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What Has Been the Role of the UN in the Israel-Palestine Struggle by Phyllis Bennis

Frequently Asked Questions

Fact sheet # 9

WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF THE UN IN THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE STRUGGLE?

Prepared by Phyllis Bennis

Institute For Policy Studies, Washington.         January 2001

The United Nations was both venue and player in the complicated international diplomacy that led to the partition of Palestine in 1947 and creation of the state of Israel in 1948. By the end of that year the UN General Assembly had passed Resolution 194, affirming the right of Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 war to return to their homes and to receive compensation for their losses. When Israel joined the UN the following year, its membership (resolution 273) was contingent on its acceptance of the obligations imposed by earlier resolutions, including 194.

But from the start, once Israel was created and on its way to stability, the UN was largely excluded from the politics of the issue. UN peacekeepers were stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border, and UNRWA, the UN Refugee Works Agency was established to provide for the refugees until such time as they would return home, but there was little involvement of the UN as an institution in political decision-making. That process was largely dominated by the Security Council’s powerful permanent members -- and by the time of the 1967 war, the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union were in charge.

In 1966 the U.S. had begun providing Israel with new, advanced planes and missiles. Describing the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East, James Feron wrote in the New York Times (11 June 1966), that the "United States has come to the conclusion that it must rely on a local power -- the deterrent of a friendly power -- as a first line to stave off America's direct involvement. Israel feels she fits this definition." The Cold War had come to the Middle East, and the UN was out of the loop.

Over the next months tensions increased between Israel and each of the surrounding Arab states. In April 1967 there were artillery exchanges between Israel and Syria. The U.S. Sixth Fleet remained on maneuvers off the Syrian coast. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser symbolically asked the UN to move its observers, then inside Egyptian territory, to the Israeli border. The UN told him he could not ask for UN troop movement, his choice was only to demand complete removal of the UN troops, or to leave them where they were. Under pressure from other Arab governments, and unwilling to back down, Nasser demanded the withdrawal of all UN troops from Egypt. On May 23 Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The rhetoric escalated, and in early June Israel attacked Egypt, destroying virtually all of Cairo’s air force on the ground.

The end of the Six Day War occupied the remaining parts of Palestine, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, plus the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai. Two hundred fifty thousand more Palestinians were forced into exile, and a million more were now under Israeli military occupation. After 1967 U.S. willingness to rely on Israel vastly expanded, and relations with the Arabs would be secondary to the emerging U.S.-Israeli alliance.

WHAT ROLE DID THE UN PLAY AFTER THE 1967 WAR?

But a different international consensus took shape in the UN following the June war and Israel's subsequent occupations. Resolution 242 began with a statement emphasizing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security." While referring to the Palestinians only in the context of refugees, rather than reaffirming their national rights, the resolution unequivocally called for "the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The resolution was drafted largely by the four powers of the Security Council -- the limited reference to Palestinian rights was a reflection of U.S. influence on the process. And for another two years or so, the same powers operated within the UN to shape the direction --and the limits -- of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

For years following the 1967 war, the UN voted over and over in favor of an international peace conference, under the auspices of the UN, with all parties to the conflict (including the Palestine Liberation Organization which emerged as a serious force after 1967) to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict once and for all. But the U.S. always voted no. By about 1969, Britain and France, the former colonial powers of the Middle East but now colonial has-beens, had largely ceded influence to the Cold War’s main contenders, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the UN context, it was increasingly only Moscow and Washington who played a role in orchestrating and limiting the diplomacy.

After the death of Nasser in September 1970, Egypt's new president, Anwar al-Sadat, began strong peace overtures to the U.S., believing only Washington could pressure Israel to return the occupied Sinai. By the summer of 1972, Sadat went even further: he expelled the 15,000 Soviet military advisers from Egypt, providing Washington with an unmistakable signal of Cairo's intentions.

But it proved insufficient to break through. Egyptian diplomats, even after the dramatic Soviet expulsion, received an icy reception in Washington. Sadat began to believe that only a limited war could create the necessary pressure for an Israeli-Egyptian settlement.

