A resounding no

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Muslim worshippers assemble in front of the White House for the Friday prayer on December 8 in Washington, D.C., to protest against President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Photo: AFP/ERIC BARADAT

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, applauds the result of the vote on Jerusalem in the General Assembly hall at the U.N. Headquarters in New York on December 21. Photo: AFP/EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ

Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the U.N. She took the unprecedented step of writing to the governments of many countries that the U.S. President was taking “this vote personally”. Photo: AFP/EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ

Despite the arm-twisting tactics employed by the Trump administration, the U.N. General Assembly votes 128 to 9 against the U.S.’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The massive vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favour of the resolution against the decision of the United States to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an illustration of the international community’s indignation. The resolution, sponsored by Yemen and Turkey, cited various United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on the status of Jerusalem and urged member states “to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions” in the city, which is considered holy by all the three Abrahamic faiths. Pope Francis, in his Christmas day speech, spoke about the need for a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis and prayed for a two-state solution to end the conflict. The Pope, who has not hesitated to raise his voice for the downtrodden, had earlier called for the status quo to be respected in Jerusalem. “We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East [West Asia] who continue to suffer because of the growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Pope said in his Christmas address.

The U.N. General Assembly voted 128 to 9 in favour of the resolution on Jerusalem. A consolation for the Trump administration is that 35 countries chose to abstain on the vote and another 21 countries chose to absent themselves from the vote. Canada and Mexico were among the surprise abstentions. These two countries are involved in important negotiations on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the U.S. Trump has been threatening to leave the grouping. If Trump carries out his threat, it could adversely impact the economies of the two countries. There is a strong Jewish lobby in Canada which wields disproportionate influence on domestic politics. But the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is not an unabashed supporter of Zionism unlike his predecessor, Steven Harper.

Trump’s threats

The U.S. issued threats against those planning to vote for the resolution, resulting in a higher level of abstention this time. A day before the vote, President Trump personally issued threats to countries that were determined to vote in favour of the resolution. Trump said that he was closely watching which way countries that get American aid were voting. “All these nations that take our money and then vote against us at the Security Council, or they vote against us potentially at the U.N. General Assembly, they take millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us,” he said. “We’ll be closely watching those votes,” he added. “Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.” Nikki Haley, America’s chief representative at the U.N., took the unprecedented step of writing to the governments of many countries that the U.S. President was taking “this vote personally”.

Speaking before the voting began, Nikki Haley said that the U.S., as the biggest funder of the organisation, had “a legitimate expectation” that its goodwill would be “recognised and respected”. The U.S.’ Ambassador to the U.N. had threatened to cut funding to the U.N. earlier too if the organisation did not bend to the U.S.’ will. Interestingly, many of the countries that either voted against the resolution or abstained were those having U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes, or small island states such as the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Micronesia and Palua. These four countries, in fact, voted against the resolution. One country that sided with the U.S. was Honduras. The U.S. has recognised the results of the fraudulent elections in that country. Most of Latin America has refused to give credibility to the rigged elections held there, but the Trump administration did not waste much time in recognising the results. Israel has been providing arms and training to the security forces in Honduras and Guatemala. These two were the only South American countries to side with the U.S. on the resolution.

It is not known whether India was also a recipient of threats from the Trump administration. Under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, India has now started abstaining from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resolutions condemning Israel. Arab countries have observed that India has not condemned or even mildly criticised the Trump administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem. Ambassadors of Arab countries in New Delhi have conveyed their misgivings to the Indian External Affairs Ministry on the issue. Many in the BJP, including parliamentarians, had urged the government to side with Israel, describing it as a “true friend” of India. It would have been difficult for India to abstain, given the fact that very close allies of the U.S. such as the United Kingdom and France voted for the resolution moved in support of the Palestinian position on Jerusalem. The Pakistani Ambassador to the U.N., Maleeha Lodhi, told the media that “despite the threats we have received from Washington in recent days”, Pakistan remained loyal to the Palestinian cause at the U.N. Pakistan is among the leading recipients of U.S. military aid.

