Inside the Coming War Between the United States and the United Nations

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (center) abstained from a vote condemning Israeli settlements on Friday, ending America's longstanding practice of vetoing such measures.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (center) abstained from a vote condemning Israeli settlements on Friday, ending America’s longstanding practice of vetoing such measures.

Even before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, Congress is planning to escalate the clash over the U.N. Security Council’s anti-Israel resolution into a full-on conflict between the United States and the United Nations. If Trump embraces the strategy — and all signals indicate he will — the battle could become the Trump administration’s first confrontation with a major international organization, with consequential but largely unpredictable results.

Immediately after the Obama administration abstained Friday from a vote to condemn Israeli settlements as illegal, which passed the Security Council by a vote of 14 to zero, Republicans and Democrats alike criticized both the United Nations and the U.S. government for allowing what Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) called “a one-sided, biased resolution.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the State Department and foreign operations, pledged to lead an effort to withhold the U.S. funding that makes up 22 percent of the U.N.’s annual operating budget.

“The U.N. has made it impossible for us to continue with business as usual,” Graham told me right after the vote. “Almost every Republican will feel like this is a betrayal of Israel and the only response that we have is the power of purse.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, never shy about working with Republicans against the Obama administration, told Graham: “Please stand with us, it’s time to take the gloves off,” according to Graham.

In the days since the vote, three Republican senators and their staffs have been working up options behind the scenes for how to convert their threat into action: Graham, Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.). They believe they will have support for quick Senate action from both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a strong supporter of Israel.

There are several options under consideration, two senior Senate aides working on the issue told me. Some are considered “micro” options, such as passing a resolution that would bar any funding that might go to implementing the anti-settlement resolution. Other options include withdrawing the United States from U.N. organizations such as UNESCO or passing legislation to protect settlers who are American citizens and might be vulnerable to consequences of the resolution.

Withholding U.S. contributions to the United Nations could be done in different ways. There are discretionary funds Congress can easily cut off, but the bulk of U.S. support is obligatory, mandated by treaties that Congress has ratified, making them de facto U.S. law. Depending on how drastic the funding cuts are to be, Congress may have to pass new legislation to undo some of the obligations.

Senators are also looking at ways to withhold U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority or perhaps punish the Palestine Liberation Organization representative office in Washington. Republicans in the Senate don’t plan to wait until Trump is actually in office; aides said to expect action as soon as senators return to Washington next week.

“We will make a very strong attempt to do something immediately,” one senior GOP senate aide said. “It is a real moment to reexamine the relationship with the United Nations and what it really does.”

Not all involved agree on whether the effort is simply about pressuring the Security Council to reverse course on the settlements resolution, or to fundamentally challenge a broad range of U.N. practices and reorient the U.S. approach to the United Nations overall.

Rick Santorum, who served in the Senate the last time the United States refused to pay its dues in full, told me that the coming crisis in U.S.-U.N. relations is the perfect chance for those who want to dismantle the organization altogether.

“This has opened up the opportunity for those of us who are very anti-U.N., who think the it has passed its prime, it’s not serving any really good purpose, it’s not helping legitimate governments around the world and it’s outlived its usefulness,” he said. “To the extent we can deconstruct it, the better.”

During the presidential campaign, most observers predicted that if elected, Trump would focus his international-organization ire on NATO, which he often criticized as being obsolete and a burden on U.S. taxpayers. Now, Santorum said, the United Nations could be first up for action.

“The focus will come off NATO and will move squarely onto the U.N.,” he said. “It’s going to be a very raucous time. Barack Obama, with this move, did more damage to the United Nations than he did to Israel.”

Some Republicans in Congress are comparing the coming U.S. response to the anti-settlement resolution to the U.S. opposition in 1975 to a U.N. General Assembly resolution that equated Zionism with racism. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan led the U.S. opposition to that resolution and gave a famous speech defending the Jewish state from international persecution. That resolution was eventually repealed.

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SOURCE: Josh Rogin 
The Washington Post