US President-elect Donald Trump discussed a draft UN Security Council resolution on West Bank settlement activity with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi Thursday, an official in Cairo said, amid reports that Egypt had withdrawn the measure at least partially due to pressure from the incoming US administration.
A spokesperson for Sissi in Cairo said he and the president-elect discussed allowing the incoming Trump administration to have a fresh shot at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“During the call they discussed regional affairs and developments in the Middle East and in that context the draft resolution in front of the Security Council on Israeli settlement,” said presidency spokesman Alaa Yousef, according to Reuters.
“The presidents agreed on the importance of affording the new US administration the full chance to deal with all dimensions of the Palestinian case with a view of achieving a full and final settlement,” Yousef added.
A Trump transition official said Trump and Sissi spoke about laying the groundwork for Middle East peace, Reuters reported.
That official could not confirm if Trump and Sissi discussed the UN resolution, which was pulled at the last minute on Thursday following a furious diplomatic scramble by Israeli diplomats amid reports that the US might abstain instead of using its veto in the world body.
Arab ambassadors held an emergency meeting at the United Nations to press Egypt to move ahead with a vote, but an Arab League committee later decided, after meeting in Cairo, to instead continue talks on the fate of the motion.
Palestinian envoy Jamal al-Shobaki told reporters in Cairo that Egypt asked for more time and that there would be discussions over the next two days on the next step.
Earlier, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Egypt agreed to withdraw the resolution after Sissi was sent “messages” by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team urging him to do so. Trump, the TV report quoted an unnamed senior official in Jerusalem saying, thwarted a diplomatic “hit” by President Barack Obama against Netanyahu and the settlements.
An Egyptian diplomatic source told Reuters that Cairo may have withdrawn the resolution in order to maintain positive ties with the incoming Trump administration. “We [Arab states] are all looking for a way to ensure constructive relations with this new administration. It’s not clear if this (resolution) helps that, or if it might even hinder,” the unnamed diplomat said.
Sissi has publicly praised Trump. In an interview with the Financial Times published earlier this week, the Egyptian strongman said he was “very optimistic” about Trump taking office.
Trump had released a statement earlier in the day calling on the Obama administration to use its veto on the resolution, and the Channel 2 report, citing an unnamed source in Jerusalem, said Trump’s team had been approached by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for assistance in thwarting the resolution.
Trump, seen as more sympathetic to Israel, publicly urged the Obama administration to veto the resolution; privately, said Channel 2, the Trump team conveyed messages to Cairo to withdraw the text.
Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour said Trump’s call for a veto was in response to pressure from the Israeli prime minister. “He is acting on behalf of Netanyahu,” he said.
The US, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has traditionally used its veto power to block resolutions condemning Israeli settlements, even though it sees them as an obstacle to a peace settlement. But in recent weeks, the Obama administration had been especially secretive about its deliberations, which included what one official described as an unannounced meeting between Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month.
The US had been considering a highly unusual abstention, potentially rocking US-Israeli relations, officials said, though they wouldn’t say whether Obama had made a final decision.
Kerry held a round of consultations with Mideast officials, including Netanyahu, in the run-up to the draft resolution, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday.
Kirby said Kerry and Netanyahu spoke Thursday morning US time, but it was not clear if they spoke before or after Egypt said it was pulling the vote.
“Clearly they talked about this resolution – this draft resolution. Obviously they did, but I’m not going to detail the conversation that they had,” Kirby said.
Kerry spoke to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Wednesday and Jordanian and Saudi counterparts Nasser Judeh and Adel al-Jubeir on Thursday, Kirby said.
The Channel 2 report indicated that Jerusalem viewed the decision as a “[diplomatic] hit by Obama against Netanyahu and the settlements,” quoting the senior Israeli official.
The specter of the US allowing the resolution to pass set off frantic lobbying by Israel to pressure Egypt to drop the bid, including reaching out to its supporters in the United States and at the Security Council for support.
Egypt also came under heavy diplomatic pressure from Israel directly, according to Reuters.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said his government was deploying “diplomatic efforts on all fronts to ensure that this disgraceful resolution will not pass in the Security Council.”
A UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, dubbed the Israeli lobbying a “diplomatic World War III” and a senior Security Council diplomat suggested that the motion could be buried indefinitely.
PM Netanyahu: Israelis deeply appreciate the willingness over many years of the US to stand up in the UN and veto anti-Israel resolutions. pic.twitter.com/sAquM91tql
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) December 22, 2016
Just before the delay was announced, Netanyahu called on the US to veto the resolution. In a video statement, the Israeli prime minister implored the Obama administration to “stand up in the UN and veto anti-Israel resolutions,” designating that position “one of the great pillars of the US-Israel alliance.”
“I hope the US won’t abandon this policy,” he said. “I hope it will abide by the principles set by President Obama himself in his speech in the UN in 2011: That peace will come not through UN resolutions, but only through direct negotiations between the parties. And that’s why this proposed resolution is bad. It’s bad for Israel; it’s bad for the United States and it’s bad for peace.”
Earlier in the day, Trump had weighed in, calling the resolution “extremely unfair” to Israelis.
“As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations,” he said on Facebook.
If the resolution were passed, it would put “Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis,” he added.
The UN draft resolution submitted by Cairo called on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.”
It further expressed “grave concern that continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution,” and called on all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967,” which some analysts say invites boycotts of Israeli settlements goods.
The draft also condemned “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction,” which some in the international community understand as turning the resolution into a “balanced” text.
The US vetoed a similar resolution at the United Nations in 2011.
Eric Cortellessa and AP contributed to this report