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What You Need To Know To Understand The Latest Drama Between Israel And The US

The situation at the UN last week that got President-elect Trump tweeting has been in the making for years now.

Posted on December 29, 2016, at 4:02 p.m. ET

The last week of 2016 is proving to be just as chaotic as the rest of the year, as a diplomatic feud between the US and Israel threatens to spill over into the next year and beyond.

Abir Sultan / AFP / Getty Images

The short version of the issue is this: The United States didn't block a UN resolution telling Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank, Israel is upset, and the UN might be in big trouble. The long version will take a bit more time to explain but that's what we're here for.

(For those of you who clicked expecting a full rundown of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are just going to say up front that this is not going to be that.)

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Because it is ~a lot~ to try to condense into an article about what's going down right now. Instead, check out this history if you want even more backstory.

But we will start with a look at the history between the United Nations and Israel, one that goes back to the country's founding.

The UN first recommended the partition of the then-UK-controlled territory of Palestine into two territories, one Arab and one Jewish, in 1947. The UN's plan was never put into place, though, as war broke out between the newly declared State of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israel finally joined up in 1949 and since then, the relationship could easily be described as spotty. Israel was at the center of the Suez Canal crisis in 1955 that spawned the first UN peacekeeping mission; the capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in 1967 prompted the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the guideline for all negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians since then.
UN Photo

The UN first recommended the partition of the then-UK-controlled territory of Palestine into two territories, one Arab and one Jewish, in 1947. The UN's plan was never put into place, though, as war broke out between the newly declared State of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israel finally joined up in 1949 and since then, the relationship could easily be described as spotty. Israel was at the center of the Suez Canal crisis in 1955 that spawned the first UN peacekeeping mission; the capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in 1967 prompted the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the guideline for all negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians since then.

As Israel's isolation at the UN grew, though, it began to count on the US using its ability to veto resolutions in the Security Council that it believed targeted Israel unfairly.

In the years leading up to and after the Six-Day War, Israel found itself increasingly isolated at the UN as decolonization swelled the global body's ranks with more and more countries from Africa and Asia opposed to its treatment of the Palestinians — and in some cases, its very existence. An extremely lopsided number of nonbinding resolutions passed at the UN in the 1980s and 1990s dealt with Israel as one of the few issues that the body could mostly agree on. But the US veto prevented binding resolutions from the Security Council from taking effect.
Mary Altaffer / AP

In the years leading up to and after the Six-Day War, Israel found itself increasingly isolated at the UN as decolonization swelled the global body's ranks with more and more countries from Africa and Asia opposed to its treatment of the Palestinians — and in some cases, its very existence. An extremely lopsided number of nonbinding resolutions passed at the UN in the 1980s and 1990s dealt with Israel as one of the few issues that the body could mostly agree on. But the US veto prevented binding resolutions from the Security Council from taking effect.

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Let's jump ahead to 2009, though, when the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank really began to come to a head.

The hardline Islamist group Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, less than two years after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and dismantled its settlements there. The more moderate Fatah party was left to lead the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank, an area that Palestinians saw as earmarked for their future state but which was also seen as part of the historic Jewish state by nationalistic and religious Jewish settler groups. Since 2007, various polls have found an overall increase in support for the settlements among the Israeli public. The settlers aren't without some serious political support inside Israel. And the parties that back them include leaders who don’t believe in the “two-state solution” — an independent Israel and Palestine co-existing side by side — that has been accepted as the goal of the peace process for the last decade and a half.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

The hardline Islamist group Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, less than two years after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and dismantled its settlements there. The more moderate Fatah party was left to lead the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank, an area that Palestinians saw as earmarked for their future state but which was also seen as part of the historic Jewish state by nationalistic and religious Jewish settler groups. Since 2007, various polls have found an overall increase in support for the settlements among the Israeli public.

The settlers aren't without some serious political support inside Israel. And the parties that back them include leaders who don’t believe in the “two-state solution” — an independent Israel and Palestine co-existing side by side — that has been accepted as the goal of the peace process for the last decade and a half.

Over the course of President Obama's eight years in office, he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have argued mainly about two things: Iran and the settlements.

