When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does involvement of the United Nations help or hinder peacemaking?
It’s a question policymakers who sincerely want a genuine two-state resolution should be asking, as the Palestinian leadership pushes for a UN Security Council resolution to advance its interests during the final days of the Obama Administration.
As of this writing, two drafts are in play. One, favoured by the Palestinians, seeks to exert unprecedented pressure against Israel on the settlement issue, including the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in east Jerusalem. The other, by New Zealand, appears to try to coax the Palestinians back to negotiations partly through rhetorical flourishes but mostly by making Israel negotiate according to a timetable that would, in practice, lead to intense international pressure for unilateral Israeli withdrawal regardless of the Palestinian attitude.
Either way, Palestinian representatives are reportedly lobbying Obama to withhold a US veto and let a resolution pass sometime between January 1, when sympathetic Sweden assumes the presidency of the Security Council, and Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
The machinations and calculations that went into the wording and timing of the resolutions expose them for what they are: misguided attempts to use the UN to leverage one-sided international pressure against Israel.
After all, if Palestinian statehood was truly the priority, there would be no need to involve the UN at all. They could simply return to direct negotiations and, at the very least, respond with a counter-offer to the Israeli peace proposals they walked away from in previous talks in 2000, 2001 and 2008 – proposals in which Israel agreed to dismantle most settlements and offered substantial concessions on Jerusalem and refugees.
Rather, the Palestinian strategy at the UN has always been about converting victimhood and grievance into political gain. In this regard, their approach to the Security Council is wholly consistent with the way they promote their interests either directly or through Arab proxies in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the Human Rights Council, the cultural body UNESCO, the exclusively Palestinian refugee organisation UNRWA, and all the other organs of the world body.
For example, annually since 1978 – on or about November 29 – the UN observes “The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” (IDSPP). There is only one other “Solidarity Day” on the UN calendar: “International Human Solidarity Day”, on December 20.
The date of the IDSPP wasn’t chosen at random; it’s the date of General Assembly Resolution 181 in 1947, the resolution that divided the British Mandate into Arab and Jewish states. While the Zionist leadership accepted partition immediately, the Arab representatives rejected it, walked out and threatened “bloodshed”. Palestinian Arabs launched a civil war against their Jewish neighbours, attacking villages and ambushing convoys.
In May 1948, when the Mandate ended, the Jews established their state and neighbouring Arab countries invaded on all fronts. Against the odds, the nascent state prevailed – at the steep price of sacrificing one percent of its population. After the war, Israel hoped – in vain – that the armistice agreements would lead to peace.
The Palestinians gambled on war to prevent the Jews from implementing Resolution 181. They lost. The war and the Arab and Palestinian intransigence that followed for decades afterwards brought about inevitable consequences that cannot and, in the main, should not be undone.
Yet choosing November 29 for the UN’s unique expressions of “solidarity” with the Palestinians constitutes, outrageously, a symbolic endorsement of Palestinian rejection of partition.
The IDSPP is further “commemorated” by the passage of six annual UNGA resolutions, one-sided and hyper-critical against Israel. Some analysts have appropriately described these resolutions as “zombie-like”, owing to their reappearance every year and the way their texts ignore reality.
For example, one of the resolutions calls on Israel to transfer control of the Golan Heights to Syria, oblivious to the ongoing atrocities and war crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime. Another resolution, which condemns Israeli control over Jerusalem, today uses only the Islamic term for the Temple Mount, ignoring the site’s deep connection to and sanctity for Judaism and Christianity.
The six resolutions are actually part of some 20 one-sided resolutions passed against Israel in the UNGA each year – more than the total number of critical resolutions the UNGA passes against all other specific countries combined.
Only a handful of countries resist pressure and largely either vote against or abstain from these resolutions. Australia, to its credit, has a better voting record than most – although the language of the history-denying annual resolution on Jerusalem has worsened in recent years, suggesting Canberra and others should consider moving their vote from “abstain” to “against” to better reflect Australia’s values, and consistent support for Israel.
Of course, the best outcome would be if the Palestinian leadership would prioritise its children’s future, agree to resume negotiations without preconditions and make the minimal, reasonable concessions necessary to end the conflict and establish an independent state in peace alongside a secure Israel.
Then, entire divisions of the UN could be retired, money and resources reallocated, and more pressing humanitarian crises addressed.
For now, however, the institutionalised imbalances that pervade the UN’s handling of Israeli-Palestinian issues certainly preclude it taking a useful role in peacemaking.
In 2005, Ha’aretz interviewed Australian-Israeli Tal Becker (later a peace negotiator) following his stint as legal adviser to Israel’s UN Mission. His commentary still rings true today.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tale of two nations, not one,” Becker said, referring to the UN’s reluctance to treat the Palestinians as an actor with agency and accountability, “Until this fact is reflected in the UN’s approach and in its decisions, its contribution to settling the dispute will be limited and even negative.”