The strategic significance of the Middle East was increasing already, as U.S. defeat in Viet Nam loomed. In May 1973 King Feisal of Saudi Arabia made clear to President Nixon and to Henry Kissinger that the Saudis needed Arab allies to help defend U.S. interests in OPEC, and that he could not find such allies as long as the U.S. backed Israeli occupation of Arab lands. U.S. oil companies agreed. U.S. control of Middle East oil provided not only enormous profits but important U.S. leverage over Western Europe and Japan, for whom the U.S. served as guarantor of oil access. Kissinger, a longtime associate of the Rockefeller family of oil barons, agreed that changes were needed, but was unwilling to risk a major collision with Congress by suddenly pressuring Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

As it turned out, the Egyptian and Syrian leaders were just then beginning plans for what they thought would be a limited war designed to create just the sort of crisis that could lead to more serious changes in political alliances and on the ground. On October 6, 1973, Egyptian troops launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai, while Syrian troops stormed the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Arab members of OPEC announced a 25% cut in oil production, and an embargo on oil shipments to the U.S.

HOW DID THE 1973 ARAB-ISRAELI WAR THREATEN WORLD PEACE? WHY DIDN’T THE UN PLAY A MORE SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN IT?

The Soviet Union, which maintained relations with Egypt despite Sadat's expulsion of its advisors, sent word to Nixon and Kissinger that Moscow would not permit the destruction of the Egyptian military. The threat of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation, on top of the oil embargo, was too much for Washington. On October 22 the U.S. and Soviet Union jointly sponsored a ceasefire call and a plan for U.S.-Soviet sponsored peace talks in the UN Security Council, and Washington pressured a reluctant Israel to sign on.

The jointly-sponsored U.S.-Soviet talks in Geneva collapsed almost as soon as they started, which led to Henry Kissinger’s famous "shuttle diplomacy" based on organizing separate agreements between Israel and each Arab government. The UN was left out of the loop again.

But Kissinger’s negotiations ignored the Palestinians. One result was a major escalation in international support for and recognition of the PLO, culminating in Yasir Arafat's appearance in November 1974 at the UN General Assembly. The UN voted 105 to 4 to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and to grant the PLO observer status within the UN itself. Only Israel and the U.S., along with U.S.-dependent Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, voted against the resolution. It was a major defeat for U.S. policy.

In September 1975 the U.S. brokered an agreement between Egypt and Israel. Israel promised to return part of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, while Egypt signed a non-aggression pledge. But implementation of the accords stalled. On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat moved to break the stalemate. In an historic visit, the first by any Arab leader, he travelled to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset. The U.S. soon moved to take control of the diplomacy, leaving the UN behind.

In the summer of 1978, President Jimmy Carter summoned the two leaders to his retreat in Maryland. Sequestered for 13 days, Begin and Sadat finally emerged with the Camp David Accords. Both sides, and the U.S., hoped other Arab countries would follow suit, and accept U.S.-brokered bilateral agreements with Israel. But almost all the Arab states and the Palestinians continued to hold out for comprehensive regional negotiations under UN auspices.

WHY DIDN’T THE UN TAKE OVER THE NEGOTIATING PROCESS?

And the U.S. position isolated it from its own allies. In June 1980 the nine-member European common market issued its Venice Declaration. It reaffirmed the commitment to Israeli security, but went on to support the principle of Palestinian self-determination, condemn Israeli settlement policy, and call for PLO involvement in the peace process. Washington reiterated its opposition to dealing with the PLO, and Europe retreated from active Middle East diplomacy.

In 1978, when Israel first invaded Lebanon, the UN Security Council passed resolution 425, calling for immediate and unconditional withdrawal. But Israel remained in violation of that resolution, through the anti-PLO invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the 18-year occupation, until its unilateral withdrawal in the spring of 2000.

WHERE WAS THE UN DURING THE OSLO PROCESS?

Throughout the late 1980s and into the 90s, Israel-Palestine diplomacy lay squarely at Washington’s door. The UN remained excluded, with the exception of a series of condemnations of various specific violations of international law and UN resolutions inherent in Israel’s actions as an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By 1994, after the Oslo Declaration of Principles had been signed, then-Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright wrote in a letter to the General Assembly that the U.S. goal for that year was to make existing UN resolutions on the Israel-Palestine conflict irrelevant, since bilateral negotiations were underway.