Obama in his first months in the White House called on Israel to totally freeze settlements as they'd agreed to under 2003's Roadmap to Peace, to which Israel responded that they needed the space as a growing country. Plus, they added, they'd slowed construction considerably since 2005. The issue has continued to plague Obama and Netanyahu over the years, even as the two have cooperated on other issues, like setting up the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system. In 2011, the Obama administration even used its first veto at the UN to strike down a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. But things have only escalated as more right-wing parties like Jewish Home, a pro-settler party, have been folded into Netanyahu's governing coalition. Timing's also been an issue: In 2010, the Israelis announced a new block of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, whose residents are mostly Palestinian, just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. And earlier this year, an entirely new settlement in the West Bank was approved just weeks after a $38 billion assistance package was signed between the US and Israel.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Obama in his first months in the White House called on Israel to totally freeze settlements as they'd agreed to under 2003's Roadmap to Peace, to which Israel responded that they needed the space as a growing country. Plus, they added, they'd slowed construction considerably since 2005.

The issue has continued to plague Obama and Netanyahu over the years, even as the two have cooperated on other issues, like setting up the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system. In 2011, the Obama administration even used its first veto at the UN to strike down a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. But things have only escalated as more right-wing parties like Jewish Home, a pro-settler party, have been folded into Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Timing's also been an issue: In 2010, the Israelis announced a new block of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, whose residents are mostly Palestinian, just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. And earlier this year, an entirely new settlement in the West Bank was approved just weeks after a $38 billion assistance package was signed between the US and Israel.

The Israeli government has also been working to make the settlements more appealing to people who might not have otherwise considered moving to the West Bank.

Israel's government has passed a series of laws to make the settlements more attractive to Israelis moving not out of a sense of nationalism, but due to a number of economic incentives offered.
Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Israel's government has passed a series of laws to make the settlements more attractive to Israelis moving not out of a sense of nationalism, but due to a number of economic incentives offered.

And so the settler population has only continued to grow, as this set of graphics from 2014 shows. While the numbers may seem relatively small, they're a very big deal in a place the size of the West Bank.

It isn't just about there being limited room available for everyone. A big part of the issue is that in the event there is an independent Palestine, what happens to the settlers and whose authority they'd be under is totally uncertain. Arab Israeli citizens have to follow Israeli law, but will the Jewish settlers, many of whom believe in the idea of Greater Israel and oppose the ceding of territory to Palestinians, agree to obey Palestinian laws?
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post

It isn't just about there being limited room available for everyone. A big part of the issue is that in the event there is an independent Palestine, what happens to the settlers and whose authority they'd be under is totally uncertain. Arab Israeli citizens have to follow Israeli law, but will the Jewish settlers, many of whom believe in the idea of Greater Israel and oppose the ceding of territory to Palestinians, agree to obey Palestinian laws?

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The continued growth of settlements and overall stagnation in the peace process has led to a feeling of despair among Palestinians.

Not helping matters has been the ongoing cycle of violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, which the status quo hasn't improved. Leaderless and directionless in its scope, a spate of violence in October last year left nine Israelis and more than 40 Palestinians dead, about half of whom the Israeli Defense Forces said were killed after they'd attacked others. It was no third intifada, or uprising, but it highlighted just how much the stagnation in the situation was affecting the people living through it.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

Not helping matters has been the ongoing cycle of violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, which the status quo hasn't improved. Leaderless and directionless in its scope, a spate of violence in October last year left nine Israelis and more than 40 Palestinians dead, about half of whom the Israeli Defense Forces said were killed after they'd attacked others. It was no third intifada, or uprising, but it highlighted just how much the stagnation in the situation was affecting the people living through it.

France tried to get things going again in June by hosting a summit of foreign ministers intended to jumpstart the process. (Israel rejected the summit because the two main parties weren't the ones negotiating.)

Not much came of the meeting, but there was a pledge to hold a follow-up summit in January. It's the January summit that's become a major issue, so remember it going forward.
Stephane De Sakutin / AP

Not much came of the meeting, but there was a pledge to hold a follow-up summit in January. It's the January summit that's become a major issue, so remember it going forward.

All of that leads us to last week's drama at the UN, where an Egyptian-drafted resolution calling for a halt to Israeli settlement construction was put to a vote.

The resolution refers to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal and calls for a stop to their construction. It also calls on both sides to prevent terrorism and resume negotiations toward the two-state solution.A large amount of behind-the-scenes jockeying led up to Friday's vote on the resolution, including the Israeli government calling President-elect Donald Trump to pressure him to weigh in, CNN reported. Trump in turn called Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, according to Al Jazeera, which got Egypt to withdraw the resolution. Egypt relented and put the resolution to a vote only after four other countries said they'd do it instead. At least one of the four was reportedly pushed by the United Kingdom to revive the resolution.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The resolution refers to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal and calls for a stop to their construction. It also calls on both sides to prevent terrorism and resume negotiations toward the two-state solution.

