587770 INO At key points in its history the United Nations has been a major player in the Middle East. It was the agency chosen by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and their allies in 1947 to enact the partition of Palestine through General Assembly Resolution 181. It bestowed international legitimacy on the nascent, borderless and still-expanding state of Israel, while postulating an abstract Palestinian state and protected international status for Jerusalem, neither of which were ever allowed to come into existence. But the UN's own power remained derivative - limited to what was granted or withdrawn, imposed or suspended, by the major powers whose creation the global institution was. Those powers had won World War II; the United Nations would assure they could continue to rule the peace. Of them all, from the beginning, Washington remained the paramount authority
Most of the time, on most issues, U.S. influence in (and often control of) the UN comes in the form of coercing the organization to take one or another position, or to reject some other position, or pressuring a country or countries to vote a certain way in the General Assembly or the Security Council or another UN agency. That may mean bribing Colombia with a new arms deal, offering China its much-desired diplomatic rehabilitation after the horrors of Tienanmen Square, or punishing impoverished Yemen by withdrawing all American foreign aid in response to its rejection of a U.S. demand.
Most of the time, on most issues, Washington's goal is to engage the UN, involving it, forcefully or otherwise, in a U.S.-orchestrated initiative. Most of the time it works, and the U.S. gets its way. But once in a while the U.S. gets its way using a slightly different, though no less effective, technique: using the same hard-ball pressure tactics ordinarily aimed at forcing the UN to take a specific action, it keeps the UN out, denying the world organization a place at the diplomatic table in those arenas that Washington is determined to keep under its own tight control.
Of them all, no issue has been more consistently targeted for this approach than the Middle East, and most specifically Palestine. Despite a myriad of largely unenforced resolutions over the years (those that were not vetoed outright in the Security Council), the U.S. has managed quite successfully to keep the UN out of the decision-making side of Middle East diplomacy.
After the 1967 war and the ensuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Arab Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai, the Security Council passed resolution 242, which first called for the exchange of (Israeli-occupied) land for (presumably Israeli) peace. Then in the early 1970s the UN played a key role in establishing the legitimacy and recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, highlighted by Chairman Yasser Arafat's speech to the General Assembly in 1974. But since that time, the UN has been largely excluded, denied a role as a significant player in Middle East diplomacy as a whole, and especially not on the question of Palestine.
It is not a coincidence that the end of UN activism around the Middle East after 1974 matched, more or less, the beginning of the period in which the U.S. wielded its veto much more often, both in actual frequency and relative to vetoes cast by the Soviet Union (or any other Council member). Washington's vetoes exploded exponentially by the mid-1970s, and a very large percentage of them were used to block the Council from responding to Israel's occupation.
There is a particular irony to this reality. It was only after the 1967 war that support for Israel became an article of faith for a large portion of the U.S. population. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenal rise in Israel's acceptance and popularity in the U.S. (having far more to do with changes in Washington's Cold War-driven foreign policy imperatives than with the successful efforts of the Jewish community or the pro-Israel lobby), but the significance to this study is the correlation in time between that explosion of pro-Israeli sentiment in the U.S., and the growing popular opposition to Israel's occupations that emerged in most of the rest of the world - and in the UN.
While U.S. political, ideological and economic support for Israel grew, in many other countries, and in the United Nations as a multilateral whole, efforts took shape to demand an end to Israel's continuing military occupation and the resulting violations of human rights, and to affirm support for Palestinian national rights.
It is true, as Palestine's representative to the UN has pointed out, that even in those years it was difficult to forge a full consensus on the Palestine issue, even in the General Assembly.(1) But these were no Bosnia-like 49-51% international splits among the UN member states. Over and over again a near-consensus emerged, reflecting overwhelming support for an international peace conference under the auspices of the UN to resolve the conflict; for all parties including Israel and the PLO to take part in those talks; for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian (or Lebanese or Syrian) land. The votes always resulted in the whole Assembly voting in favor (often with some rather abashed abstentions), while only two countries voted against - the U.S. and israel. (Once in a while El Salvador or Costa Rica or Romania or Micronesia would vote with Israel and the U.S. against the rest of the Assembly.)
These Assembly resolutions reflected a clear UN consensus on the way forward toward solving what had been for so long an intractable regional crisis with clear global implications - a broadly representative international peace conference, sponsored by the UN or some component of it (the permanent members of the Council were often proposed as guarantors), with every interested party present at the table.
It was the kind of approach that would, as the Cold War wound down, prove at least relatively successful in crisis zones across the world - bringing together opposing parties to talk. But Israel, especially from 1967 on, absolutely rejected UN involvement. Tel Aviv viewed the UN as implacably antagonistic to Israeli interests, and approached the post-decolonization General Assembly, with its demographic dominance of the global South, as hostile territory. (Israel was not far wrong in its sense of isolation and antagonism from the GA. It was not forgotten in the Assembly that once the 4000-year-old theological justifications were stripped away, Israel's own colonial settlement project had itself come to fruition and UN-backed legality in 1948 - just when decolonization was emerging at the top of the agenda in the rest of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.)
