The Obama administration allowed the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, defying pressure from US President-elect Donald Trump as well as Israel and several US senators who urged Washington to use its veto.
The resolution was put forward at the 15-member council for a vote on Friday (US time) by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal a day after Egypt withdrew it under pressure from Israel and US President-elect Donald Trump. Israel and Trump had called on the United States to veto the measure.
It was adopted with 14 votes in favour, to a round of applause. It is the first resolution the Security Council has adopted on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years.
The US decision to abstain was a relatively rare step by Washington, which usually shields Israel from such action.
The US abstention was seen as a parting shot by US President Barack Obama, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who has made settlements a major target of peace efforts that have proven ultimately futile.
The resolution demanded that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem" and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has "no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law".
A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.
The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Israel disputes that settlements are illegal and says their final status should be determined in talks on Palestinian statehood. The last round of US-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014.
The passage of the resolution changes nothing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians and likely will be all but ignored by the incoming Trump administration.
But it was more than merely symbolic.
The resolution formally enshrined the international community's disapproval of Israeli settlement building and could spur further Palestinian moves against Israel in international forums.
Trump, who called for a veto along with Netanyahu, is likely to be a more staunch supporter of Netanyahu's right-wing policies. He named a hardline pro-Israel ambassador and vowed to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A senior Israeli official said on Thursday that if adopted there was "zero chance" the Israeli government would abide by the measure. Under the UN Charter, UN member states "agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council".
The 15-member council had been due to vote on Thursday, but Egypt withdrew the draft resolution, under pressure from Israel and Trump, who spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
"It was to be expected that Israel's greatest ally would act in accordance with the values that we share and that they would have vetoed this disgraceful resolution. I have no doubt that the new US administration and the incoming UN secretary-general will usher in a new era in terms of the UN's relationship with Israel," Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said after the vote.