Why the US abstention in Gaza ceasefire vote matters

While critics say the move was only for optics and doesn't signal a shift in US support for Israel, it is yet another sign of its increasing global isolation

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain during a vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during a United Nations Security Council meeting on 25 March, 2024.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain during a vote on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during a United Nations Security Council meeting on 25 March, 2024.

Why the US abstention in Gaza ceasefire vote matters

It may have taken the United Nations Security Council more than five months to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. But the fact the body finally managed to address the issue is the latest example of the profound impact the Gaza conflict is having on an array of global institutions.

Prior to Hamas’s attack on 7 October, the long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians had settled into a state of utter paralysis. At the same time, Israel continued with its effort to normalise relations with Arab states while expanding its settlement programme in the West Bank, and hardly any mention was made of the Palestinian issue.

Indeed, the whole question of Palestinian statehood had become moribund during the three decades following the signing of the Oslo Accords.

This predicament, moreover, was made worse by the deep divisions that developed within the Palestinian leadership between Hamas, which controlled Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, the dominant party in the occupied West Bank.

The best example of the Palestinians’ growing irrelevance to the future development of the Middle East was reflected in the Abraham Accords negotiated by former US President Donald Trump, which resulted in a number of Arab states normalising relations with Israel in the dying days of the Trump administration.

While the accords raised the prospect of deepening financial and economic ties between the Arab world and the Jewish state, only passing reference was made to resolving the Palestinian issue.

Back to the forefront

Now, thanks to the international crisis that has been caused by the Gaza conflict, resolving the Palestinian issue has suddenly become one of the main priorities for world leaders across the political divide who have belatedly realised that, without a lasting solution to the Palestinian question,

And nowhere has the impact the Gaza crisis is having on global diplomacy become more evident than at the United Nations, where the overwhelming desire to end the fighting in Gaza has resulted in one of the most profound shifts in policy relating to the region in decades.

For years, whenever the Israel-Palestinian issue has been raised at the UN, the default position of the US has invariably been to defend the Israelis, irrespective of how provocative their actions might be.

From the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to more recent Israeli military incursions into southern Lebanon and Gaza, successive US administrations, be they Democrat or Republican, have provided diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN, even on those occasions when Washington has openly questioned the Israelis’ action.

British UN representative Barbara Woodward and Algeria’s UN representative Amar Bendjama vote in favour of a Gaza resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire at the UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024.

Read more: Too little, too late: UNSC ceasefire vote finally passes but Israel ignores it

The Biden administration’s decision, therefore, to abstain on the UN Security Council vote calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza represents a watershed moment in Israeli-US relations—one that could have long-lasting repercussions for Washington’s wider relationship with the region.

Washington had previously resisted attempts by other world powers, such as Russia and China, to pass UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire on the grounds that such a move would be wrong while delicate negotiations for a truce and hostage releases were continuing between Israel and Hamas.

Trouble in paradise

The Biden administration’s continuing support for Israel, however, has been increasingly open to question as a result of deepening tensions between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians—the majority being women and children.

Tensions between the US and Israel have come to a head over Netanyahu’s insistence on extending Israel's military offensive on Rafah, where more than one million displaced Palestinian civilians have sought refuge.

Israel told them that it would be safe, but it has bombed it nonetheless.

Netanyahu insists the offensive is necessary to destroy Hamas’s remaining infrastructure in Gaza, while the Biden administration has publicly called on Israel not to undertake the offensive because it will likely add to the humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

The stand-off between Biden and Netanyahu ultimately resulted in the US deciding to draft its own UN resolution, which for the first time called for a ceasefire, a move that marked a notable hardening of Washington’s stance towards Israel.

Washington’s change of policy resulted in the Security Council passing the legally binding cease-fire resolution, with 14 votes in favour and none against, with the US registering its abstention.

After the vote US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby attempted to defend the Biden administration’s stance, claiming Washington’s decision to let the resolution pass did not mean a "shift in our policy". He said the US backed a ceasefire but did not vote in favour of the resolution because the text did not condemn Hamas.

"We have been very clear and consistent in our support for a ceasefire as part of a hostage deal,” Mr Kirby said. That's how the hostage deal is structured, and the resolution acknowledges the ongoing talks."

The US abstention in the UNSC ceasefire vote represents a watershed moment in Israeli-US relations—one that could have long-lasting repercussions.

