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Might the U.S. Permit United Nations Action?
by Ron Skolnik
NEARLY SEVENTY YEARS AGO, the leader of a small stateless people turned to the United Nations to plead their case. Addressing the members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in July 1947 at the iconic YMCA building in Jerusalem, Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion demanded “justice” and called for the Jewish nation to enjoy “the same right as other human beings and peoples possess, the right to security, freedom, equality, statehood and membership in the United Nations.” Insisting this was not a matter for the mandatory power, Great Britain, alone to decide, Ben-Gurion argued that the question of Palestine was an international concern that should therefore be handled by “this highest international forum in the world.”
Clio, the Muse of History, must indeed have a sense of humor and a penchant for irony.
Almost seven decades after Ben-Gurion delivered his passionate plea, it is the Palestinian people who are now seeking statehood via the august world body. And whereas in 1947 the representatives of the Palestinian people, the “Arab Higher Committee,” rejected UNSCOP’s terms of reference and boycotted its work, it is now the head of Israel’s government, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has rebuffed what he terms a “UN diktat,” labeling it an assault on “Israel and our civilization” comparable to the terrorism of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
THE UN'S FOCUS on Israel/Palestine is nothing new, of course. Each year, its General Assembly (UNGA), where the Palestinians enjoy what is sometimes called a “built-in majority,” debates and adopts a double-digit number of resolutions related to the conflict. What is new, however, is the growing Palestinian proclivity to look to the UN not just as a forum for winning easy, feel-good, but non-binding Assembly victories on settlements or refugees, but as an institution that, as in 1947, could produce practical, operative results.
To pull off such an accomplishment, the Palestinians will need to take their diplomatic game to the next level, of course. For the last four decades, since the PLO was accorded observer status and their “national independence and sovereignty” endorsed by the UNGA, the Palestinians have used the UN framework with great effect to cement worldwide opposition — even among a large majority of Americans — to occupation and the settlement activities that entrench it. In this respect, Palestinian efforts have been a slow-but-steady success.
However, notwithstanding the brouhaha that accompanied its 2012 elevation of Palestine’s UN delegation to “non-Member Observer State” status, the General Assembly seems to have maxed out its potential. With the Assembly lacking ultimate authority at the UN, and playing a role closer to that of advisory body than executive organ, there seems little left for the Palestinians to accomplish there.*
To make progress via the UN, therefore, the Palestinians have begun to take their fight to the body’s chief decision-making apparatus, the fifteen-member Security Council (UNSC), where five permanent members, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and, Israel’s most important ally, the United States, hold veto power.
Palestine’s efforts there to date have run aground. On December 30, 2014, Jordan, one of the ten non-permanent UNSC members, submitted a resolution on behalf of the Palestinians that would have determined the outlines of a two-state solution, prescribed a twelve-month negotiating period to reach agreement along these lines, and set a three-year time frame for implementation, including full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. With the U.S. lobbying and voting against it, the resolution fell one short of the nine votes needed for adoption. Even if the 60 percent threshold had been reached, a U.S. veto to prevent its passage was guaranteed.
A similar fate befell the 2011 “application of the State of Palestine for admission to membership in the United Nations,” which, like the recent resolution, pointed to the June 1967 "Green Line" as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state deal. With the Obama Administration publicly promising to employ its veto, Palestine’s application stalled and never came to a vote.
The repeated and seemingly inevitable failure suggests to some that Palestine’s moves at the UNSC are little more than a publicity stunt designed to keep the occupation in the public eye during a period dominated by events in Syria, the Ukraine and France. Other commentators point to Palestinian President Abbas’ need to satisfy his Fatah party. With the negotiating process with Israel in the deep freeze and with a Fatah convention soon to take place, Abbas is hard-pressed to show party leaders that his strategy of non-violence might still bear fruit: The UN is a still-promising field of endeavor.
THERE IS MOUNTING EVIDENCE, however, that, after more than two decades of fruitless stop-and-start U.S.-brokered talks with Israel, the Palestinians have truly reached a tipping point, and have initiated a strategic shift toward internationalizing the process. And while some might argue that the U.S. veto makes a UN gambit absolutely unwinnable, history points to an evolution in the American position that leaves room for guarded Palestinian optimism.
UNSC Resolution 242 of November 1967, the granddaddy of the "land for peace" approach, is a useful baseline: Neither it, nor its sister Resolution 338, which followed the October 1973 war, makes any mention whatsoever of "Palestine" or "Palestinians," but allude only to an unspecific “refugee problem” requiring a solution. By 2002, however, the U.S. was able to support Resolution 1397, which, for the first time, endorsed “a vision... where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side.” The resolution, moreover, okayed by the Israel-friendly Bush Jr. Administration, called upon Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements” in line with the recommendations of the Mitchell Report. And the following year’s Resolution 1515 formally endorsed the Quartet’s “Roadmap," which set a goal of, “end[ing] the occupation that began in 1967."
Would the United States be willing to take the final plunge? Would it break with Israel and get behind (or at least not impede) a Council resolution that lays out the requisite parameters of an eventual accord? Curiously, for all the bad blood between the Obama Administration and Netanyahu government, and notwithstanding Obama’s espoused commitment to multilateral diplomacy, the U.S. has, over the last six years, been even more resistant to Israel-related UN involvement than under George W. Bush.
