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US vs. UN: Who's taking sides over Jerusalem and why?

This week's emergency UN General Assembly (UNGA) session on President Trump's decision to move the US Embassy to Jeru...

Posted: Dec. 22, 2017 3:50 PM
Updated: Dec. 24, 2017 10:39 AM

This week's emergency UN General Assembly (UNGA) session on President Trump's decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem resulted in another non-binding resolution against Israel. UNGA votes on Israel are nothing new -- because of US veto power at the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly has been a popular forum for passing anti-Israel resolutions.

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This time, however, the resolution also specifically and strategically distanced countries from the United States in its condemnation of President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to relocate the US embassy. UNGA members who voted for the resolution -- 128 of them -- gave various reasons for their votes: from claiming that Trump's actions violate existing UN resolutions on the status of Jerusalem dating back to 1968, to expressing a desire to stand up against the Trump administration's attempt to bully countries into voting against the resolution by threatening to withhold foreign assistance. The countries that abstained generally followed historic voting patterns.

I have been a part of efforts to persuade countries to vote a certain way at the United Nations. Working through our mission to the UN, the National Security Council members work on carefully tailored policy initiatives that communicate the US position in a manner consistent with the UN charter. This time around, the US approach undercut both the UN itself and exposed the United States as crying wolf, again.

By voting for the resolution, countries were not doing anything that violated the terms of their foreign aid. Using such aid as a stick, the administration issued an unfortunate set of empty threats. Some of the countries to whom we give the most support -- including Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Iraq -- voted for the resolution anyway. It is unforeseeable that the US will cut off foreign aid to those countries.

It is evident why countries that voted for the resolution did so, but we also need to analyze who sided with the United States in this case. Of the nine nays -- Guatemala, Honduras, Togo, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau -- it is unclear whether any of these small countries have a shared policy outlook on the status of Jerusalem.

It is worth noting that several of these countries -- Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Narau for example -- have voted against resolutions targeting Israel in the past, but since we haven't seen explicit statements from them supporting Trump's Jerusalem decision, we can only speculate why they voted the way they did (or chose not to show up or cast a vote).

One thing the nine countries voting against the resolution have in common is their dependence on US foreign aid as a percentage of their GDP. A recent Washington Post analysis showed that most countries that already regularly vote with Israel abstained or voted no. Other countries where Israel is not a big domestic issue but that receive a lot of US support (Jamaica for example) abstained.

If there wasn't a big domestic cost to abstaining, some of these countries may have decided not to risk upsetting the apple cart with Trump and putting their foreign aid at risk. These smaller countries don't have a lot of cutting national security issues at play with the United States, so it is more realistic that Trump would cut off aid to a smaller, Pacific nation to make a point than to a larger player that he has ongoing national security initiatives underway with.

So, for small countries, like Guatemala and Honduras, that have little leverage with the United States but receive a lot of support, Trump's threats to cut of funding if they voted against him may have resonated. The larger countries, like Egypt and Afghanistan, who receive a lot of US aid know that Trump has important, ongoing counterterrorism work with them -- whereas Togo and Micronesia recognize that they likely are less of a diplomatic priority and thereby more vulnerable if Trump decided to follow through on one of his threats for a change.

It's worth pointing out Canada, in this case, departed from past voting behavior. Under Prime Minister Harper who was in office for almost a decade, the US and Canada typically had matching votes at the UN. This time around, under Trudeau, Canada abstained on the resolution.

While not a big enough gesture to cause a major rift with Israel or with the United States, Canada's abstention is a notable departure from its previous voting record and may indicate an unwillingness to look like Trump's bullying determines its behavior or a desire to be more responsive to domestic constituencies in Canada who are against Trump's decision.

Ultimately, the countries that can most materially impact the policies of both the Israelis and the Palestinians will not be cowed by threats or bluster. Only real work, not bullying or vitriol, can lead to peace.

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