Last Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted 128 to 9, with 35 abstentions, in favor of a resolution condemning President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The vote came two days after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned on Twitter that she would be “taking names” of countries that voted against the United States. Reports also surfaced that Haley sent letters to U.N. member states warning them that a vote against Washington would “not be forgotten.”
Haley’s comments have been met with widespread derision across the Internet, and analysts have warned that her stance could upset diplomatic norms. But while Haley’s threats were made with unprecedented bluntness, the United States has a long history of trying to strong-arm the General Assembly on behalf of Israel.
For decades, domestic political pressure and a dismissive attitude toward Palestinian nationalist claims have led to a myopic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This myopia, in turn, has led successive U.S. administrations to side with Israel — and to try to force other countries and the United Nations to do the same — even when it harms Palestinians, perpetuates the Arab-Israeli conflict and undermines America’s moral leadership.
This U.S. approach to the conflict dates back to the very origins of the state of Israel. In 1947, the U.N. General Assembly was asked to consider partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Zionists favored this partition because it meant they would have the Jewish state they had been longing for.
But Arabs were opposed: The proposed borders of the two states allocated only 45 percent of the land to the Arab state, even though Palestinian Arabs made up two-thirds of the population. They also feared that the more than 400,000 Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of the proposed Jewish state would be forced out of their homes. As a result, several U.N. member states, especially those that were newly independent — and still recovering from the evils of colonialism — expressed reluctance to go against the wishes of the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants.
At first, President Truman was reluctant to weigh in. His secretary of state, George Marshall, had warned him that dividing Palestine would lead to conflict. But as historian John Judis shows, intense lobbying from American Zionist organizations, coupled with strong sympathies for the victims of the Holocaust and a dismissiveness of Palestinian nationalist claims, persuaded Truman to commit America to publicly supporting partition, regardless of the long-term consequences.
When the U.N. vote on partition came up that November, Zionist lobbyists, along with American congressmen, Supreme Court justices and other influential figures, flooded wavering delegates with telegrams, letters, phone calls and visits. Focusing on six relatively weak countries (Haiti, Liberia, the Philippines, China, Ethiopia and Greece), they appealed, cajoled, promised and threatened, all in an effort to persuade reluctant members to vote in favor of partition.
Their hard work paid off. UNGA 181 (also known as the U.N. Partition Plan) passed on Nov. 29, 1947, with 33 votes in favor, 13 opposed and 10 abstentions. Of the six targeted nations, only Greece voted no.
Over the next couple of decades, the Palestine issue receded at the United Nations. When it resurfaced in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War, the U.S. position was initially somewhat in line with international consensus. For example, one month after Israel’s territorial conquests, the United States abstained from a unanimous General Assembly vote condemning Israeli attempts to claim sovereignty over East Jerusalem — but it did not vote no.
But as more formerly colonized countries asserted their independence at the United Nations, they viewed Israel’s entrenched occupation of captured Palestinian territory as bearing a striking resemblance to their own experiences with colonial rule. In 1975, seeking to highlight these parallels, the U.N. General Assembly debated Resolution 3379, which called for “the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination,” and controversially determined that “Zionism is a form of racism.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, vehemently attacked the resolution from the podium, accusing it and its sponsors of anti-Semitism. As scholar Keith Feldman notes, Moynihan’s own racialized views blinded him to Palestinian conditions and their calls for self-determination. For newly independent states in Asia and Africa that had experienced racism firsthand and identified with the Palestinians, Moynihan’s attacks did not hold much weight.
The resolution passed, 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions). Most of the yes votes came from formerly colonized countries in Asia and Africa (along with Brazil and Mexico), while most of the no votes came from former colonial powers and their dependents.
Even after Resolution 3379 was revoked in 1991 because of intense American pressure, a series of increasingly lopsided votes at the United Nations have reflected these divergent attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians. In the 1990s and 2000s, the General Assembly voted on dozens of resolutions condemning Israel for its numerous violations of Palestinian human rights. While the United States and Israel have dismissed these votes as stemming from anti-Israel prejudice, they instead should be seen as reflecting worldwide sympathy for Palestinians’ ongoing colonial conditions.
For example, in March 2012, the General Assembly passed Resolution 66/225 by a vote of 167 to 7, with six abstentions. The resolution “reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people . . . over their natural resources” and “demanded that Israel . . . cease the exploitation . . . of the natural resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
In November of that year, the General Assembly again rebuffed the United States, voting 138 to 9 (with 41 abstentions) to grant Palestine “non-Member Observer State status in the United Nations.”
The tallies bear a striking resemblance to the breakdown of this week’s vote. In all three cases, “no” votes were cast by the United States, Israel, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru, members who are economically, politically and militarily dependent on the United States and Israel. For the rest of the world, these resolutions reflect not only their sympathy for Palestinians, but also their long-standing opposition to the United States protecting Israel from more meaningful international rebukes at the U.N. Security Council.
This started to change last year as the United States itself moved to a more equivocal position. Shortly before leaving office in December 2016, Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued a forceful condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing him of undermining peace through increased settlement activity. That same month, the United States departed from its long-standing pattern of vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, choosing to abstain instead.
Haley, then, represents a return to the norm, part of a long line of U.S. ambassadors who have tried to persuade U.N. member states to vote against resolutions that Israel didn’t like. By issuing her threats on Twitter, she’s just being less subtle about it. In all these cases, however, the United States, driven by political shortsightedness, has shown itself to be out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to respecting Palestinian rights.
Perhaps the widespread opposition to Haley’s Twitter threats will lead to a broader reassessment of our role at the United Nations. If the United States wants the rest of the world to see us as a moral leader, that reassessment has to happen now.