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June 13, 2011 5:47 pm

Palestinian Statehood: What Is The U.N.’s Role?

avatar by John Bolton

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The 1948 armistice lines.

An aversion to reality can be a powerfully destructive force. Its most visible manifestation in international affairs lies in trying to create political “facts on the ground” through the United Nations. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the Middle East, one of our most intractable problems, provokes so much U.N. activity, even though the real-world consequences are so limited.

The next episode of reality avoidance is the near certainty that, this fall, the General Assembly will vote to recognize a Palestinian state, possibly also declaring that state’s borders with Israel to be the 1967 lines (actually, just the Green Line marking the 1949 cease-fire positions). Absent dramatic action by Washington, perhaps 150 or more of the U.N.’s 192 members, including many nominal U.S. allies, will vote in favor.

Will such a resolution actually make any difference? Is it political theater, or something to take seriously? While a General Assembly convulsion would be largely symbolic, symbols can have consequences if you accept their underlying mythology. How will Israel respond? How should the United States respond?

First, neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly has the legal authority to declare statehood. The U.N.’s website says candidly that the world body “does not possess any authority to recognize either a state or a government.” Attempting to ram such a declaration through is not merely improper but destructive of the U.N. itself.

Some, however, argue that there is precedent, citing General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which endorsed a plan to partition the former British League of Nations mandate into Jewish and Arab states, and a “special international regime” for Jerusalem. They should read what the resolution actually says. Like all assembly resolutions, it is not legally binding. It simply “recommends” the partition plan in question, and “requests that the Security Council take the necessary measures” to implement it. The council never adopted the plan. Although the Jewish leadership accepted it, the Arabs did not, and a multi-front Arab assault followed. End of precedent.

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While the foregoing international law arguments are complex and probably have eternal life, they will settle nothing today. Perhaps the most reality-averse idea of all is believing the League of Nations’ or the U.N.’s actions more than 50 years ago reveal a solution for today. Resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute is ultimately a matter of power and political resolve now, not ambiguous precedents and musty resolutions. If dust-gathering texts from the past could determine the outcome now, what logic requires us to go back merely a few decades? Why not go back millenniums for even more compelling authority?

Second, whatever serious political work is done at the U.N. is done by the Security Council, where the veto of the five permanent members — the United States, France, China, Britain and Russia — gives them predominance. For decades, this has aggravated Third World nations, the largest of which alternate between advocating the abolition of the veto or themselves becoming permanent members. If the U.N. is ever to play a constructive role in the Arab-Israeli dispute, it will be through the Security Council, not the General Assembly.

The council and the assembly jointly decide on the admission of new members to the U.N. Because the U.N. Charter provides that only “states” can be members, a decision to admit “Palestine” would obviously mean that those supporting membership considered “Palestine” to meet the charter’s statehood requirement. Last year, many believed the Obama administration might not veto a Palestinian membership application, and the original Palestinian strategy was indeed to convene the council to seek U.N. admission, or at least declare a Palestinian state. The outcry from President Obama’s political opponents, and even from otherwise supportive Democrats, punctured that balloon, thereby prompting statehood advocates’ switch to the General Assembly’s almost uniformly anti-Israel, anti-U.S. majority. This is the true indicator of reality aversion.

Finally, if the president chooses to stand by and let a resolution happen, rather than taking dramatic diplomatic action such as threatening to cut off U.S. contributions to the U.N., the proper U.S. response is to ignore whatever passes. When the General Assembly adopted the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975, Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan responded: “The United States rises to declare … that it does not acknowledge, that it will not abide by and that it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” That’s a good place to start here as well. We should simply disregard the outcome, and tell the world so at every opportunity. Israel and whoever else stands tall and votes against the resolution in that very lonely General Assembly room should do the same.

The reality is that the controlling U.N. approach to this dispute is grounded in the decisions made after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, namely Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. These “land for peace” resolutions make no mention of “the 1967 borders” or any other specific line, and for very compelling reasons. Those who drafted these texts understood full well that the 1967 lines could never meet Israel’s legitimate quest, in 242’s words, “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” It has been America’s consistent policy to support those Israeli aspirations, and should remain so today.

Taking assembly recommendations to heart can only cause problems. True, a massive majority supporting Palestinian statehood will constitute yet another assault on Israel’s legitimacy and its security needs. And while that vote is likely to be frustrating and bitter, it is best to treat it like the grass we tread beneath our feet.

In fact, a Palestinian statehood resolution will almost certainly wound the United Nations, perhaps gravely, just as for many Americans “Zionism is racism” delegitimized not Israel but the U.N. itself. Perhaps that risk will awaken our excessively multilateralist administration to the dangers of acquiescing in the Palestinian proposal. Does Obama believe that further discrediting the U.N. is really in our interest?

If, however, he continues to be the most anti-Israel president since 1948, then others will have to act. Congress could adopt legislation cutting off American contributions to the U.N. if the Palestinian resolution is adopted, which might persuade statehood advocates to back down. In any event, there will be fireworks this autumn over Turtle Bay, but no real harm as long as we remember that, in the end, it’s just entertainment.

John R. Bolton is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

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