That, however, might be changing. In his major October 2014 exposé on the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg — a man with ample sources in the Obama White House — projected that the Administration might “actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations” in the course of 2015.
Recent remarks by State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, seem to corroborate Goldberg’s impression. Questioned by journalists in mid-December regarding the U.S. position on the upcoming Israel/Palestine resolution, Psaki diverged widely from Israel’s blanket rejection of UN involvement and stressed that, while the U.S. objected to unilateral actions by either side, “a UN Security Council resolution is not, in our view, a unilateral measure.” The U.S. vote “depends on... the details,” she explained. Providing revealing examples of what the U.S. could or could not get behind, Psaki noted that while a Palestinian membership application was beyond the Pale, as was a specific schedule for Israeli withdrawal, a resolution that defined “terms of reference” — i.e. a framework — for a final-status deal was certainly within reason.
DURING THE HECTIC NEGOTIATIONS that preceded the December 30 vote, one such resolution was being discussed. Though the specifics were never finalized and their effort eventually failed, France, Germany, and the UK sought to produce a draft that would have locked in two crucial parameters that are anathema to Netanyahu, and which the Israeli right has spent decades trying to avoid like the plague: a designation of the 1967 borders (with “mutually agreed limited equivalent land swaps”) as the basis for any agreement, and the definition of Jerusalem as “the shared capital of the two States.” According to some reports, it was the type of resolution that Washington might be able to embrace.
At the end of the day, the U.S. was spared the need to decide. The Palestinians declined to accept the EU 3 draft, with its weaker language and omission of definitive deadlines, and no compromise language was reached. France, which had taken point, subsequently scrapped the effort, unable to forge the Council consensus it had been seeking. Reluctantly, it voted ‘Yes’ on the Jordanian resolution; the UK abstained.
But the UN route is far from ended. France has declared that it will “try again” and is consulting the regional players. And while, immediately following his defeat, Abbas defiantly promised to resubmit the same text a second, “third... or even fourth time” (“perhaps after a week”), the Palestinians have since cooled down and are now holding consultations with a committee of moderate Arab League states. Senior Palestinian officials have acknowledged, moreover, that the resolution might need to be amended before going back to the UN.
The key, of course, remains the position of the United States, which, while warming to the idea of ramped-up UN involvement, is still wary. In the meantime, the Administration vehemently opposes any actions that might upset the apple cart ahead of Israel’s closely-contested March 17th elections. In remarks made at a December 18th luncheon with EU ambassadors and leaked to Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Kerry stressed that any UNSC action, including a resolution along the lines of the EU 3 draft, could give a boost to the Israeli rightwing — Netanyahu’s Likud and Naftali Bennett’s openly pro-annexation Jewish Home party. Recent reports suggest that the Palestinians have acceded to a US request and have put further moves on hold.
Should Israel’s election result in a new center-left government headed by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, the bilateral path might once more become relevant, and the Americans would seek a renewal of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. The UN gambit would go on hiatus. Should Israel’s electorate return Netanyahu to the premier’s office, however, a U.S. embrace of UN action cannot be ruled out.
The Israeli government is bracing for such a development. A classified Foreign Ministry document recently revealed by the Israeli Yediot Aharonot newspaper cautioned that, “We cannot be assured that the U.S. will continue to use its veto after the elections in Israel.” And Netanyahu reportedly informed colleagues late last year that President Obama had issued a warning to this effect, should Israel fail to take American policy preferences into account.
While the U.S. is certainly reluctant to share its decades-long control of the Israel/Palestine issue with other parties, the Administration might actually find an advantage in UN involvement. When John Kerry’s peace initiative collapsed last spring, a “senior American official” (generally believed to be Ambassador Martin Indyk, the head of Kerry’s team) pointedly warned that a recalcitrant Israel might eventually be forced to accept an accord reached, “as a result of external pressures” rather than by mutual consent. For reasons of both domestic politics and international diplomacy, the U.S. might soon come to regard a collective initiative at the UN to be the most palatable and efficacious way to apply such pressure.
Should Washington continue to spurn a multilateral approach while the Israeli right remains in power, the U.S. would be faced with an unenviable choice: To stand aside and watch the situation unravel, or to twist Israel’s arm to accept a comprehensive American plan. An American-led UN maneuver, taken together with the EU, Israel’s biggest trading partner, and the pro-Western Arab states that the Netanyahu government wishes to court, could therefore be the least of all evils, from a U.S. perspective.
Europe is restive, increasingly impatient with an Obama Administration whose dismay over Israeli policy is marked by talk, but little action. The EU nations, individually and as a collective, are signaling the need for a stronger international push to overcome Israeli resistance. Should the U.S. continue to block UN moves on Israel/Palestine, therefore, its European allies are likely to gradually peel away, leaving the Americans to stand alone in defense of a bilateral negotiating process that is at death’s door, if not already beyond it.
Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.
* The one potential exception to this rule is the precedent of a General Assembly “Uniting for Peace” resolution (377 (V)). Initiated in 1950 with US encouragement, the rarely used procedure suggests that the UNGA can recommend collective measures, including armed force, “to maintain or restore international peace and security” in those cases when, "the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members,” fails to do so on its own. The resolution, it should be noted, was invoked in 1981 to bypass the UNSC and promote sanctions against South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. A full examination of Uniting for Peace, however, from both the diplomatic and legal standpoints, is unfortunately beyond the scope of the present article.