U.N. once again center stage for Israeli-Palestinian conflict

September 17, 2011

If there is one thing you can count on at the United Nations, it’s that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never goes away.

The struggle for land between Arabs and Jews has been the lone constant in the United Nations’ 66-year history, outlasting other major political crises of the 20th century, from the ending of the colonial era and the Cold War to the eruption of modern genocides in Europe, Asia and Africa.

This week the dispute will again take center stage as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally embarks on his long-anticipated bid to have the United Nations recognize a state of Palestine, a process that has already ignited a new round of recrimination and confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.

The drama will cast a spotlight on the failure of the United Nations to resolve a conflict that has weighed heavily on the organization since its birth, and often split U.N. members into two fractious camps: those who demand sovereignty for Palestinians and those whose paramount interest is Israel’s security.

“This is the wound that continues to get ripped open,” said Michael Doyle, a Columbia University professor and former senior U.N. adviser.

At the same time, Abbas’s bid highlights the continuing relevance of the United Nations as a source of international legitimacy — no other organization can confer the recognition the Palestinians are seeking.

The very idea of partitioning Jewish and Arab states was enshrined in a 1947 U.N. General Assembly Resolution, No. 181, which set the stage for Israel’s declaration of independence the following year. A U.N.-brokered armistice defined the boundary lines established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the borders that Abbas will seek to have recognized were based on a November 1967 Security Council resolution, No. 242, that required Israel to withdraw its forces from territories occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Palestinians have rallied the overwhelming majority of governments behind their cause, but failed to win over one country, the United States, that stands in the way of its hopes of securing a vital Security Council vote inviting the Palestinians to join the United Nations as a full-fledged member state.

Because of the expectation that the United States will veto that bid, the Palestinians say they will then seek approval from the General Assembly for recognition as a U.N. observer state, albeit one without full-fledged status of a U.N. member state.

The Palestinians say that becoming a non-member state will still allow them to join various U.N. agencies and treaty bodies, including the International Criminal Court, which will raise the threat of possible international prosecution of Israeli forces.

“This is not just theatrics, it is real,” said Ryad Mansour, the Palestinians’ U.N. envoy. “We will not be anymore orphans” in many international bodies.

The Palestinians contend that years of negotiations with Israel have failed to achieve peace. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have grown.

Abbas “is not doing this out of wish or intention; he’s doing it because he does not see any other options at this stage,” said Terje Roed Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat who advises U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Middle East issues.

But even some of the Palestinians’ supporters fear that the move will make no tangible difference on the ground, while damaging the Palestinians’ relations with the United States.

“The fact is that the most that can be achieved is a symbolic victory, because U.N. membership is not available,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, said the problem is Israel has been too conciliatory. He said the gradual hardening of Israeli public opinion has grown out of the failure to secure peace through concessions — including its withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.

In response, “we get missiles from the north from Hezbollah, missiles from the south from Hamas,” he said. “Give the Israeli public some credit in looking at this and saying, ‘Just a second: what’s going on here?’ At least we have the right to look at things in a bit more skeptical way.”

Israelis have often felt unfairly treated by the United Nations. The Jewish state had been the lone member denied entry into a U.N. regional group, making it impossible to join key U.N. bodies such as the Security Council. The U.N. Human Rights Council has devoted far more time and energy to criticizing Israel’s human rights record than that of any other country. Next week, the United States, Germany, Italy and Canada will boycott a U.N. conference on racism and discrimination, saying it unfairly singles out Israel for censure.

The pursuit of Palestinian statehood has a long history at the United Nations, starting with the eventful week in May 1948 when the British formally ended their control over the region, Israel declared its independence and five Arab states responded by invading the new Jewish state.

The conflict produced the U.N.’s first casualty — Count Folke Bernadotte, the first U.N. Middle East mediator, who U.N. officials at the time said was assassinated in Jerusalem by a Zionist paramilitary group, the Stern Gang.

It also led to the creation of the first U.N. peacekeeping mission and created a massive social welfare program, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which continues to provide services to millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The “‘Palestinian question” was the first conflict taken up by the new organization,” said Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “As the conflict evolved, so did the organization — modern peacekeeping was born on the Sinai peninsula after the Suez crisis, and evolved through successive Arab-Israeli wars.”

Over the years, the conflict has also transformed the United Nations into an ideological battlefield, where Arab governments have rallied support for challenging the legitimacy of Israel, using the vast intergovernmental machinery to churn out resolutions denouncing Israel, and passing the notorious 1975 General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism, since rescinded.

But the failure of the peace process can hardly be laid at the feet of the U.N. bureaucracy alone. A wide cast of players, including the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves, the United States, Arab leaders, and other major powers, have been unable to broker a deal. Iran has sought to stoke the conflict through the provision of arms to anti-Israeli militants like Hamas.

In the aftermath of the 1948 war and ensuing conflagrations in 1967 and 1973, the United Nations largely ceded the mediation role to the United States, which has served as the key power broker.

It was with the 2002 establishment of the Middle East Quartet, comprising representatives of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union, that the United Nations got back in the peace game, though its role was largely ceremonial.

“The parties have drawn apart and there is a degree of unreality,” said Alvaro De Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat who served as the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East Peace process from 2005 until 2007. “If a problem is unsolvable then you probably shouldn’t be trying to solve it. What you should do is try to change the context.”

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