On March 25, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2728, calling for an “immediate” cease-fire in Gaza. The motion’s passage came after weeks of back and forth and posturing among the UNSC’s permanent and rotating members. The exact phrasing of the resolution and its relevance to the situation on the ground, as well as bilateral and multilateral relations — particularly U.S.-Israel ties — have been the subject of heavy public and media attention since Monday, raising questions about the resolution’s subtext, intent and limitations. USIP’s Robert Barron looks at these questions.

Local men survey the damage after an Israeli airstrike on Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, on Dec. 1, 2023. (Yousef Masoud/The New York Times)
Local men survey the damage after an Israeli airstrike on Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, on Dec. 1, 2023. (Yousef Masoud/The New York Times)

What does UNSC Resolution 2728 say, and what is its significance?

The resolution makes three demands: 1) “an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire;” 2) “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages;” and 3) stresses the “urgent need to expand the flow of humanitarian assistance to and reinforce the protection of civilians in the entire Gaza Strip.” The resolution was tabled by the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council, and passed by a vote of 14-0, with a notable abstention from the United States.

The resolution made waves for a couple of reasons. For one, it is the first time such a motion has passed since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. Similar proposals over the preceding 171 days of the war had failed for a number of reasons, including vetoes by the United States, Russia and China, and rejections by members over specific points in previous drafts. The rivalries and politics on the Security Council, particularly between the permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — make passage of any resolution very difficult.

Second, and relatedly, the resolution’s passage was facilitated by an abstention from the United States, which had vetoed three previous draft council resolutions on the war in Gaza, objecting to terminology (for months objecting to the words “cease-fire” and “immediate,” and continuing to object to “permanent”) or efforts which might hinder Israel’s fight against Hamas or which it felt targeted Israel without condemning Hamas. The United States had abstained on two other measures which allowed the council to adopt resolutions calling for greater humanitarian aid to Gaza and extended pauses in fighting.

In terms of impact on the ground in Gaza, the resolution has no real immediate effect. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz quickly took to social media to say that “Israel will not cease fire.” Rather, U.N. resolutions are often more significant as “weathervanes” — a means of telling where the political winds are blowing. For 14 current members of the U.N. Security Council (Algeria, China, Ecuador, France, Guyana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Russia, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) to agree on the language in the resolution, and the United States — which has long been a staunch protector of Israel in the U.N. — to abstain, says something about the momentum and pressures to reach a pause in the war, at the very least. 

In her explanation of the U.S. abstention, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that “we did not agree with everything in this resolution…. However, as I said before, we fully support some of the critical objectives in this nonbinding resolution. And we believe it was important for the Council to speak out and make clear that any ceasefire must come with the release of all hostages.” 

What is the broader context in which the resolution came to be?

There are two political contexts in which to consider the resolution. The first is the broader geopolitical maneuvering that takes place at the U.N. Security Council. On March 22, three days before UNSC 2728 passed, the United States for the first time supported a resolution which used the term “cease-fire.” The Friday resolution was vetoed by Russia and China, reportedly over its six-week timeline, condemnation of Hamas and failure to call for Israel not to carry out a planned operation in Rafah, the south Gaza city where 1.4 million internally displaced Gazans are now living.

Since its founding, the U.N. has been the world’s premiere forum for diplomatic posturing and gamesmanship, and this crisis is no different. In defending his veto, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, called the U.S. proposal a “hypocritical initiative” and an “empty political exercise.”  In turn, Thomas-Greenfield called the Russian veto “deeply, deeply cynical,” and said that “Russia still could not bring themselves to condemn Hamas terrorist attacks” and that Russia “simply did not want to vote for a resolution that was penned by the United States.”

The second context — which has been the greater sensation in the press — is what the U.S. abstention may say about trendlines in the U.S.-Israel relationship, or at least the relationship between the Biden administration and the current Israeli leadership. Tensions between the Biden administration and Israel clearly seemed to be growing increasingly strained in the weeks leading up to the vote, particularly over the issue of an Israeli military operation in Rafah.

Ten days before the abstention, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) condemned Israel’s governing coalition in a speech on the Senate floor. President Joe Biden called it a “good speech,” while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fumed against it as “totally inappropriate.” Days later, a State Department memo leaked stating that Israel is “facing major, possibly generational damage to [Israel’s] reputation not just in the region but elsewhere in the world.” Soon after that, on March 22, Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced Israel’s largest West Bank land seizure since 1993, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel on an official visit. Two days later, Vice President Kamala Harris stated that the administration has not ruled out “consequences” should the Israeli military invade Rafah in a way that endangers civilians and could cause further major displacement.  The following day, the United States abstained on UNSC 2728.

In response, Netanyahu announced that he was cancelling a planned visit of his senior advisors to the White House to discuss alternatives to Israel’s plans to invade Rafah. National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby stated emphatically that “nothing, nothing has changed about our policy — nothing.”  Still, while the partnership remains, there seems little doubt that relations are tense, and patience is waning, at the most senior levels of both governments.

Where might the conflict go from here?

Returning to the U.N. resolution, it is important that key international actors agreed on the need for an immediate cease-fire that can lead to a more permanent end to the war, the need for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, and the need to get much greater aid into Gaza. Four of the core variables in the war’s next phases and achieving these aims are:

  1. Where do the Doha negotiations lead? Currently, the most promising path toward progress on the aims outlined in UNSC 2728 leads through the negotiations being held between Israel and Hamas in Qatar. Narratives around the progress in the negotiations change day to day, and as of March 26, the talks seem to be at a standstill. Should a cease-fire, prisoner exchange and path forward be agreed, the war would enter a new phase with different challenges.
  2. What does the Israeli government decide to do in Rafah? The question of how Rafah is handled is a central hinge point in the conflict’s next stages. The Biden administration and international community believe a major Israeli invasion of Rafah will lead to further massive civilian harm, potentially sending refugees across the border into Egypt. Netanyahu asserts that a Rafah operation “has to be done, because total victory is our goal, and total victory is within reach — not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation.” How that gap is addressed will shape Israel’s partnerships and all parties’ options going forward.
  3. How will Gaza’s humanitarian crisis be addressed? A World Food Program report published this month warned that famine is imminent in northern Gaza Strip and the entire population of Gaza faces “crisis levels of food insecurity.” Delivery and distribution of aid into Gaza has been far short of the strip’s needs, and tensions have mounted between Israel, the United States and international actors hoping to see the flow of aid increased, leading to the Biden administration turning to airdrops and construction of an emergency maritime pier to deliver aid, rather than relying on overland routes reliant on the Israelis. How the primary external actors address Gaza’s humanitarian needs is an urgent question.
  4. Will the Israeli governing coalition collapse? The same day as the U.N. resolution’s passage, Gideon Sa’ar, leader of Israel’s New Hope Party, announced the party will leave the governing coalition, dropping the emergency government’s majority to 72 seats of 120 in the Knesset. Among Israelis, Netanyahu himself is very unpopular — a January poll showing only 15 percent want him to remain prime minister after the war — but Israelis also mostly support the government’s tactics and rhetoric around dealing Hamas a final defeat. How long the coalition holds together will be an important factor in the how Israel addresses Gaza and its international partnerships.

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