A large amount of behind-the-scenes jockeying led up to Friday's vote on the resolution, including the Israeli government calling President-elect Donald Trump to pressure him to weigh in, CNN reported. Trump in turn called Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, according to Al Jazeera, which got Egypt to withdraw the resolution. Egypt relented and put the resolution to a vote only after four other countries said they'd do it instead. At least one of the four was reportedly pushed by the United Kingdom to revive the resolution.

In the end, the United States opted to abstain from the vote instead of vetoing and has spent all of its time since then explaining its choice at length.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a speech following the vote that though the US couldn't agree with everything in the resolution and vote for it, the sentiment about settlements was one that it couldn't block either.
Andrew Kelly / Reuters

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a speech following the vote that though the US couldn't agree with everything in the resolution and vote for it, the sentiment about settlements was one that it couldn't block either.

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Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday then spent an hour-long speech both explaining the US's abstention and outlining his view of the peace process moving forward.

"It is vital that we all work to keep open the possibility of peace, that we not lose hope in the two-state solution, no matter how difficult it may seem — because there really is no viable alternative," Kerry said in his remarks.
James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

"It is vital that we all work to keep open the possibility of peace, that we not lose hope in the two-state solution, no matter how difficult it may seem — because there really is no viable alternative," Kerry said in his remarks.

A diplomatic explosion still went off after the vote despite that. Netanyahu and other officials were sure that the US was really behind the resolution and started doling out reprisals — but may have calmed some since.

Even before the vote was cast, Israeli officials were claiming that the US was secretly behind the text of the resolution, a claim that the US has denied vigorously. An alleged leaked transcript of a meeting between Kerry, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and the Palestinian chief negotiator added fuel to that fire, but the US also says that the transcript is a fake.After the vote, Israel said that it would downgrade diplomatic ties with 12 members of the Security Council who voted in favor and summoned their ambassadors for a scolding.But the Jerusalem City Council also delayed a vote on new settlements on Wednesday, just hours before Kerry's speech. Netanyahu's office has no direct control over the process but a senior Israeli official indicated to the New York Times that it pushed for the delay of vote, showing concern over just how far to take its stance against the US.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

Even before the vote was cast, Israeli officials were claiming that the US was secretly behind the text of the resolution, a claim that the US has denied vigorously. An alleged leaked transcript of a meeting between Kerry, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and the Palestinian chief negotiator added fuel to that fire, but the US also says that the transcript is a fake.

After the vote, Israel said that it would downgrade diplomatic ties with 12 members of the Security Council who voted in favor and summoned their ambassadors for a scolding.

But the Jerusalem City Council also delayed a vote on new settlements on Wednesday, just hours before Kerry's speech. Netanyahu's office has no direct control over the process but a senior Israeli official indicated to the New York Times that it pushed for the delay of vote, showing concern over just how far to take its stance against the US.

On the Palestinian side of things, President Mahmoud Abbas is clearly pleased with the resolution — as is Hamas, sort of.

Richard Drew / AP

And then there's Trump, who used Twitter several times in the days after the vote to lash out at the UN and call for a more robust defense of Israel.

"The UN has such tremendous potential, it's not living up to its potential," Trump told the press pool traveling with him on Wednesday. "When do you see the United Nations solving problems, they don't they cause problems, so if it lives up to its potential it’s a great thing, if it doesn't it’s a waste of time."

It's a line that might pick up steam with Republicans in the House and Senate, some of whom have called for retribution against the UN in Israel's name.

Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images

All of this still leaves up in the air just what — if anything — will come from the upcoming summit in Paris. Israel is still firmly against it but the Palestinians are super excited about it.

In the end, it could wind up producing exactly what Netanyahu hopes it won't: a framework for a final agreement between Israel and Palestine, one that will be voted on in the Security Council before Obama leaves office, and that Trump won't be able to overturn.
Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images

In the end, it could wind up producing exactly what Netanyahu hopes it won't: a framework for a final agreement between Israel and Palestine, one that will be voted on in the Security Council before Obama leaves office, and that Trump won't be able to overturn.

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