump approaches: Abbas wants to hurry, Netanyahu wants to wait
Several factors have contributed to making the present moment opportune for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition to the UN motion, international public opinion and Israeli public debate in particular has been preoccupied in recent weeks with rumors of a last move from President Barak Obama in favor of Palestinians before the conclusion of his last term in office.
Added to that, several heavyweight figures in American society — most prominently former President Jimmy Carter and renowned attorney Ralph Nader — have been urging Obama to recognize the state of Palestine and support a Security Council motion condemning Israeli settlement outposts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
These factors led Abbas to present the Security Council with a strongly worded resolution against settlement outposts, and prepare for action on the ground with the aim of ending the practice. On the other side, Netanyahu’s government has high hopes for the Trump administration, so it is attempting to temporarily quell the international momentum with moves like delaying the vote on Egypt’s anti-settlements motion.
Sisi responds to Netanyahu and Trump
As soon as Egypt proposed its motion, on which a vote should have been held yesterday, France declared its intention to support it, and all signs suggested that the US would not block it, as confirmed by US diplomats. The motion was on its way to be approved until Netanyahu made a last plea in a video message for the US to use its veto power. Trump also made the same request to Obama.
This is when Egypt abruptly requested the indefinite delay of the vote on its motion, in what some considered the first collaboration of the Sisi-Netahyahu-Trump trio and an attempt by Egypt to avoid angering the soon-to-be US president.
The Egyptian presidency announced that a phone call took place between Sisi and Trump yesterday in which they discussed the motion and agreed on “the importance of giving the new American administration the chance to handle the Palestinian issue in all its dimensions with the aim of reaching a final and comprehensive resolution.”
Egypt’s request to postpone the vote today after Venezuela, Senegal, Malaysia and New Zealand, in coordination with Palestine, gave Egypt an ultimatum to announce its position on the motion before midnight, declaring that they would put forward their own motion and request that it go to a vote if Egypt didn’t make a move. Unconfirmed news suggests that Egypt has decided to withdraw its motion completely.
When Egypt obtained its seat at the UN Security Council in October 2015, it was celebrated as a victory for Egyptian diplomacy, but no gains for Palestinians have materialized. Indeed, Egypt’s presence on the Security Council has enabled it to hijack Palestinian attempts to get a condemnation of settlement outposts from the Security Council: first by offering a milder version than the Palestinian motions, and then by delaying the vote indefinitely, leading to the temporary termination of a long-awaited Palestinian victory.
Translated by Heba Afify