The United Nations body’s debate and vote highlighted for a second time in a week the international isolation of the United States over the Jerusalem issue
The United Nations general assembly has delivered a stinging rebuke to Donald Trump, voting by a huge majority to reject his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The vote came after a redoubling of threats by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who said that Washington would remember which countries “disrespected” America by voting against it.
Despite the warning, 128 members voted on Thursday in favour of the resolution supporting the longstanding international consensus that the status of Jerusalem – which is claimed as a capital by both Israel and the Palestinians – can only be settled as an agreed final issue in a peace deal. Countries which voted for the resolution included major recipients of US aid such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although largely symbolic, the vote in emergency session of the world body had been the focus of days of furious diplomacy by both the Trump administration and Israel, including Trump’s threat to cut US funding to countries that did not back the US recognition.
But only nine states – including the United States and Israel –voted against the resolution. The other countries which supported Washington were Togo, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guatemala and Honduras.
Twenty-two of the 28 EU countries voted for the resolution, including the UK and France. Germany – which in the past has abstained on measures relating to Israel – also voted in favour.
Thirty-five countries abstained, including five EU states, and other US allies including Australia, Canada, Colombia and Mexico. Ambassadors from several abstaining countries, including Mexico, used their time on the podium to criticise Trump’s unilateral move.
Another 21 delegations were absent from the vote, suggesting the Trump’s warning over funding cuts and Israel’s lobbying may have had some effect.
While support for the resolution was somewhat less than Palestinian officials had hoped, the meagre tally of just nine votes in support of the US and Israeli position was a serious diplomatic blow for Trump.
Immediately after the vote the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, described the result as a “victory for Palestine”. The Palestinians’ UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, described the result as a “massive setback” for the US.
“They made it about them,” Mansour told AFP. “They did not make it about Jerusalem, so when you make it about them and to only be able to get nine votes to say ‘no’ to it, I think it was a complete failure for their campaign.”
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the UN vote out of hand.
“Israel thanks President Trump for his unequivocal position in favour of Jerusalem and thanks the countries that voted together with Israel, together with the truth,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office.
Speaking to the assembly before the vote, Haley – who earlier in the week told members that the US “would be taking names” – returned to the offensive.
“I must also say today: when we make generous contributions to the UN, we also have expectation that we will be respected,” she said. “What’s more, we are being asked to pay for the dubious privileges of being disrespected.”
Haley added: “If our investment fails, we have an obligation to spend our investment in other ways … The United States will remember this day.”
Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, none is as sensitive as the status of Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.
Seventy years ago, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. In the war of 1948 it was divided, like Berlin in the cold war, into western and eastern sectors under Israeli and Jordanian control respectively. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern side, expanded the city’s boundaries and annexed it – an act that was never recognised internationally.
Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, as its “united and eternal” capital. For their part, the Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. The unequivocal international view, accepted by all previous US administrations, is that the city’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations.
Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital puts the US out of step with the rest of the world, and legitimises Israeli settlement-building in the east – considered illegal under international law.
In his own speech Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, said UN members who backed the resolution were being manipulated. “You are like puppets pulled by your Palestinian masters,” he told the session.
While Thursday’s resolution was in support of existing UN resolutions on Jerusalem and the peace process, the clumsy intervention by Trump and Haley also made the vote a referendum on Trump’s often unilateral and abrasive foreign policy.
The debate and vote highlighted for a second time in a week the international isolation of the United States over the Jerusalem issue, following a similar vote in the security council on Tuesday in which it was outnumbered 14-1.
The threatening US posture, which had been denounced as both counter-productive and “bullying”, only seemed to have hardened the resolve of countries in opposing Trump’s 6 December move.
The resolution, co-sponsored by Turkey and Yemen, called Trump’s recognition “null and void” and reaffirmed 10 security council resolutions on Jerusalem, dating back to 1967, including requirements that the city’s final status must be decided in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
It also “demands that all states comply with security council resolutions regarding the holy city of Jerusalem, and not to recognise any actions or measures contrary to those resolutions”.
Earlier on Thursday, as it had become clear that the US and Israel would be heavily defeated, Netanyahu preemptively denounced the vote calling the UN a “house of lies”.
“The state of Israel rejects this vote outright,” Netanyahu said. “Jerusalem is our capital, we will continue to build there and additional embassies will move to Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, whether or not the UN recognises this. It took 70 years for the United States to formally recognise this, and it will take years for the UN to do the same.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, called for Israel to cut its ties with the UN and expel the organisation from its Jerusalem offices.
“We must evict the UN from the scenic Governor’s House, where its bloated staff does nothing, and give this historic site to a school, a hospital or – best yet – a new US embassy.”