In 1996 Israel’s “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in Lebanon included the bombing of a United Nations refugee center in Lebanon, killing 106 civilians sheltering there and wounding several UN peacekeepers. The release of a UN report, which the U.S. had worked hard to keep secret, proving Israeli knowledge of the center, caused enormous international anger towards Israel in UN circles.

But as the Oslo “peace process” wound on in inconclusive fits and starts, the UN remained sidelined. Other international actors – notably the European Union and Japan, were encouraged by the U.S. to pay billions of dollars towards the costs of Oslo’s infrastructure, but were similarly excluded from political decision-making.

WHAT WAS THE 2000 CAMP DAVID SUMMIT ALL ABOUT? WHY DIDN’T THE UN CONVENE TALKS INSTEAD?

By the summer of 2000, Oslo’s five-year “interim period” had stretched to seven. No progress was in sight on the major issues (a Palestinian state and its borders, Jerusalem, settlers, refugees) and little progress had been made on the “easy” issues that were supposed to be resolved already (release of prisoners, connecting roads, the Gaza air and seaports, water, security arrangements, etc.)

It was in that context that President Clinton convened the two sides, again at Camp David, for intensive talks focused directly on the “final status” issues. Shortly after Camp David’s collapse, Ariel Sharon’s provocative walk on the Temple Mount and the killing of several Palestinian demonstrators there the next day, the second intifada began.

But this time, some of the diplomacy began to look just a bit different. There was the hint, though only a hint, that Washington’s iron grip on the diplomatic motion in the region had begun to slip. There was a growing sense, in the region and internationally, that the U.S. could no longer maintain its historically absolute control over Middle East negotiations. Other forces -- regional and international -- are suddenly thrust into center-stage.

As the Intifada escalated, the Arab League summit convened in Cairo on October 21st and 22nd. For the first time in a decade, and in a clear effort to show the U.S. that Gulf War-era divisions paled before the current crisis in Palestine, the Iraq president was invited to participate. (Saddam Hussein didn’t come himself, of course, but he sent his vice-president in his stead.) The final communiqué limned the fine line the Arab leaders walked. On the one hand, enormous mass protests were erupting in all their capitals (and at least initially allowed to go on, likely in the hopes the anti-Israel focus would deflect potential anti-regime trajectories) targeting U.S. and, where present, Israeli institutions. Yet virtually all of those regimes remain fundamentally dependent, either financially (such as Egypt) or militarily (such as Saudi, Kuwait, etc.) on the U.S. Egypt and Jordan, of course, are bound by peace treaty to Israel, and Amman signed a new Free Trade Agreement with Washington on 24 October, at the height of the crisis.

The language was fiery, but the statement broke little new ground. It pledged full support to the Palestinians, and raised the possibility of calling for the Security Council to initiate an international war crimes tribunal in response to Israel’s massacres. It called on Arab states to halt further normalization efforts with Israel, but did not include Jordan and Egypt, the two with significant diplomatic and economic ties, in that call. Beyond the rhetoric, the summit’s main accomplishment was the creation of a Saudi-led effort to provide up to $2 billion to the Palestinians, partly to support the families of Intifada casualties, and partly to help defend the Arab and Muslim character of Jerusalem.

WHO WERE ALL THOSE NON-PALESTINIANS AND NON-ISRAELIS HOVERING AROUND THE RECENT DIPLOMATIC MOVES?

And beyond the Arab world, perhaps the most visible sign of the shifting relations was the physical presence of a host of international leaders in and around Israel and Palestine during the early period of the al-Aqsa Intifada. What would ordinarily have been a scene overrun with Americans -- Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross racing from Gaza to Jerusalem, Madeleine Albright raising the stakes with high-level shuttle diplomacy, President Clinton dangling White House meetings as bait for eager summiteers -- was suddenly crowded with French President and rotating European Union chief Jacques Chirac, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the special envoy of the EU Javier Solana, all jostling for position. And suddenly UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was not only on the scene, but serving as the at least titular center of negotiations during the weeks leading up to the Sharm al-Sheikh “ceasefire summit”.

