It is common currency to accuse the United Nations (UN) of harboring an inveterate anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian bias. Israel, so the claim goes, is consistently held to a higher standard than other states that manage to escape the world body’s scrutiny despite their abysmal records, and is consistently condemned by the UN for engaging in a legitimate struggle for survival against the Palestinians and other Arabs.
To an even greater extent than her predecessors, the current US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, has made combatting the world body’s purported anti-Israel obsession a personal crusade – in the process easily exceeding her Israeli counterpart’s pre-occupation with the matter. Given that the validity of such accusations against the UN are considered self-evident in the United States and elsewhere, they merit closer examination.
It is worth recalling from the outset that the UN is not an independent actor that formulates its own policies. Although it has a Secretariat and various executive agencies, the UN’s agenda and the positions it takes ultimately reflect the views and instructions of its member states, particularly the more powerful ones. This is most obviously the case with the Security Council (UNSC) and General Assembly (UNGA), and extends to most other UN agencies as well. As such, the claim that the UN is biased against Israel should more accurately be formulated as an accusation against the international community which collectively owns and operates the world body.
Historically, the United Nations is the successor to the League of Nations, the international organization established by the victorious European powers after the First World War to prevent another catastrophic global conflict through collective security arrangements and divide the colonial spoils of the Great War in an orderly fashion. In perhaps its most notorious act, the consequences of which are with us to this day, the League in 1922 legitimized the British occupation of Palestine by awarding the United Kingdom a mandate to rule the former Ottoman territory. At London’s urging, and in line with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the Mandate’s preamble commanded Great Britain to promote “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
Needless to say, the Zionist movement in those days had only effusive praise for the world body. This was in stark contrast to Japan; Tokyo was so offended by what it doubtlessly considered the anti-Japanese bias of the League when it in 1933 voted 42-1 to condemn Japanese aggression in Manchuria, that it renounced its membership and left the organization in protest.
The League’s failures in Palestine, Manchuria, Abyssinia, and elsewhere not only helped set the stage for an even more cataclysmic world war, but also for its own unlamented demise. Its successor, the United Nations, established at the conclusion of the Second World War, neither sought nor requested involvement in the Question of Palestine. Rather, the matter was referred to it by the United Kingdom; London, substantially weakened by war and lacking the will to confront a terrorist campaign by Zionist militias with the same vigor deployed against Palestinian insurgents a decade earlier, in 1947 informed the UN that it intended to terminate the Mandate and charged the world body with determining the future status of Palestine.
The UN could have rejected the British referral. As a Class A Mandate, the independence of Palestine had already been provisionally recognized by the League of Nations in 1922, and the UN could therefore have instructed London to formalize this independence, as had already occurred with other possessions in this category. Secondly, there is an argument to be made that the UNGA exceeded its authority when it on 29 November 1947 adopted Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a second, Jewish state within it.
Be that as it may, the Jewish residents of Palestine literally danced in the streets when they received news that the United Nations had conferred legitimacy upon the principle of Jewish statehood, for the simple reason that no other institution could have done so with greater authority. The only accusations of anti-Zionist bias came from the precursors of today’s Israeli Likud Party, which condemned the UN for excluding not only forty-five per cent of Palestine but also all of Transjordan from the proposed Jewish state. Their animus against such blatant UN partiality to the Arabs would the following year lead future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to order the assassination of Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, appointed by the UNSC to mediate an end to the first Arab-Israeli war that erupted as an immediate consequence of the partition resolution.
Given this history, the Question of Palestine has been an international question and one placed on the UN agenda from the very outset, and therefore also one for which the United Nations – by consensus of its member states – has since 1947 accepted a responsibility over and above that displayed for many other conflicts. The UNSC in fact rejected Israel’s first two attempts to join the UN. When Israel succeeded on the third attempt in May 1949, UNGA Resolution 273 accepting its membership was not limited to the usual pro forma statements, and explicitly referenced Israel’s stated acceptance of its obligations under the UN Charter, as well as UNGA Resolutions 181 and 194. This was deemed necessary because Israel had occupied West Jerusalem in violation of Resolution 181 which apportioned the Holy City to an international zone, while Resolution 194 called for the repatriation and compensation of the approximately ninety per cent of the Arab population that the new state ethnically cleansed from its territory during the war. A more compelling case for bias could be made by the People’s Republic of China, which from its establishment in 1949 until 1971 was denied China’s seat at the UN solely on account of Western partiality to the regime in Taiwan.
If making Israel’s UN membership conditional upon the fulfilment of its international obligations nevertheless qualifies as bias, this also proved wholly irrelevant. Israel neither paid the abovementioned or indeed other UN resolutions a second thought, nor paid a price for ignoring them. This was, after all, an era in which there was initially an American-Soviet consensus in support of Israel, Latin America had a solidly pro-Israeli voting record, and much of the world’s population still lived in colonies that were not UN members.
