The United Nations (UN) and the League of Arab States celebrate this year their 50th anniversaries. While the term "celebrate" seems inappropriate, given that recently their specialized agencies' relative achievements have been overshadowed by political failures and managerial flaws, the anniversaries have generated an impressive body of literature, including evaluations, criticisms, and reformist recommendations. In short, after 50 years, performance levels have fallen well below original expectations. The criticism, and even condemnation, of the global as well as the regional organization has been, in most instances, unfair and unjustified. This scrutiny, however, has brought to the surface some of the fundamental shortcomings of both organizations. It is appropriate, this year, to focus on the shared experiences of the United Nations and the Arab League, on their problems, on their potential for reassessing their respective visions, and the prospects for enhanced cooperation in achieving the goals of their charters.
The relationship between the Arab League and the United Nations began as skeptical and distrusting. With the UN General Assembly resolution partitioning Palestine on 29 November 1947, and the success of behind-the-scenes US pressure, a wave of antagonism toward the United Nations swept the Arab world; the United Nations was considered an adversary. No sooner was Israel established and declared a state, on 14 May 1948--bringing about war and the concomitant massive exodus of Palestinian refugees--then the Arab League became heavily involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its overwhelming consequences. The armistice agreements between Arab states and Israel, UN involvement through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the continued state of belligerency between member states and Israel (with its political, legal, and economic consequences) forced the Arab League gradually to abandon its complaints against the "political" United' Nation and deal with it institutionally (as well as politically). So, on 1 November 1950, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 477(V) by a vote of 49 to 1, with a number of abstentions, in which the UN secretary-general invited the secretary-general of the Arab League to attend sessions of the General Assembly as an observer.(1)
The Arab League's presence at the United Nations focused initially on mobilizing support for the Arab liberation struggles and ensuring that newly-independent Arab states were immediately incorporated into the growing activities of the League. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestine question remained constant items on the General Assembly's agenda. Recurring crises in the League's region were referred to the United Nations, and the League's resort to and respect for the United Nations grew and matured. With the Arab military defeat of June 1967 and the adoption of Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967, Arab League efforts and responsibilities increased within the United Nations. In October 1973, the stalemate in the search for Middle East peace was jolted when Syria and Egypt exercised the military option.
The fact that Arab armies resurrected their credibility in 1973 led to the paramountcy of the Arab state in managing the strategic confrontation with Israel, after having ceded the agenda to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after the June 1967 War. The Rabat summit in 1974 recognized unequivocally the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. This same year, the PLO obtained observer status at the United Nations, and Yasir Arafat, the PLO chairman, addressed the General Assembly. It was the Arab League that sponsored the move to enhance the institutional and political status of the PLO in the United Nations. Ironically, the 1973 limited war with Israel curtailed the PLO's revolutionary mobility in the Arab world, while enhancing its political and diplomatic mobility on the international scene. …