The United Nations Security Council’s 23 December 2016 adoption of Resolution 2334 represents a potentially significant milestone, because it creates opportunities for effective diplomatic, political, and legal initiatives to address and redress Israel’s systematic construction of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is in this respect fortunate that Sweden, with its long history of promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, will in January 2017 join the Security Council and additionally preside over it during the first month of its membership.
The resolution garnered voluminous media attention because it marked a seemingly rare instance in which the United States did not veto a resolution censuring Israel. While it is true that Washington often shields Israel from accountability before the Security Council, every American administration since 1967—now for the first time including that of Barack Obama—has also permitted such resolutions to pass.
These include UNSC 446 of 1979, which “determines that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” UNSCR 465, adopted the following year, and which the United States supported rather than abstained from, went even further and demanded that Israel “dismantle the existing settlements,” including in East Jerusalem.
During the three and a half decades between the passage of UNSC 465 and last month’s resolution, Israel faced considerably less international pressure regarding its systematic violation of international law. As a result, the number of settlers multiplied ten-fold, and today stands at more than six hundred thousand. UNSC 2334 must therefore have an impact beyond the reconfirmation of the international community’s formal opposition to Israeli expansionism in the West Bank.
While Resolution 2334 does not have enforcement mechanisms, it has legal force and is binding upon all UN member states. Its declaration, or rather reiteration, that Israel’s entire settlement system has “no legal validity” and “constitutes [a] flagrant violation of international law,” thus removes any possibility that the international community might accede to the growing calls within Israel to annex large swaths of the West Bank or recognize East Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory.
Adopted only weeks before an unprecedentedly pro-Netanyahu administration takes power in Washington, USNCR 2334 creates a set of legal and political facts that will either significantly constrain US policies, or compel the international community to act independently of American policy to preserve core principles of international conduct. Should the Trump administration for example relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem, it is certain to be a lonely place. It is difficult to imagine any other state, whether America’s closest European allies or other great powers such as China and Russia, following suit while the occupation persists.
Perhaps more importantly, the latest resolution explicitly calls “upon all States...to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” This constitutes an open invitation for the European Union, individual European governments, and other states to take a more assertive stance against Israel’s efforts to normalize the settlement enterprise. Some may consider it sufficient to clearly label settlement products, others may conclude prohibiting such goods and services from their territory altogether is–as with blood diamonds—the only ethical response.
In a similar vein, UNSC 2334 adds significant impetus to the International Criminal Court’s consideration of filing war crimes charges pursuant to the Rome Statute against Israeli officials implicated in the settlement enterprise. The International Court of Justice could if so requested also build on its 2004 Advisory Opinion confirming the illegality of the settlements by considering the status of the entirety of the Occupation that supports them.
In this regard, Sweden’s presidency of the Security Council this January is a timely development. As the first major European country to recognize Palestine, in 2014, Sweden offered the Palestinian people a crucial ray of hope when their quest for self-determination was in dire need of international support.
Indeed, Sweden was also one of the first European states to denounce Israel’s occupation policies and question the nature of Israel’s intentions with respect to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When it first did so in 1987 on the eve of the first intifada via strong statements at the United Nations, it was severely reprimanded by Israel’s then ambassador to the world body, Benjamin Netanyahu.
As a significant diplomatic actor, Sweden can also take the lead in efforts to give operational significance to UNSC 2344 within the European Union, the United Nations and other international fora. It can for example use the authority of its Security Council presidency to press for a more detailed articulation of the resolution’s implications, and ensure this is on the agenda of the upcoming Paris international conference. It can work with the new and presumably more ambitious UN Secretary General to push for further discussion of the occupation in the council’s monthly agenda. It can also act to ensure that the tri-monthly reports to the security council mandated by the resolution not only report the systematic violations of international law inherent to the settlement system, but also that the United Nations meaningfully responds to their pre-meditated destruction of the two-state solution.
Similarly, Sweden can within both the security council and the European Union use UNSC 2334 to pose and respond to what others may consider excessively difficult of sensitive questions: How should the international community respond to the de facto (and potentially de jure) annexation of West Bank territory? What precisely does it mean for member states to “distinguish” between Israel and the Occupied Territories?
Finally, Sweden could use its membership of the security council during 2017-2018 to encourage much needed out-of-the-box thinking on how the international community can change the terms of engagement with Israel, the Palestinians, and the occupation as the Oslo era fades into memory. If it is indeed true, as Secretary John Kerry has warned, that the end of the two-state era is fast approaching, should not the United Nations and the European Union, both of whom have assumed responsibility for shepherding the peace process for the past generation, be exploring ways to effectively preserve it or explore alternative ways of achieving a “just and lasting peace.”
It seems fitting that as the Oslo process disintegrates, that Sweden is once again is in a position to move the prospects for peace forward.
[This article was originally published in Swedish on the website of the Swedish online magazine Urikes Magasinet published by the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. It was first written English and then translated into Swedish.]