News analysis

UN vote on Jerusalem a signal of US limits, and an act of defiance

White House caught in dilemma between its rhetoric and realities of Middle East and other countries' politics

The United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning President Donald Trump's Dec 6 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is seen as both a signal of the limits to US ability to lead a peace effort in the region, and a pushback against the President's personal bellicose public diplomacy.

US credibility in the peace process was widely viewed as tarnished by the Dec 6 decision and the UN vote confirmed the credibility gap.

The resolution is non-binding, which means the US cannot be forced to rescind its decision. In itself, it was also not unusual; the UN General Assembly has historically voted against Israel. But in the context of the Trump administration's threats of retaliation against countries that supported the motion, it was a powerful, if symbolic, act of defiance against the United States.

Public threats by Mr Trump and his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to in effect cut aid, made it difficult for some countries, including allies, to support the US, over both foreign and domestic concerns.

After the vote on Thursday, Ms Haley tweeted a list of countries which had abstained or not supported the resolution.

She tweeted: "We appreciate these countries for not falling to the irresponsible ways of the @UN."

According to reports, Canada abstained for fear of being seen as a US puppet.


We appreciate these countries for not falling to the irresponsible ways of the @UN.

UNITED STATES' AMBASSADOR TO THE UN NIKKI HALEY, tweeting a list of countries which had abstained from or not supported the resolution after the vote.

Australia also abstained, because it supports a two-state solution - and wishes to maintain diplomatic missions both to Israel in Tel Aviv and to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

"Unofficially, Australia did not want to take sides with the United States… and perhaps incur the displeasure of the Arab states and their supporters," Dr Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, told The Straits Times.

"The opposition Labor Party has strong elements that are supportive of the Palestinian Authority."

In the end, as many as 128 nations voted in favour of the resolution. They included a raft of American allies, including France, Germany and Britain. China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Thailand. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were also among those who voted against the US.

The White House is now caught in a dilemma between its own rhetoric and the realities of the Middle East as well as the domestic politics of other countries.

Egypt and Jordan, for instance, collectively receive over US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in US aid and are the only Arab countries that have peace deals with Israel. Both, however, risk massive upheavals internally if they do not push back against the US recognition of Jerusalem.

As for the UN, Mr Trump has both praised and expressed disdain for it. There is global concern as well over the US rejection of multilateralism under his "America First" policy.

But he has also cultivated UN resolutions condemning and sanctioning North Korea.

The State Department seemed to backpedal on the eyebrow-raising threats by Ms Haley and Mr Trump ahead of the vote.

Spokesman Heather Nauert told journalists: "The UN vote is not the only factor that the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations and countries who have chosen to vote one way or the other."

But the State Department has been relatively marginalised by Mr Trump. The President has openly contradicted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over North Korea, and deployed his 36-year-old son-in-law Jared Kushner to oversee a Middle East peace process that looks set to be stalled following the latest developments.

Mr Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was in line with his campaign promise to his political base.

It was also in line with a previous resolution in the US Congress which previous presidents had not acted on, choosing instead to exercise a waiver on the transfer of the embassy in essence because the issue of Jerusalem is so sensitive.

Mr Trump, in fact, had also earlier signed a waiver on the embassy, and the State Department said the process of finding land and building one would take years.

But the President's public declaration amounted to prodding a hornet's nest, sparking days of protests in the region.

Last Friday, four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Mr Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tweeted on Thursday: "America should be seen as a world leader. Instead (President Trump) is isolating America from the world and weakening our standing and commitment to the basic principles of justice and international law on the issue of #Jerusalem."

All eyes are now back on Mr Trump for his response to the UN vote.

"We can't rule out that Trump might be personally highly committed to reducing US financial support for the UN," Dr Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East West Centre in Hawaii, told The Straits Times.

"But... it is more likely that his advisers will persuade him to… accept that despite American frustrations with the UN, it remains useful on balance."

So while the vote is being seen as a slap in the face for Mr Trump, the President also has the option of not rising to the snub.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Vote a signal of US limits, and an act of defiance'. Print Edition | Subscribe