After initially indicating it would accept a senior Palestinian leader for a top United Nations post, the Trump administration abruptly reversed course Friday over concern that the move would boost the Palestinian cause at the world body, sending shock and confusion through the diplomatic community.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sent a letter to the Ukraine ambassador, who serves as president of the Security Council, informing the council of his intention to appoint former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to be his special representative for Libya, according a copy of the letter shown to CNN.
Bloomberg first reported Guterres wanted to tap Fayyad for the post.
According to United Nations procedure, the secretary general is required to give a 48-hour notification period before making such an appointment.
Several UN diplomats said before sending the letter Guterres already had informal discussions with the US mission to New York, who told him that the State Department and National Security Council were on board with Fayyad’s appointment.
“Based on the information available to him at the time, the Secretary-General had the perception, now proven wrong, that the proposal would be acceptable to Security Council members,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told CNN.
But minutes before the review period expired, the US delegation objected to Fayyad’s candidacy after initially greenlighting him, effectively blocking his appointment, several UN diplomats told CNN.
The administration’s about-face on Fayyad’s candidacy was first reported by Foreign Policy.
In a statement, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the United States was “disappointed” to learn about Guterres’ intention to appoint Fayyad and said “going forward, the United States will act, not just talk, in support of our allies.”
Haley said she was blocking the suggestion of UN Secretary General António Guterres, to appoint Fayyad, on the grounds that “the UN has been unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel.”
“The United States does not currently recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations,” Haley said.
Diplomats said the Trump administration’s about face has created what one UN diplomat called “mass confusion in the UN,” with member states concerned about a perceived new chaos in US decision-making.
“Is this how it is going to work from now on?” the diplomat lamented. “We have no idea what we can expect.”
The US mission to the UN did not return calls seeking comment about the reversal.
Fayyad won praise from the international community for bringing transparency to the Palestinian Authority’s finances while prime minister under President Mahmoud Abbas from 2007 to 2013. He resigned over differences with Abbas.
In a separate statement to reporters, Dujarric defended Fayyad’s qualifications following the opposition to his appointment.
“The proposal for Salam Fayyad to serve as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Libya was solely based on Mr. Fayyad’s recognized personal qualities and his competence for that position,” he said in a statement. “United Nations staff serve strictly in their personal capacity. They do not represent any government or country.”
Dujarric said the secretary general “reiterates his pledge to recruit qualified individuals, respecting regional diversity, and notes that, among others no Israeli and no Palestinian have served in a post of high responsibility at the United Nations.”
“This is a situation that the Secretary-General feels should be corrected, always based on personal merit and competencies of potential candidates for specific posts,” he said.
The move by Haley to block the appointment of Fayyad to lead the United Nations political mission in Libya has been described as unconscionable by PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.
Ashrawi called the decision a “blatant case of discrimination on the basis of (Fayyad’s) nationality,” in a statement released Saturday, adding that it constituted a “blanket license for the exclusion of Palestinians everywhere.”
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon hailed the US objection, calling it a “beginning of a new era at the UN” in which the US “stands firmly behind Israel.”
The Palestinians have observer status at the United Nations and have long sought full membership. Both the US and Israel have opposed the move without a peace treaty creating a formal Palestinian state.
The move to block Fayyad’s appointment, which would have been the most senior UN post ever held by a Palestinian, comes after the Trump administration denounced the UN for passing a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank.
President Donald Trump criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for abstaining instead of exercising a US veto, which allowed the resolution to pass.
During her confirmation hearing last month, Haley called the resolution a “terrible mistake.”
“Nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel,” she said.
CNN’s Jennifer Deaton contributed to this report.
By Elise Labott and Richard Roth