Key Take-Aways from UNGA Vote on Jerusalem: Facts vs Spin

12/27/2017 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2017

Last week, on December 21st, the United States took off the gloves at the United Nations. With the General Assembly poised to vote on a resolution rejecting President Donald Trump’s policy shift regarding the status of Jerusalem, Nikki Haley, the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, warned:

“the president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those countries who voted against us. We will take note of each and every vote on this issue.”

Since then, innumerable pundits and politicians have weighed in about the outcome of that vote and what it says about the international community’s views on Jerusalem and Trump’s Middle East policy. A close look at the data, however, reveals that much of the conventional wisdom is contradicted by the facts.

Most people are by now familiar with the most basic fact: just 7 nations joined the United States and Israel in voting “no” on the Jerusalem resolution – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau (representing a combined total of just over 200,000 people), along with Togo, Honduras and Guatemala (whose president has since announced that its embassy would be moved to Jerusalem).

That list should surprise nobody: it comprises the core group of tiny island nations that reliably opposes such resolutions, plus-or-minus a short and ever-changing list of other nations. Looking at votes since 1999 on routine Israel-Palestine resolutions – that is, resolutions brought periodically before the General Assembly – the number of “no” votes is strikingly consistent both in composition and in numbers, ranging from a low of 1 (Israel alone) to at most (and rarely as high as) 10.

What about non-routine resolutions against which Israel and the United States lobby intensely, like the December 21 Jerusalem resolution? The last such vote was in 2012, when the topic was the status of Palestine at the United Nations. In that case, too, only seven nations stood with the United States and Israel in voting “no”: the same four island nations, plus Canada, the Czech Republic, and Panama.

Some pundits suggest that the important number to focus on from last week’s vote is not the “no” votes, but the fact that 35 nations elected to abstain. That number, however, is only meaningful if compared to other UNGA votes on Israel-Palestine. A review of such votes just over the past year reveals that this number is indeed significant, not because it is large but because it is small. By way of comparison: on three routine (and routinely contentious) General Assembly resolutions this year dealing with the Palestinians, the number of abstentions was much higher: 77, 57, and 59. Back in 2012, on the vote determining the status of Palestine at the UN, 41 nations abstained.

Drilling down deeper, was there anything significant about how specific nations voted last week? Absolutely. Take, for example, Canada, which over the past year voted “no” on 13 out of 14 General Assembly resolutions related to Israel-Palestine, and which was one of just seven nations that voted “no” on the 2012 resolution. Yet, despite this track record, and despite the very real possibility of negative repercussions for ongoing negotiations around the North America Free Trade Agreement, Canada elected to abstain on the Jerusalem resolution.

Also notable: China and India, two heavy-hitter countries in which Israel has invested huge diplomatic and economic efforts, voted in favor. Russia, despite strong ties to the Trump Administration and warm relations with the Netanyahu government, did so as well. The same goes for Greece, a country with which Israel has been strengthening relations for years. And despite intense courting of Sunni states by the Israeli government and Trump Administration, and notwithstanding analyses suggesting a readiness on the part of many these states to give up supporting the Palestinians in order to build a coalition against Iran, neither Saudi Arabia nor Bahrain – nor, indeed, any Sunni-majority nation — abstained.

Then there is Europe. Some have suggested that with last week’s vote, Israel and President Trump succeeded in breaking European Union unity on Israel-Palestine. The facts suggest the opposite is true. In last week’s vote, just 6 out of 27 EU member states abstained (Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and Romania), with all others voting “yes.” Compare this to 2012, when 11 abstained (Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and a twelfth, the Czech Republic, voted “no” (Croatia, not yet a member of the EU, also abstained). Clearly, EU voting on important Israel-Palestine resolutions in the General Assembly was already dis-unified before last week’s vote; Trump policies on Israel-Palestine appear to have made it less so.

Looking at the votes of official U.S. allies suggests, similarly, a consensus rejection Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy and a declining readiness to line up behind the United States and Israel in the General Assembly. In the 2012 vote on the Palestine resolution, 14 out of 29 NATO member states abstained and 2 voted “no”; last week, only 6 NATO nations abstained and not a single one voted “no.” Similarly, out of the 16 nations designated by the United States as major non-NATO allies, none (other than Israel) voted “no” on this latest resolution, and only 3 abstained.

Does the data show a shift in votes that would suggest, in any category, an increased alignment with Israel and Trump? Possibly, but any such shift is (so far) incremental, likely utilitarian (grounded in political and economic quid-pro-quos), not necessarily durable, and wholly limited to African and Latin American countries. Specifically, on the Palestine resolution of 2012, not a single African nation voted “no,” 5 abstained, and 3 didn’t vote on the Palestine resolution. Last week, one voted “no” (Togo), 8 abstained, and 7 didn’t vote. Likewise, not one Latin American country voted “no” on the 2012 resolution and only 4 abstained; this time around, 2 voted “no,” 7 abstained, and one didn’t vote.

Finally, did Ambassador Haley’s threat change the votes of recipients of American financial assistance? The votes suggest it did not: Eight out of ten of the top recipients of United States aid– Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia - all voted “yes.” Only one – Israel – voted “no,” and only one, Kenya, elected not to vote.

In short, last week’s vote on Jerusalem in the UN’s General Assembly was a repudiation of the view, increasingly voiced by Israeli and American officials, that the world no longer cares about Israel-Palestine. It likewise revealed increasing, not decreasing, unity among key nations and groupings of nations in opposing Israeli and American policies in this arena. Perhaps most clearly, it was a powerful defeat both for Trump’s new Israel-Palestine policy and his leadership in the international arena — a defeat all the more resounding given the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Trump Administration to try to avert precisely such an outcome.

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