The United Nations and Palestine: Partition and Its Aftermath

By Bennis, Phyllis | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The United Nations and Palestine: Partition and Its Aftermath


Bennis, Phyllis, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


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 But the UN's own power remained derivative - limited to what was granted or withdrawn, imposed or suspended, by the major powers whose creation the global institution was.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. …

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