The Americans were still in charge, of course. Ambassador Indyk was given a reprieve from his no-access-to-classified-documents-until-you-learn-to-behave scolding. Albright and Clinton both weighed in on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. And more significantly, the participation of other parties, Annan in particular, was harshly constrained by unmistakable U.S. fiat. The UN chief had already had to “earn” Israel’s at least grudging acceptance. It was largely attributed to Annan’s role at certifying Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon (despite an unresolved conflict over where to draw the border in the Shaba Farms area), and his behind-the-scenes efforts to convince the European countries to accept Israel, long an outcast from the UN’s regional groups, as a member of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) in the General Assembly. Membership in such a group is a prerequisite for Security Council consideration and other UN perks. When it came to Annan’s participation as a new mediator, Israel’s UN Ambassador Yehuda Lancry acknowledged, “It’s a new dynamic. I can’t say he has a formal track alongside the U.S. sponsorship. But he is very appreciated.” (AP, 12 Oct.)

WHY DID THE U.S. SUDDENLY EASE ITS ONCE-ABSOLUTE REJECTION OF ANY OTHER PLAYER HAVING A ROLE?

More significant than Israel’s reluctant acquiescence, however, was the diminishing set of options available to the U.S. to deal with the crisis. The fury of the Arab street increased pressure on Washington’s Arab allies; they showed new, if symbolic, independence by flying plane after plane into Baghdad to challenge the U.S.-led sanctions regime. Even the long-compliant Palestinian Authority refused, at first, to meekly accept the U.S. demand to at least go through the motions of attempting to quash Intifada Two. And crucially, unlike the pre-cable years of the first Intifada, the ubiquity of CNN- and Jazeera-driven footage (despite biased commentary the images, especially in the early stages, were unmistakable) made starkly evident the vast disparity of power between the two sides. Those factors all combined to limit the effectiveness of ordinary U.S. efforts, especially those of an almost-lame duck administration. And when the three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped along the Lebanon border, Washington’s choices narrowed even further. It was at that point that Kofi Annan appeared on the scene.

It remains uncertain whether the UN secretary-general’s personal role will be broadened to create a new, UN-centered peace effort to replace the long-failed Oslo process. Certainly key limits on Annan’s role are already visible; his early efforts focused on persuading the Palestinians to accept the U.S.-Israeli terms for a “cease-fire,” including giving up their demand for a UN-based international commission of inquiry. On one occasion Annan even referred to hoping for an end to the escalating violence so that “normalcy will be restored,” implying, presumably unintentionally, that Palestinian life under military occupation was somehow “normal” if no shooting was going on. (NY Times, 21 Oct.) 

WHAT WOULD A UN INITIATIVE LOOK LIKE?

But the emerging constraints on unilateral U.S. diplomacy, and a matched set of UN resolutions in the Security Council, the General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Commission, do herald a potential opportunity to return to the longstanding UN consensus: an international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations, based on all the relevant UN resolutions. That would mean a new peace process based not only on 242’s call for an exchange of territory for peace, but as well on the panoply of resolutions including 194, mandating Palestinian refugees’ right to return and compensation, those identifying East Jerusalem as occupied territory, defining settlements as illegal, etc.

Raising that optimistic possibility does not assume such a campaign will be easy. In October 2000, Tel Aviv insisted that any UN fact-finding commission would be nothing but a "kangaroo court," and that it would accept only separate Israeli and Palestinian investigations under overall U.S. authority, a position ultimately agreed to by the PA. When 14 out of 15 members of the UN Security Council voted to condemn Israel’s excessive force against civilians, it was the U.S. alone that abstained. U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke threatened to veto any further resolution, stating that the virtually unanimous current resolution had taken the UN "out of the running" to play a role in negotiations.

A special session of the UN’s High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva in October passed a strong resolution condemning the "grave and massive violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel", and calling for an international "human rights inquiry commission." Washington launched an enormous lobbying campaign that resulted in a close vote, with Washington’s European allies opposing the resolution and even some non-aligned countries abstaining. When the General Assembly convened, U.S. diplomats again went into high gear to dampen the language of the resolution. But at the end of the day, the resolution still condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force,” and with 92 countries in favor, only the U.S., Israel, and four tiny island states fully in thrall to the U.S. voted no. (U.S. pressure did result in a large number of abstentions; nonetheless the vote was clearly lopsided in favor of the Palestinians.)

