UNITED NATIONS The United States on Friday vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian land after the Palestinians refused a compromise offer from Washington.
The U.S. move was welcomed by American pro-Israel groups, some of which have previously criticized President Barack Obama's administration for what they see as its record of lukewarm support for Israel.
U.N. diplomats say the Palestinian Authority, which has been trying to defend itself against critics who accuse it of caving in to the Americans and Israelis during peace talks, was eager to show that it can stand up to Washington.
The other 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the draft resolution. But the United States, as one of the five permanent council members with the power to block any action by the Security Council, voted against it and struck it down.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told council members that the veto "should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity." The U.S. position is that continued Israeli settlements lack legitimacy, she said.
But Rice said the draft "risks hardening the position of both sides" and reiterated the U.S. view that settlements and other contentious issues should be resolved in direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The resolution described the settlements as "illegal" and urged the Jewish state to "immediately and completely" halt all settlement activities. Diplomats said the views contained in the resolution, which would have been legally binding had it passed, are generally supported by the Obama administration.
However, they said, the United States refuses to allow the Security Council to intervene with binding resolutions on issues it feels belongs to direct peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Israel "deeply appreciates" the U.S. decision to veto the resolution.
Israeli Ambassador Meron Reuben, opposing the resolution, urged the Palestinians to "return to negotiations without preconditions." U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed last year after Israel refused to extend a moratorium on settlements.
The Palestinians say continued building flouts the internationally backed peace plan that will permit them to create a viable, contiguous state on the land after a treaty with Israel to end its occupation and 62 years of conflict.
Israel says this is an excuse for avoiding peace talks and a precondition never demanded before during 17 years of negotiation, which has so far produced no agreement.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder thanked Obama, saying his veto showed "America's support for the rights of the Jewish state and for the Middle East peace process." Other pro-Israel groups also praised Obama.
Obama's offer to support a non-binding Security Council statement chiding Israel over the settlements instead of a binding resolution had been criticized by pro-Israel lobby groups and some members of the U.S. Congress.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of Britain, France and Germany, condemned Israeli settlements as "illegal under international law."
He added that the European Union's three biggest nations hope that an independent state of Palestine will join the United Nations as a new member state by September 2011.
Several EU nations, including Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden, were among the resolution's more than 100 co-sponsors.
The Palestinian Authority earlier on Friday decided to insist that the resolution be put to the council, and rejected the U.S. compromise offer despite a telephone call from Obama to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.
The permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, said the U.S. veto could send the wrong signal to Israel. "We fear ... that the message sent today may be one that further encourages Israeli intransigence and impunity," he said.
Mansour declined to comment on media reports that Obama warned Abbas of repercussions if the Palestinians did not withdraw the draft resolution.
The decision to put it to a vote was made unanimously by the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive and the central committee of Abbas's Fatah movement at a meeting in Ramallah on Friday to discuss Obama's appeal to Abbas.
"The Palestinian leadership has decided to proceed to the U.N. Security Council, to pressure Israel to halt settlement activities. The decision was taken despite American pressure," said Wasel Abu Yousef, a PLO executive member.
New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying the U.S. veto undermined international law and suggested the Obama administration was being hypocritical.
"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," said HRW's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; editing by Eric Beech)