By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States on Friday allowed the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, defying pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, Israel and some U.S. lawmakers who urged Washington to wield its veto.
An abstention by the United States paved the way for the 15-member international body to approve the resolution, with 14 votes in favor, prompting applause in the council chamber.
"Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. and will not abide by its terms," the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlements in land captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, said in a statement.
The Obama administration's action broke with the long-standing American approach of shielding Israel, Washington's long-time ally that receives more than $3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, from such action. The United States, along with Russia, France, Britain and China, has veto power on the council.
The resolution, put forward by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal a day after Egypt withdrew it under pressure from Israel and Trump, was the first adopted by the council on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the resolution and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called on Israel to "respect international law."
The U.S. abstention was seen as a parting shot by outgoing President Barack Obama, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu and whose efforts to forge a peace agreement based on a "two-state" solution of creating a Palestinian state existing peacefully alongside Israel have proven futile. His administration has argued that continued Israeli settlement building has undermined chances of a peace deal.
Israel and Trump had called on the Obama administration to veto the measure. Trump wrote on Twitter after the vote, "As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th," referring to the day he succeeds Obama.
Israel for decades has pursued a policy of constructing Jewish settlements on territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbors including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Most countries view Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees.
The Obama administration has deemed settlement expansion "illegitimate." Successive administrations of both parties have criticized settlement activity but have done little to slow their growth.
The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
The resolution demanded that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem" and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has "no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law."
After the vote, the White House defended the U.S. abstention, saying that in the absence of any meaningful peace process, Obama took the decision to abstain. Criticizing Israel’s settlement policy, it said it had repeatedly warned Israel privately and publicly that settlement activity was increasing Israel's international isolation.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, dismissed Trump's criticism, noting that Obama remains president until Jan. 20.
"We could not in good conscience veto a resolution that expressed concerns about the very trends that are eroding the foundation for a two-state solution," Rhodes told a conference call.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, said the United States did not raise a veto because the resolution "reflects the facts on the ground and is consistent with U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administrations."
MORE THAN SYMBOLIC
The passage of the resolution changes nothing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians and likely will be all but ignored by the incoming Trump administration.
But it was more than merely symbolic. It formally enshrined the international community’s disapproval of Israeli settlement building and could spur further Palestinian moves against Israel in international forums.
The U.N. action was "a big blow to Israeli policy, a unanimous international condemnation of settlements and a strong support for the two-state solution," a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, called the resolution disgraceful, adding he had no doubt the incoming Trump administration and Ban's successor as U.N. chief, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, "will usher in a new era in terms of the U.N.'s relationship with Israel"
Israel has said the final status of the Jewish settlements should be determined in talks on Palestinian statehood. The last round of U.S.-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014.
Trump, who called for a veto along with Netanyahu, is likely to be a more staunch supporter of Netanyahu's right-wing policies. He named a hardline pro-Israel ambassador and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Some U.S. lawmakers of both parties condemned the Obama administration's abstention. Republican Senator John McCain said the abstention "marks a troubling departure from our nation's long, bipartisan history of defending our ally Israel in the United Nations."
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees American U.N. funding, threatened to pull financial support for the international body.
The council last adopted a resolution on settlements in 1979, with the United States abstaining. Then it approved a resolution saying Israeli settlements had "no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."
(Writing by Will Dunham and Yara Bayoumy; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in New York and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)