It was also an era in which the United States had yet to fully embrace Israeli impunity as a foreign policy principle. Thus, the Security Council between 1955 and 1967 explicitly condemned or censured Israeli outrages against neighboring states or occupied territories four times, and did so on more than a dozen additional occasions between 1967 and 1973. Although Israeli conduct has since then arguably worsened, the Security Council has during the past forty-five years censured Israel less often than it did in the six years between 1967 and 1973.
More importantly, the UNSC has during this period consistently failed to challenge Israeli impunity in its dealings with the Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian territories it has occupied, in some cases for half a century. To date, Israel has not been subject to a single punitive UNSC measure. One need only compare its record on Israel with that on Iraq since 1990 – including authorization of a devastating war and the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever devised – to realize how patently absurd the charge of anti-Israel animus is. Whereas Iran has paid a price for the nuclear weapons it never had, and North Korea is routinely condemned and sanctioned for having acquired them, Israel’s extensive, covertly-developed nuclear arsenal has yet to be so much as remarked upon by the UNSC.
These double standards become even more evident upon reviewing the lengthy list of political and military leaders, militias, and goods around the world placed under various UNSC sanctions. By contrast, not a single Israeli politician or party, military commander or unit, or settler leader or militia, has been subject to a UNSC arms embargo or asset freeze, or for that matter subject to investigation. Unlike illicit diamonds, the trade in products originating in illegal Israeli settlements has yet to be prohibited or in any way curtailed by the Security Council. It stands to reason that one can only maintain that the UNSC has been biased against and indeed obsessed with Israel if one also believes that the latter’s record – in the Gaza Strip, in Sabra and Shatilla, in Hebron and East Jerusalem – is essentially free of blemish. That would perhaps also explain why such critics consider it perfectly normal that the UN has dispatched blue helmets everywhere under the sun except the occupied Palestinian territories.
Given the powers of the UNSC, the significance of positions taken by other UN organs and agencies pales in comparison. Nevertheless, a special ire is normally reserved for the General Assembly, primarily because it in Resolution 3379 of 1975 declared Zionism to be “a form of racism and racial discrimination”. Putting aside the absurd contention that equating Zionism, a self-proclaimed nationalist ideology, with racism is itself a form of racism rather than a judgement on Israel’s settler-colonialist practices towards the Palestinian people, the more pertinent question concerns consequences. South Africa’s UNGA membership had the previous year been suspended on broadly similar grounds, and Resolution 3379 in fact referenced the “unholy alliance” between Israel and the white minority regime in Pretoria. Yet no further action was taken with respect to Israel. To the contrary, the General Assembly, acting under severe US pressure at the conclusion of the Cold War and Kuwait Crisis, in 1991 revoked 3379. South Africa was extended no such courtesy during the Apartheid years.
The reason the UNGA during the 1960s and 1970s developed an “obsession” with Israel and the Palestinians had to do with the changing nature of the international community. As growing numbers of former colonies and imperial possessions achieved UN membership and thus a vote in the General Assembly, decolonization inevitably and quite justifiably became increasingly prominent on its agenda. This translated first and foremost into what Haley would presumably have denounced as an illegitimate fixation with South Africa and Apartheid, and secondarily with Palestine and other matters relevant to decolonization. Indeed, Haley would in those days have been kept rather too busy “taking names” to engage in vulgar displays of racism like her June 2017 Congressional testimony in which she pledged to block, as a matter of principle, the appointment of any Palestinian national to a senior position within the world body.
Similar whining and well-rehearsed performances of aggrieved sensibilities are on display every time a – indeed, any – UN agency passes a resolution or issues a report about or merely referencing Palestine and Israel’s violations of the rights of its people. Particularly in recent years, Israel has often abandoned defending its conduct, resorting instead to equally well-rehearsed “whataboutist” whining (Darfur, Syria whose Golan Heights it claims not to occupy, etc.). That the offending resolutions are entirely and typically scrupulously consistent with international law, and where addressing broad principles such as the resolution of the conflict additionally reflect the consensus of the international community (the United States and several microscopic Pacific islands excepted), is thereby apparently rendered irrelevant.
If Palestine in the twenty-first century continues to generate disproportionate attention within the United Nations system compared to Laos or Tanzania (though not more than Sudan or Syria), the simple explanation is that it remains as the last significant vestige of European colonialism on our planet and the longest military occupation in modern times. It is hardly surprising that those primarily responsible for perpetuating this state of affairs, like Haley and her predecessors, constantly whine that it shouldn’t figure on the international agenda at all.
This article originally appeared on Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies.