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U.S. Abstention Paves The Way For U.N. To Denounce Israeli Settlements

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States on Friday allowed the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, defying heavy pressure from long-time ally Israel and President-elect Donald Trump for Washington to wield its veto.

A U.S. abstention paved the way for the 15-member council to approve the resolution, with 14 votes in favor, prompting applause in the council chamber. The action by President Barack Obama’s administration follows growing U.S. frustration over the unrelenting construction of Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for a future independent state.

“Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. and will not abide by its terms,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlements in territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, said in a statement.

The U.S. action just weeks before Obama ends eight years as president broke with the long-standing American approach of shielding Israel, which receives more than $3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, from such action. The United States, Russia, France, Britain and China have veto power on the council.

The resolution, put forward by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal a day after Egypt withdrew it under pressure from Israel and Trump, was the first adopted by the council on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years.

The U.S. abstention was seen as a parting shot by Obama, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu and whose efforts to forge a peace agreement based on a “two-state” solution of creating a Palestinian state existing peacefully alongside Israel have proven futile.

Obama also faced pressure from U.S. lawmakers, fellow Democrats as well as Republicans, to veto the measure, and was hit with bipartisan criticism after the vote.

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, took the extraordinary step by a U.S. president-elect of personally intervening in a sensitive foreign policy matter before taking office, speaking by telephone with Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before Egypt, another major U.S. aid recipient, dropped the resolution.

Trump wrote on Twitter after the vote, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”

“There is one president at a time,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters, dismissing Trump’s criticism.

Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the resolution. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called on Israel to “respect international law.”

But Netanyahu said, “At a time when the Security Council does nothing to stop the slaughter of half a million people in Syria, it disgracefully gangs up on the one true democracy in the Middle East, Israel, and calls the Western Wall ‘occupied territory.'”

Israel for decades has pursued a policy of constructing Jewish settlements on territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbors including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Most countries view Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees.

‘NO LEGAL VALIDITY’

The resolution demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

The White House said that in the absence of any meaningful peace process, Obama made the decision to abstain. The last round of U.S.-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014. The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“We could not in good conscience veto a resolution that expressed concerns about the very trends that are eroding the foundation for a two-state solution,” Rhodes said.

American U.N ambassador Samantha Power said the United States did not veto it because the resolution “reflects the facts on the ground and is consistent with U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administrations.”

Successive U.S. administrations of both parties have criticized settlement activity but have done little to slow their growth.

The Obama administration has called settlement expansion an “illegitimate” policy that has undermined chances of a peace deal.

The Security Council last adopted a resolution critical of settlements in 1979, with the United States also abstaining.

The passage of Friday’s resolution changes nothing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians and likely will be all but ignored by the incoming Trump administration.

But it was more than merely symbolic. It formally enshrined the international community’s disapproval of Israeli settlement building and could spur further Palestinian moves against Israel in international forums.

PALESTINIAN SAYS U.N. MOVE ‘BIG BLOW’ TO ISRAEL POLICY

Trump is likely to be a more staunch supporter of Netanyahu’s right-wing policies. He has picked a hardline pro-Israel ambassador and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in what would be a major reversal of long-standing American policy.

The U.N. action was “a big blow to Israeli policy, a unanimous international condemnation of settlements and a strong support for the two-state solution,” a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

“This is a day of victory for international law, a victory for civilized language and negotiation, and a total rejection of extremist forces in Israel,” Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, said he had no doubt the incoming Trump administration and Ban’s successor as U.N. chief, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, “will usher in a new era in terms of the U.N.’s relationship with Israel.”

After the vote, Netanyahu instructed Israel’s ambassadors in New Zealand and Senegal to return to Israel for consultations. He also ordered the cancellation of a planned visit to Israel by Senegal’s foreign minister and the cancellation of all aid programs to Senegal.

(Writing by Will Dunham and Yara Bayoumy; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in New York and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)

IMAGE: A construction site is seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, in the occupied West Bank December 22, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Portugal’s Guterres Poised To Be Next U.N. Secretary-General

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres is poised to be the ninth United Nations Secretary-General and is expected to be formally recommended to the 193-member General Assembly for election by the Security Council on Thursday, diplomats said.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, president of the 15-member council for October, said he hoped the council would unanimously recommend Guterres, who was also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015.

Guterres, 67, would replace Ban Ki-moon, 72, of South Korea, who will step down at the end of 2016 after serving two terms. Guterres was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and also served as president of the Socialist International from 1999 to 2005.

“Today after our sixth straw poll we have a clear favorite and his name is Antonio Guterres,” Churkin told reporters with his 14 council colleagues standing behind him on Wednesday.

“We wish Mr. Guterres well in discharging his duties as the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the next five years,” Churkin said.

The council has been holding informal secret ballots since July in a bid to reach consensus on a candidate. Members had the choices encourage, discourage or no opinion. Guterres has come out on top of all the polls and on Wednesday received 13 encourage votes and two no opinion votes.

“In the end, there was just a candidate whose experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters.

“If we have these trans national threats and we don’t have somebody at the helm of the United Nations that can mobilize coalitions, that can make the tools of this institution … work better for people, that’s going to be more pain and more suffering and more dysfunction than we can afford,” she said.

Diplomats said one of the no opinion votes was cast by one of the five veto wielding powers, which are Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain.

The Security Council will adopt a resolution, traditionally behind closed doors, recommending that the General Assembly appoint Guterres for a five-year term from Jan. 1, 2017. The resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes to pass.

“We hope it can be done by acclamation,” Churkin said.

Thirteen people were nominated in the race to become the next U.N. chief, but three had already withdrawn before Wednesday’s secret ballot. In a bid for more transparency in the opaque selection process, the candidates were for the first time able to make election campaign-style pitches to the General Assembly.

When Guterres spoke to the General Assembly in April, he said he was a candidate to become secretary-general because “the best place to address the root cause of human suffering is at the center of the U.N. system.” He spoke in English, French and Spanish during the two-hour long town hall meeting.

Guterres, a devout Catholic, spoke about his decade as the U.N. refugee chief as “an extraordinary privilege but a terrible frustration because there was no humanitarian solution for their plight.” He said the solution was always political.

He described a U.N. chief as “acting with humility, without arrogance, without giving lessons to anybody, but working as a convener, as a facilitator, as a catalyst and behaving like an honest broker, a bridge builder and a messenger for peace.”

Seven of the candidates for secretary-general were women amid a push by civil society groups and a third of the 193 U.N. member states for the first female U.N. chief in the 71-year history of the world body, which has had eight male leaders.

The WomanSG lobby group described the win by Guterres as “a disaster for equal rights and gender equality” and said it was an outrage that it appeared the female candidates were “never seriously considered.”

In April, Guterres pledged to present a roadmap for gender parity at all levels of the United Nations if elected.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft paid tribute to all the candidates and in particular the women.

“Although it’s high time for a woman … the most important thing for the UK was the qualities of leadership of this position,” he told reporters.

He said Guterres was the person to “provide a convening power and a moral authority at a time when the world is divided on issues, above all like Syria.”

The U.N. Director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said: “Ultimately, the next U.N. secretary-general will be judged on his ability to stand up to the very powers that just selected him, whether on Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, the refugee crisis, climate change or any other problem that comes his way.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Grant McCool)

IMAGE: Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015.  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File photo