UNITED NATIONS — The United States vetoed a U.N. resolution Friday that would have condemned "illegal" Israeli settlements and demanded an immediate halt to all settlement building, a move certain to anger Arab countries and Palestinian supporters around the world.
The 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, reflecting the wide support for the Palestinian-backed draft which had over 100 co-sponsors.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States agrees with the rest of the council and the wider world "about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity." But she said the U.S. believes "it is unwise" for the U.N.'s most powerful body to attempt to resolve key issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The vote put President Barack Obama in a difficult position, both internationally and domestically.
The U.S. veto was strongly opposed by Arab nations and much of the rest of the world, especially at a time of growing street protests in the Mideast, fueled by hopes for democracy. An abstention would have angered the Israelis, the closest U.S. ally in the region, as well as Democratic and Republican supporters of Israel in the U.S. Congress.
The Palestinians insist they will not resume peace talks until Israel halts settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they want as a capital. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed just weeks after they restarted in September because Israel ended a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer, called the U.S. veto unfortunate, saying the Security Council failed to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian "crisis" and send "a clear and firm message to Israel that it must ... cease all of its violations and its obstruction of the peace process."
"We fear ... that the message sent today may be one that only encourages further Israeli intransigence and impunity," he said.
But Rice said the proposed resolution risked "hardening the positions of both sides" on negotiations, even while speaking out very strongly against settlement construction.
"Continued settlement activity violates Israel's international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens prospects for peace," she said.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Meron Reuben thanked the U.S. for its veto saying direct negotiations between the two sides remain the only way forward and called for Palestinian leaders "to return to the negotiating table without preconditions and without delay."
The resolution "should never have been submitted," he said, warning that the Palestinian attempt to win approval was "likely to harm" efforts to resume negotiations.
It was the 10th U.S. veto on a Mideast issue since 2001 and the first by the Obama administration. The last U.S. veto in the Security Council was Nov. 11, 2006 on a resolution calling for an end to Israeli military operations and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians rejected U.S. efforts to substitute a weaker Security Council presidential statement for the legally binding resolution and decided to go ahead with a vote after Palestinian leaders meeting in Ramallah earlier Friday gave their unanimous approval.
In a U.S. attempt to find a compromise, Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke by telephone for 50 minutes on Thursday and Abbas spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday.
Rice expressed regret that the U.S.-proposed presidential statement wasn't accepted as an alternative.
It would have reaffirmed that the Security Council "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, which is a serious obstacle to the peace process." It also would have had the council condemn "all forms of violence, including rocket fire from Gaza" and stress the need for "calm and security" for Israelis and Palestinians.
The veto was applauded by Jewish organizations and Israel's supporters in Congress.
Rep. Howard Berman called it "a bold demonstration" of U.S. support for Israel and for peace between Israel and the Palestinians."
But Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said the veto undermines enforcement of international law.
"President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won't let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way," Whitson said.
Associated Press Writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed to this report.