Egypt postpones UN vote on Israeli settlements

Egypt has postponed a UN Security Council vote on its resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, diplomats said, after Israel's prime minister and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged Washington to veto it.

Netanyahu, Trump had urged Washington to veto resolution

Relations have been icy between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, seen here at a November 2015 meeting in the White House. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Egypt postponed a UN Security Council vote on Thursday on a resolution it proposed demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, diplomats said, after Israel's prime minister and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged Washington to veto it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egypt's UN mission to postpone the vote, which would have forced U.S. President Barack Obama to decide whether to shield Israel with a veto or, by abstaining, to register criticism of the building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, diplomats said.

In a sign that they feared Obama might abandon the U.S.'s long-standing diplomatic protection for Israel at the United Nations, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the White House to veto the draft resolution.

Netanyahu called on the U.S. to veto "the anti-Israel resolution" in an overnight tweet.

Sisi put off the vote after a request from Israel, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

'Flagrant violation'

The draft resolution demands Israel stop settlement activities in the Palestinian territories and declares that all existing settlements "have no legal validity" and are "a flagrant violation" of international law.

Israel has expressed concern that Obama, who has had an icy relationship with Netanyahu, will take an audacious step in his last weeks in office to revive the peace process, but U.S. officials have said he has nearly ruled out any major last-ditch effort to pressure Israel.

The resolution would be more than symbolic since it carries the weight of international law. In the past, Obama has refused to endorse anti-Israel resolutions in the council, saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved through negotiations.

Still, the U.S. and much of the international community consider Israel's West Bank settlements illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. Netanyahu rejects such claims, blaming the failure of peace efforts on the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel's Jewish identity.

Netanyahu and Obama have repeatedly clashed over Israel's settlement policies. But even if Obama were to support the resolution, it is unclear what impact it would have. Trump, who takes office in less than a month, has indicated a more sympathetic approach to Israel and appointed an ambassador who has been a supporter of the settler movement.

An Israeli youth builds structures in the Jewish settlement of Amona, in the West Bank in November. Nearly 600,000 Jewish settlers now live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Construction continues

Nearly 600,000 Jewish settlers now live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians want as part of their future state, along with the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

Settlement construction has thrived under Obama's watch, despite his administration's constant condemnations, a sign of the limits of U.S. influence over its close ally. Obama has struggled to revive peace talks, which last collapsed in 2014.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Obama for more than a year had considered giving a major speech describing his vision for a future peace deal or, in a more aggressive step, supporting a UN resolution laying out parameters for such a deal.

Although the goal would be to impart fresh urgency to the moribund peace process, either step would have been perceived as constraining Israel's negotiating hand while strengthening the Palestinians' argument on the world stage.

The UN vote presents Obama with an opportunity to display his impatience with Israel, but it's not clear how he will proceed. The draft resolution's language, challenging the legality of the settlements, is likely to be unacceptable to Washington.

A yearlong wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence, which has tapered off in recent months but not halted completely, has further imperiled any peace efforts.

Earlier Thursday, the Israeli military said forces shot and killed a Palestinian who was lobbing an explosive device at troops carrying out an operation in east Jerusalem. The forces were demolishing the home of a Palestinian who carried out an October attack in Jerusalem that killed a police officer and a civilian.

With files from Reuters