To be fair to Trump, he is not the first U.S. President to try to arm-twist the U.N. into submitting to its will. The U.S. had threatened to cut off funding for the U.N. after it passed a resolution comparing Zionism with racism in 1975. The U.N. General Assembly, under pressure from the U.S., repealed the resolution 16 years later. The administration of George H.W. Bush had also threatened to cut funding. Today, Israeli society is even more racist than it was three or four decades ago. It openly replicates the apartheid-era practices that were prevalent in South Africa. In 2003, President George W. Bush chose to wilfully ignore the UNSC and launched the war on Iraq. When his father was President, the U.S. cut off all aid to impoverished Yemen because the country dared to vote against a 1990 UNSC resolution sponsored by the U.S. authorising the first Gulf War.

As the results showed, Trump’s threats had very little impact on the voting pattern in the U.N. Anyway, since taking office, the Trump administration has already slashed its foreign aid budget. It has announced plans to cut the foreign aid budget for 2018 by 28 per cent. All the same, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The Trump administration plans to hand over $3.1 billion to Israel in 2018. The Palestinians in the occupied territories will have to make do with $251 million in U.S. aid for 2018. Other countries in the region get even lesser amounts. Therefore, the Trump administration’s implicit threat to cut assistance to countries voting against it did not carry much of a punch.

In the end, it was a resounding defeat for the U.S. that will have long-standing political and diplomatic ramifications. The U.S. had, in the third week of December, vetoed a UNSC resolution drafted by Egypt demanding the withdrawal of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem. All the other 14 Security Council members had voted in favour of the resolution. Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid. It receives more than a billion dollars in U.S. military aid every year. This did not, however, deter Egypt from spearheading the UNSC resolution on Jerusalem. Trump and the authoritarian ruler of Egypt, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, also profess to share a close personal rapport.

The U.N. General Assembly resolution on Jerusalem was sponsored by Turkey and Yemen. The government of Yemen that is recognised by the U.N. is a virtual proxy of Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.S. Many in the Arab world believe that Trump would not have taken the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without the tacit approval of the Saudis. Before the U.N. General Assembly vote, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, had tweeted that Arab countries should not focus on “side issues” and pick up unnecessary fights with the U.S. “It is not helpful to pick a fight with the U.S. over side issues while we together fight the clear and present danger of the theo-fascist Islamic republic.” The Minister was implying that Jerusalem was “a side issue” and that it was Iran which posed a greater threat to the Arabs. The Trump administration, along with the Saudis and the Israelis, has been trying in vain to convince the international community that Iran poses a threat to the region and the wider world. The Arab street, however, has refused to endorse this stance despite the best efforts of the U.S. and its allies in the region to widen the sectarian gulf.

Turkey’s initiative

In recent months, Turkey has distanced itself from the U.S. In fact, it was Turkey—which does not have good relations with Saudi Arabia these days—that took the initiative to take up the Jerusalem issue expeditiously in international forums. It hosted an “extraordinary summit” of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the second week of December in the wake of President Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem. Speaking at the summit, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan characterised Israel as “a state of terror”. He said that the U.S.’ recognition of Jerusalem had been rejected by the international community. “It is null and void—no country except Israel has supported this.” The OIC passed a resolution calling on the international community to recognise the state of Palestine with “East Jerusalem as its occupied capital”.

The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, speaking at the OIC summit, reiterated his stand that after the decision on Jerusalem, the U.S. had “disqualified itself” from any role in future peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. “We shall not accept any role of the U.S. in the peace process. They have proven their full bias in favour of Israel,” the Palestinian leader emphasised. The OIC summit was attended by 20 heads of states. Saudi Arabia and some of its close allies such as the United States Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain sent only senior foreign ministry officials to the summit. The Saudis tried to pressure allies such as Jordan to send low-profile delegations without success. According to Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in Columbia University, the Trump administration has indulged “in self mutilation of a much abused U.S. role as a mediator”.

Palestine’s chief mediator, Saeb Erekat, said the U.N. General Assembly resolution acknowledged the importance of the rule of law. He said that Palestinians appreciated the majority of the international community, which stood by them “in spite of the threats and intimidation of the U.S.”. The Iranian Foreign Minister said that the U.N. vote was “a resounding global no to the Trump regime’s thuggish intimidation”.