A capital mistake: on UN resolution against US' Jerusalem move

The U.S.’s pressure tactics on the Jerusalem vote marked a new low at the United Nations

Published - December 23, 2017 12:15 am IST

A file picture of Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

A file picture of Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

What the world witnessed in the past few days at the United Nations, on a resolution demanding that the U.S. rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel , was an unprecedented display of the arrogance of power. Never before in the history of the UN has a member state threatened, so publicly and so inelegantly, fellow member states with dire consequences if they did not fall in line with its position as the U.S. did. It should not come as a surprise if in the coming weeks and months the U.S. loses an election to one of the UN organisations, just as Britain lost its bid to a seat on the International Court of Justice, and for the same reason. The member states are not willing to put up any longer with the hubris of the Permanent Five.

A contentious issue

The Jerusalem issue is easily the most contentious one between the the Palestinians and the Israelis. There are other issues such as borders, sharing of waters, refugees, security, and so on. None of them is amenable to easy answers, but the Jerusalem problem is the most sensitive. Any attempt to unilaterally change its status will kill the peace process.


U.S. President Donald Trump has obviously given priority to nourishing his core domestic constituency rather than worry about the concerns of his close allies, all of whom voted against the U.S., except Canada — though it did not side with its powerful neighbour and simply abstained.

The immediate international reaction to Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem was rather muted. Instead of condemning it, most voiced concern at the negative impact it would have on the peace process. Even several Arab countries were not very vocal in their criticism. But soon, the Arab street asserted itself and forced the governments to take a more robust position. Egypt seems to have played a lead role in this. It drafted a resolution which avoided mentioning the U.S. by name; that would have made it difficult for Britain and others to support the draft. After the veto in the Security Council, Egypt and Turkey lost no time in bringing the matter to an emergency session of the General Assembly, where there is no veto.

In all, 172 member states cast their votes . This means 21 countries did not vote at all. A few of them seem to have lost their right to vote because of arrears in payment of their mandatory dues to the organisation. The resolution passed with 128 votes in favour, a comfortable two-thirds majority. Nine voted against, and 35 abstained. The U.S. threat might have worked both ways.

It would be interesting to watch how the presidential threat works out in practice in the case of Pakistan which voted against the U.S. Among India’s neighbours, Bhutan abstained. This might be explained either by its desire to demonstrate its independence from India or not to alienate the U.S., or perhaps a combination of the two.

Tilting the vote

India’s vote in favour of the resolution was in line with its traditional policy. In recent months, there has been a noticeable change in the formulation of Indian statements on the Palestine problem, with the phrase ‘East Jerusalem’ being absent. This had given rise to a doubt about India’s vote in the General Assembly. It is probable that India was in any case going to vote in favour of the Egyptian draft, given its need not to antagonise the entire Muslim world. The American ultimatums might just have tilted the balance. The government, no doubt, analysed the cost-benefit ratio. India’s vote would have disappointed Israel and the U.S. It has excellent relations with Israel, as ought to be. But an objective analysis suggests that it is Israel which needs India more than the other way around. India buys at least a third of Israel’s defence production. India is also very important to Israel for diplomatic and political reasons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not cancel his forthcoming visit to India.

As for the U.S., the interest is more mutual. We need American support for a few things such as the sale of their defence platforms and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The U.S. has a huge interest in India’s markets, especially given the latter’s insatiable desire to acquire, and almost limitless capacity to pay for, expensive military hardware. There is also the China factor. But since Mr. Trump has very recently described India as a leading global power and expressed his readiness to support it in reaching that status, India can perhaps relax. It is fortunate since it is not dependent on American aid, which can be cut off or reduced at will.

Noteworthy has been the silence of the Muslim community in India, judging from the electronic and English language print media. Jerusalem has always been a ‘red line’ issue for them. The government would be justified in drawing its own conclusions from the relative absence of a Muslim reaction to the U.S. move.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan is a former Permanent Representative and Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations

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