Why Israel’s massive defeat at the UN isn’t quite as bad as it looks
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AnalysisTaking names in the 'theater of the absurd'

Why Israel’s massive defeat at the UN isn’t quite as bad as it looks

Losing 128-9 hurts. But, thanks to Netanyahu's diplomatic outreach and Trump's threats to cut aid to states opposing his Jerusalem move, there are some silver linings

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the United States declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was declared "null and void" on December 21, 2017 in New York City. The vote, 128-9, at the United Nations concerned Washington's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocate its embassy there. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the United States declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was declared "null and void" on December 21, 2017 in New York City. The vote, 128-9, at the United Nations concerned Washington's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocate its embassy there. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

In Israeli diplomacy, everything is relative.

Was the outcome of Thursday’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly on the status of Jerusalem a stinging loss or a surprising success for Israel? Depends on how you look at it. But it certainly wasn’t as bad as many expected.

Palestinian officials, naturally, emphasized the fact that there were a whopping 128 yays and only 9 nays.

Only five percent of countries that voted on Thursday opposed the resolution, which rejected the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and called on countries not to move their diplomatic missions to the city.

That certainly constitutes a crushing defeat for Israel, and for the Trump administration.

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, speaks at the General Assembly, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Israeli officials, however, chose to look at the other side of the coin, focusing on those that countries that did not support the resolution.

Nine countries — the US, Israel, Togo, Guatemala, Honduras, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Honduras — voted no. At the General Assembly, it doesn’t matter that the four Pacific Ocean island nations who voted no together have fewer inhabitants than Beersheba; every country’s vote weighs exactly the same.

There were also 35 abstentions and 21 countries were absent or did not vote at all.

List of how countries voted in the December 21, 2017 UN resolution rejecting US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (Courtesy)

The fact that a total of 65 nations did not actively vote against US President Donald Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his announced intention to move the US embassy to the holy city was “hugely significant,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nachshon cheered.

Israel diplomats are taking “pride” in the ministry’s “efforts fighting for what is right and moral,” Nachshon added later on his Twitter account.

While deriding the “preposterous” vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed appreciation of the “fact that a growing number of countries refuse to participate in this theater of the absurd.”

A statement his office issued spoke of the “high number” of countries that did not back Resolution A/ES-10/L.22, noting that countries he has visited in Europe, Africa and Latin America were among them.

Mexico, Argentina and Hungary abstaining on the resolution is indeed a veritable achievement. These are countries that usually would have voted with their respective regional blocs. Colombia abstained, as it did in previous resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kenya did not vote at all, which might be related to Netanyahu’s whirlwind visit to Nairobi last month to attend President Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration.

In 2017, Netanyahu also visited the US (which determinedly opposed the resolution) and Australia (which abstained).

But the prime minister this year also traveled to eight countries — Singapore, Russia, France, Belgium, Liberia, Britain, Greece, and China — that cast their ballots in favor of the resolution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, at the Los Pinos Residence in Mexico City, on September 14, 2017. (AFP/ ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Nonetheless, the results of Thursday’s vote do indicate a slight boost for Israel if one compares them to previous high-profile General Assembly votes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In November 2012, for instance, 138 countries backed a resolution giving nonmember state status to the “State of Palestine” — 10 more than rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem. (The same number of countries opposed the 2012 motion, but six more countries abstained.)

Less than a month ago, 151 countries voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution on Jerusalem that condemned Israel in much harsher terms than Thursday’s vote. Only six countries opposed that motion, while nine abstained.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki speaking at a UN General Assembly session debating the status of Jerusalem, December 21, 2017 (screen shot)

What will Netanyahu say to Modi?

Thursday’s results merit a closer analysis.

Let’s start with the bad news for Israel and the US.

Canada and Australia — traditionally Israel’s most stalwart defenders in international forums — did not muster a no vote, merely abstaining.

The world’s other great powers, among them many friends and allies of the Jewish state, all supported the resolution (except the US, of course).

Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and India all voted for the motion, which urged the world to “refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem” and called for “an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967.”

One wonders whether Netanyahu intends to bring up New Delhi’s yes vote with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit there next month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

On the upside, Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, succeeded in breaking European consensus on the matter.

On foreign policy issues, European Union states like to take common positions, and the EU’s vehement rejection of Trump’s Jerusalem move has been well-established. Still, Hungary (where Netanyahu visited in July), Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia abstained.

Most African countries traditionally side with the Palestinians, but Togo voted no, and Rwanda, Malawi, Uganda, Lesotho, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan abstained. Kenya was absent.

What is behind these successes?

Netanyahu’s concerted effort to expand Israel’s foreign relations beyond its traditional allies, with a renewed focus on Africa, Central Europe and Latin America, evidently played a role.

But Antigua and Barbuda abstaining and Mongolia being absent might also have something to do with the US administration’s caution that it could cut aid to countries daring to support the resolution. Minutes before the vote, US Ambassador Nikki Haley — who had said on Tuesday that the US would be “taking names” when the resolution came up — once again warned that Washington will “remember” how countries voted on the matter.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, addresses the General Assembly prior to the vote on Jerusalem, on December 21, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. (AFP PHOTO / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ)

Looking ahead

Ultimately, it may not really matter much on the ground. After all is said and done, A/ES-10/L.22 is just one more non-binding UN resolution.

For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be solved, both sides will have to agree to end it. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the Muslim world’s subsequent opprobrium might have further delayed a return to the negotiating table. But that remains the viable route to a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians celebrate another diplomatic victory that will bring them no closer to their statehood goal, and Israelis are looking for silver linings in the fact that the overwhelming majority of countries voting against them has shrunken a little.

It’s all relative.

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