U.S. efforts to sideline international law and bypass the UN are not new. Especially since 1993 and the canonization of the Oslo process, the “bilateral” Israeli-Palestinian talks under U.S. sponsorship have defined the limits of acceptable diplomacy, even acceptable discussion, on the Israel-Palestine crisis. Anything outside that narrowly constrained box was dismissed as irrelevant, anachronistic, or dangerous. Peace means Oslo, Oslo means peace: a pax oslo is the region’s component of a global pax americana.

HOW DID WASHINGTON KEEP THE UN OUT ALL THOSE YEARS?

To maintain absolute control over the diplomatic process required Washington’s assertion of raw unilateral power, since it meant sabotaging existing international understandings. Since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, those understandings included the nearly unanimous international consensus on how to resolve the crisis: an international conference based on international law and United Nations resolutions. But since 1967 Israel disagreed, and the U.S. backed Israel’s rejection.

The US, while referring to resolution 242 as the ostensible basis of its own “peace process,” kept Israel-Palestine diplomacy under its own control. Washington claimed the role of the "honest broker” while proudly asserting its continuity as Israel’s major financial, diplomatic and military backer. The actual requirements of international law (like Israel’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions as an occupying power to protect civilians and to prohibit settling Israeli citizens in occupied territory) and existing UN resolutions were sidelined in favor of U.S.-brokered “even-handed” talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the run-up to the 1991 Madrid talks, the U.S.-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding stated explicitly that the UN would be allowed no role. In Oslo’s 1993 Declaration of Principles, the UN was ignored. By 1994, when the first post-Oslo General Assembly convened, then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright announced in her annual letter to Assembly members that dissolving the Palestine-related consensus was on top of her agenda. According to her letter, “contentious resolutions that accentuate political differences without promoting solutions should be consolidated (the various UNRWA resolutions), improved (the Golan resolution) or eliminated (the Israeli nuclear armament resolution and the self-determination resolution)." (Letter, August 8, 1994.) The piece de resistance was the demand that "resolution language referring to 'final status' issues should be dropped, since these issues are now under negotiations by the parties themselves. These include refugees, settlements, territorial sovereignty and the status of Jerusalem.” (Emphasis added.) This was, of course, precisely the moment at which those same final status issues were taken off the negotiating table for five, eventually a full seven years. In 1999 when over 100 signatories of the Geneva Conventions met to assess Israeli compliance with the Conventions, the meeting lasted only ten minutes in order, according to the Oslo-infatuated PLO delegation, to "avert friction" with Israel’s new Labor-led government. The failed summer 2000 Camp David summit, of course, had ignored the UN altogether.

But after months of clashes, rising numbers of Palestinian dead, a military occupation and siege tighter than ever, the best hope for a comprehensive and just peace remains a return to UN resolutions, international law, international protection and a new peace process under UN supervision. The incoming Bush administration, particularly its oil industry-linked foreign policy team of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, has made clear that its Middle East priority will be oil and rebuilding ties with the despotic governments of the Arab Gulf. That bodes badly for Iraq, with a likely effort to escalate the on-going unilateral bombing raids and tighten the already crippling economic sanctions.

But despite such dangerously provocative movements, there may be a moment of hope on the Israel-Palestine front for a new kind of diplomacy. With attention turned towards Iraq, perhaps the Bush administration will be less hostile to the possibility of a European, or UN initiative to restart floundering Israel-Palestine negotiations. Having Secretary-General Kofi Annan, or even the EU’s security coordinator Javier Solana or Middle East envoy Miguel Moratinos (who chaired the last-effort-before-the-Israeli-elections negotiations in Taba) in charge of negotiations instead of unilateralist U.S. diplomats would certainly raise at least a glimmer of such hope. Only in such a venue is there any possibility that not only the disparity of power, but also the disparity of legitimacy between the two sides, might finally be addressed.