The Obama administration and its international allies are in a race to protect what is left of the Middle East peace process in the last weeks before Donald Trump takes office, at a time when US-Israeli relations have reached their lowest point in decades.
The strongly worded UN security council resolution passed on Friday demanding an end to settlement building in the West Bank has provoked a furious response from Israel, which has vowed not to comply and to punish diplomatically the countries that voted in favour of the statement.
Authorities in Jerusalem say they will escalate construction plans for the West Bank and east Jerusalem, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has accused Barack Obama of orchestrating Friday’s vote to allow the US to deliver a rebuke to Israel by abstaining rather than using its veto.
At an international meeting in Paris on 15 January, five days before Trump is sworn in as US president, the outgoing secretary of state, John Kerry, plans to propose principles for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is widely expected to have less support from a Trump administration.
The UN resolution and Kerry’s speech represent an attempt by the outgoing Obama administration and the rest of the UN security council to box in and isolate the Israeli government before Trump, a fervent supporter of the Israeli right, enters the White House.
Netanyahu has vowed to resist a peace framework imposed on his government, and observers warn that a threatened Israeli backlash in the form of thousands of new settler homes in east Jerusalem, combined with Trump’s plan to move the US embassy to the disputed city, could trigger a new wave of violence.
The Israeli government is reportedly fearful that international guidelines for a peace agreement would be turned into another UN resolution, and it has ratcheted up its rhetoric, presenting itself as the victim of an international conspiracy.
A spokesman for Netanyahu claimed to have “ironclad evidence” that the Obama administration had plotted behind the scenes to promote the UN resolution. Israel has said it will present evidence against the Obama administration to the incoming Trump team.
Meanwhile, the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman portrayed the Paris conference as a new “Dreyfus trial”, referring to an outburst of French antisemitism more than a century ago, and urged French Jews to move to Israel.
On Tuesday a French official denied there was any intention to pass a new security council resolution on the basis of the Paris conference. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the meeting would “give the participants an opportunity to present a comprehensive incentive package to encourage the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Only they will be able to conclude a peace deal directly.”
Palestinian leaders hope that the UN resolution and the Paris conference will offer some degree of international protection against the encroachment of settlements in the Trump era.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said he hoped the Paris meeting would establish an international mechanism to end Israeli settlement building.
Trump has criticised Friday’s UN resolution, saying it would make harder to negotiate a peace agreement. In a tweet on Monday he described the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” Trump’s designated ambassador to the US, his own bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, has actively supported settlement building.
Aaron David Miller, a former US negotiator on the Middle East and now a scholar at the Wilson Centre thinktank, said Obama’s 11th-hour attempt at legacy building on the Israeli-Palestinian issue could trigger a backlash.
“It risks the incoming administration walking away from whatever has transpired in December and early January, and not just walking away from [but] sending unmistakable signals to the Israelis that it would support and favour acts on the ground that go beyond what we’ve seen,” Miller said.
“The odds that Netanyahu will now press and Trump will respond positively to a move to push the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I think have gone up.”
He said that if the highly emotive issue of Jerusalem’s status became the focal point of Israeli-Palestinian friction once more, “then I think the prospects for a serious significant confrontation are high”.
Amir Oren, a liberal Israeli commentator, argued that the UN resolution could save the government from itself by bringing closer an end to settlement construction.
“Santa Obama delivered a wonderful Christmas present to Israel when the United States opted not to veto Friday’s United Nations security council vote condemning settlement policy,” he wrote in Haaretz. “The passage of the resolution won’t result in the immediate dismantling of any West Bank settlements, but the world is beginning to come to the rescue and try to save Israel from itself.”