For his part, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the resolution "must be implemented" to secure a ceasefire and the "immediate and unconditional release of all hostages".

Despite Washington's efforts to play down the significance of its role in securing a UN ceasefire resolution for Gaza, it nevertheless provoked an angry response from Netanyahu's government, which immediately responded by cancelling a planned visit by an Israeli delegation to the US capital.

The Israeli prime minister's office said in a statement that the abstention was "a clear departure from the consistent position of the United States at the Security Council since the beginning of the war."

"The United States has abandoned its policy in the UN today," the statement read. "In light of the change in the US position, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided that the delegation will remain in Israel."

Nor is Washington's role in securing a ceasefire the only significant change to have taken place in America's institutional outlook regarding the Israel-Palestinian question.

Western shift

While the Biden administration, together with its Western allies, continues to support Israel's right to defend itself against the threat Hamas poses to Israel's security in the wake of the 7 October attacks, there has been a significant shift in Washington's position on the Palestinian issue.

Read more: Why unconditional US support for Israel must stop

Prior to October 7, Washington appeared to pay little attention to its long-standing commitment to a two-state solution as the best means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That attitude has changed radically in the wake of the Hamas attacks, with the US, together with other key allies such as the UK, now openly demanding that the Gaza crisis ultimately results in the creation of an independent Palestinian state—a policy that represents a significant shift in the somewhat neutral position previous US administrations have appeared to adopt on the issue.

At present, the US, UK and Israel are about the only countries that have not formally recognised Palestine, putting them at odds with nearly 140 other UN member states that have.

There is now a realistic prospect that this policy could change after Biden has become increasingly vocal in calling on Netanyahu to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, an outcome the Israeli premier continues to oppose.

A significant sign that support is growing among major Western powers for Palestinian statehood was reflected in remarks made by British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, a close ally of the Biden administration, when he announced that the UK is, for the first time, to give serious consideration to recognising a Palestinian state—a move that would represent a major shift in London's outlook.

Read more: The Palestinian state: When good intentions aren't good enough

In a statement designed to increase the pressure on Netanyahu to accept Palestinian statehood, Cameron said London would consider recognising a Palestinian state as part of concerted efforts to bring about an "irreversible" peace settlement for the region.

Giving his public backing for a two-state solution, Cameron said that Palestinians must have "a political horizon so that they can see that there is going to be irreversible progress to a two-state solution."

Global institutional shift

Nor are the global institutional shifts caused by the Gaza conflict confined to the realms of diplomacy.

The International Criminal Court (ICJ) ruling that Israel is committing plausible genocide in Gaza could also have a profound impact on the country's global reputation—one that could further increase its international isolation.  

And, in an unprecedented legal action to hold Israel to account for its actions, the ICJ began hearings in February in a case relating to Israel's continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The case is likely to result in at least 52 countries presenting arguments on controversial Israeli policies in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem, representing the largest number of parties to participate in any single ICJ case since the court was established in 1945.

This is the second time the court has been asked to examine the legal implications of the Israeli occupation.

In 2004, the ICJ ruled that Israel's so-called barrier wall, which divides Israel from the Palestinian territories, was illegal and should be dismantled because it separated many families in the occupied West Bank. However, Israel rejected the ruling and has since extended the wall.

The ICJ, the principal judicial organ of the UN and the world's highest international court, has a dual role: to settle in accordance with international law the legal disputes submitted to it by UN member states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by international agencies recognised by the UN.

The ICJ ruling that Israel is committing plausible genocide in Gaza could further increase its international isolation.

Apart from utterly rejecting the accusations of genocide, Israel has responded by claiming that acts committed during Hamas' attack on 7 October 2023 "may be seen as the real genocide in this situation."

Israel argues that South Africa's accusations that it is committing genocide don't reflect its government or military policy and are simply not true.

In the meantime, it is unclear when the final court opinion will be released, as the ICJ's processes are painstakingly and usually take time. Some law experts say the opinion might come before the year ends.

The court's opinion will not be binding on the Security Council or Israel, meaning it doesn't have to be enforced. However, an opinion from the ICJ carries heavy weight and could add more pressure on Israel and its staunchest ally, the United States, to conform to international law.

But, even if the eventual outcome of the Gaza conflict still remains unclear, abandoning the Palestinians to their fate doesn't  seem to be something world leaders are prepared to tolerate.

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