UNITED NATIONS, DEC. 20 -- After weeks of intense negotiations, the U.N. Security Council today unanimously adopted a resolution critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, with the United States also joining in supporting a controversial separate statement that backs a Middle East peace conference.
Today's U.N. action, which could involve the international body more directly than ever in protecting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was sharply criticized by Israel. Among its provisions, the resolution "deplores" Israel's recent deportation of Palestinians from the territories and calls for the secretary general to use U.N. personnel to monitor the status of Palestinians there.
The resolution also expresses the council's "grave concern" at the rejection by the Israeli government of two previous resolutions calling for it to allow the visit of a U.N. team to investigate the Oct. 8 killings by Israeli police of 17 Palestinians at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The vote marked the third time in less than three months that the United States has backed a resolution critical of Israel.
"This is a biased, unbalanced resolution in which Arab violent provocations are being condoned, and Israeli defense against these violations is being condemned," Israeli Ambassador Yoram Aridor told reporters after the vote.
By voting for Resolution 681, the United States preserved the unity of the international coalition arrayed against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Saddam has tried to divide that Arab-Western coalition by offering to pull his troops out of Kuwait if Israel is forced to withdraw from the occupied territories.
The vote was viewed by several Western diplomats as a victory for American diplomacy. Not only did the United States avoid the embarrassment of having to veto a measure popular with Arab allies, but it successfully watered down a resolution that contained a number of measures opposed by Washington and Israel.
Diplomats said the adoption of a separate statement proposing the peace conference was significant because it was the first time the United States allowed the Security Council a role in dealing with a Middle East peace conference. They noted that the statement, which was read by the president of the council and is not binding as a resolution would have been, still carries moral and political weight.
It states that the members of the council "agree that an international conference, at an appropriate time, properly structured, should facilitate efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict."
However, the statement noted that "the members of the council are of the view that there is not unanimity as to when would be the appropriate time for such a conference."
Still, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering tried to distance the United States from aspects of the resolution, telling the council that "there are a number of elements in the text which cause us concern . . . and elements that are not in the text which ought to have been."
U.S. officials said the proposal for a peace conference was consistent with U.S. policy. Pickering told the council that "the United States has not changed its position." But diplomatic sources close to Israel said it marked a "change in tone" and was a signal to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that pressure for change might be forthcoming.
Nasser Kidwa, the Palestinian representative, described the council statement as "important." Although Western diplomats were cautious in their assessment, they suggested that the timing of the statement was significant. They said that even though there were no apparent changes in U.S. policy, the importance of the vote is that it comes when the political context of the United Nations and the Middle East has changed as a result of a warming in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as an emerging realignment in the Persian Gulf.
In the past, the United States has strongly resisted any U.N. role in a peace settlement and the decision to join in adopting the statement with the 14 other members of the council is seen as a reflection of how much relations between Washington and Moscow have changed.
A diplomatic source close to Israel said it marked "a change in U.S. tone to even consider including the idea of a peace conference in the presidential statement."
The source added that the U.S. vote on the resolution also represented a change in tone because in the past, the United States has by and large used its veto to protect Israel. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a period when the U.S. supported three anti-Israel resolutions," the source close to Israel said.
In a reference to Saddam's attempt to link a Middle East solution to the Persian Gulf, the statement also noted that "in the view of the members of the council, the Arab-Israeli conflict is important and unique and must be addressed independently, on its own merits."
The vote followed weeks of what Pickering called "long, intense, and excruciating negotiations" between the United States and a group of four nations -- Colombia, Cuba, Malaysia and Yemen -- acting on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
These countries had sought a much more strongly worded resolution that would have mentioned the peace conference rather than relegating it to a separate statement. They also sought the appointment of an ombudsman and a strong role for the United Nations in protecting Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Instead, the resolution called on the U.N. secretary general to observe the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and "to draw upon the United Nations and other personnel and resources present there and elsewhere needed to accomplish this task."