Tel Aviv, standing on its own, would have been unable to stand against those initiatives. It might have stood its ground and refused to participate in such an international peace conference, but its refusal would have brought universal opprobrium and the likelihood of serious sanctions.
But Tel Aviv did not stand alone. Instead, U.S. interest in creating and bolstering a reliably pro-U.S. ally in the sometimes volatile and always (both economically and geographically) strategic Middle East, meant that Washington agreed to back Israel's rejectionism as far as Tel Aviv wished to go. Further, the primacy of Security Council intervention (such as Resolution 242 in 1967 and 338, mandating its implementation, in 1973) largely ended by the mid-1970s, in tandem with the U.S. marginalization of the UN as a whole. Instead, as decolonization transformed the once-compliant Assembly into a more independent voice of the South, the UN's involvement with the Middle East shifted there.
Given the realities of the UN's historic division between the democracy of the Assembly and the enforcement power vested solely in the Council, this meant that the General Assembly was largely free to pass resolutions condemning and demanding an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem. There were occasional serious U.S. interferences even with the Assembly (including Washington's refusal to grant Yasser Arafat a visa to address the Assembly in 1988, and the high-profile pressure campaign in 1991 to force the Assembly to revoke its 1975 "Zionism is a form of racism" resolution.) But every year Assembly sessions featured a consistent effort to pressure Israel.
While the language may have been tough, however, the resolutions lacked any means of exacting compliance. The pressure was limited to publicity and international public opinion and opprobrium, neither of which was of much concern to Israel. Without access to any enforcement mechanism, Assembly resolutions were routinely passed, routinely excoriated by Tel Aviv and Washington as evidence of UN "bias," and safely and routinely ignored.
The U.S. strategy did not, of course, mean excluding the entire UN from playing a role in occupied Palestine. For decades the UN continued to play the key role in humanitarian and development work in the territories. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), founded in 1948 in response to alnakba, continued its work, and in many cases, especially in the impoverished Gaza Strip and most especially in periods of long Israeli-imposed curfews and closures, helped assure basic survival of the Palestinians living in refugee camps. The UN Development Program has been involved for many years, and continues to play an even larger role in the period of so-called "self-rule" mandated by the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. Other UN humanitarian agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and others also continue their work.
But overall U.S. concern in the Middle East, and especially regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, is strategic, not humanitarian. Washington has an interest in insuring that some modicum of social stability exists, and is perfectly willing for UN agencies to take the lead in providing basic survival support networks (thus substantially lowering what the U.S. alone might otherwise have to pay for). What the U.S. is not willing to accept is UN involvement in the political and diplomatic decision-making of the Middle East.
FIFTY YEARS AGO
The bi-polar U.S.-Soviet agreement on the partition of Palestine, and parallel efforts by Washington and Moscow to establish and maintain close ties with the nascent Israeli state, insured that neither the UN nor any other international institution was likely to respond to the Israeli capture of far more of 1947 Palestine than it was granted in Resolution 181. The partition agreement was ostensibly to include the creation of a Palestinian Arab state as well as a special international regime for Jerusalem under the UN Trusteeship Council. But those conditions were never met. Establishing UNRWA to alleviate some of the humanitarian crisis facing the Palestinians expelled from their homes was the primary response.
Faced with hundreds of thousands of refugees forced from their land and prevented by force of arms from returning, the UN enacted Resolution 194 in December 1948. The Assembly resolution provides that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes . . . should be permitted to do so at the earliest possible date" and that "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." Resolution 194 was routinely and unanimously readopted every year; by the mid-1990s, it fell victim to Washington's post-Oslo efforts to undermine UN involvement in the Palestine issue, but remained technically in force.
Throughout the 1950s, UN agencies remained actively engaged in responding to Israeli military provocations, primarily in Gaza and elsewhere against Egypt. When the Suez crisis exploded in 1956, the Council was unable to agree on a framework for a settlement. The French and British, who with Israel had launched attacks against Egypt, vetoed the U.S.- and Soviet-proposed resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw behind the 1949 armistice lines, and for respect for Egyptian sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a result, the 1950 "uniting for peace" resolution, under which the General Assembly took over from the Cold War-paralyzed Council the role of granting authority to the U.S. for the Korean War, served as the precedent for the Assembly's involvement. During Suez, the Council's paralysis was driven less by the Cold War than by power struggles among colonial and neo-colonial governments. By 31 October, the Assembly was convened in special session, since the Council itself was deemed paralyzed and unable to act. The Assembly called for an Israeli withdrawal, and established the UN Emergency Force, UNEF, the first UN peacekeeping operation.
As for Palestine, until 1967 the UN concerned itself primarily with the …