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“This Is A Declaration Of War”: Why Israel Is Furious With New Zealand

"Do you kids want to be like the real UN, or do you just want to squabble and waste time?"

What do Donald Trump, Israel and New Zealand have in common?

They’re all caught up in the tangled aftermath of a UN Security Council resolution declaring that the construction of settlements on Palestinian territory is illegal under international law.

The resolution was sponsored by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal. The diplomatic blowback has been intense, with Israel’s Prime Minister reportedly telling New Zealand prior to the Security Council vote that their actions were tantamount to a “declaration of war”.

So what does the resolution actually mean, and are Israel and New Zealand really headed for war?

Illegal Settlements

Let’s start with the actual resolution that was passed. It calls on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” and declares that the construction of settlements has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

There is obviously a complex history to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it’s important to note that the UN has declared on a number of occasions, going back to 1979, that the construction of settlements on Palestinian territory is a breach of international law.

Nevertheless, more and more settlements continue to be built. The current right-wing Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is very pro-settler. The rate of growth in settlements is actually increasing and there are now more than half a million settlers in the Palestinian territories.

The US is Israel’s staunchest supporter, but even President Obama has repeatedly criticised settler expansion. Palestinian diplomats have been working behind the scenes to get a resolution condemning the settlements before Trump takes over (more on him later).

Security Council Shenanigans

There are 15 members of the UN Security Council. Only five are permanent: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. The other 10 are elected for two-year terms.

The five permanent members can veto any resolution. That means that even if fourteen Security Council members vote a resolution that the US isn’t happy with, they can exercise their veto and kill the whole thing.

Egypt was actually the original sponsor of the resolution on settlements, but after Donald Trump called Egypt’s President they decided to withdraw their support.

That’s when New Zealand and friends stepped in and backed the resolution. The resolution passed with 14 votes in favour, zero against and one abstention: the US.

Even though Obama has criticised the current Israeli government for its settlement policies, he has previously instructed his UN ambassador to veto similar resolutions condemning the settlements.

So what changed this time? Some commentators are interpreting the move as Obama’s parting shot at Netanyahu. Now that his term is up, Obama is less restrained by the requirement to play nice with other world leaders.

Diplomatic Drama

In the lead up to the vote the Israeli PM warned New Zealand that its actions were a “declaration of war”. Yesterday Israel recalled its ambassador to New Zealand and has banned New Zealand’s ambassador from entering Israel.

Israel has also announced it will cut funding to a number of UN agencies in response to the resolution. It has also cut aid to Senegal.

Today John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, delivered a speech slamming the current Israeli government, accusing it of extremism and defended the US’ decision to abstain, rather than veto, the resolution.

Kerry’s comments have been welcomed by former Israeli PM, Ehud Barak.

Israel has now announced that it isn’t planning any further sanctions on New Zealand, although it seems like it will be a while before relations between the two countries normalise.

How Does Trump Fit In?

Meanwhile Trump has gone on a tweet storm, promising to turn things around when he takes over the presidency in less than a month.

It’s going to be very, very hard to get the Security Council to reverse this resolution, if that’s what Trump tries to do. He’ll have to draft his own resolution, try and get majority support and hope none of the other permanent members veto it.

Trump is expected to be very pro-Israel, and very pro-Netanyahu, in office. His choice for ambassador to Israel is a strong supporter of the settlements and has previously accused the US State Department of “anti-semitism”.

As for New Zealand… well, their term on the Security Council expires this month, so they aren’t going to be able to cause much more grief for Israel.

Fiery rhetoric notwithstanding, the chances of the two countries actually going to war are pretty slim (there are some obvious geographic challenges).

We’ll have to wait to see what the long term diplomatic ramifications are, and what a Trump presidency means for the UN’s position on the settlements.