Chapter 14: The United Nations
- “According to Security Council Resolution 242, Israel’s acquisition of territory through the 1967 war is ‘inadmissible.’”
- “Resolution 242 requires Israel to return to its pre-1967 boundaries.”
- “Resolution 242 recognizes a Palestinian right to self--determination.”
- “The Arab states and the PLO accepted Resolution 242 whereas Israel rejected it.”
- “The United Nations plays a constructive role in Middle East affairs.”
- “The Palestinians have been denied a voice at the UN.”
- “Israel enjoys the same rights as any other member of the United Nations.”
- “The United States has always supported Israel at the UN.”
- “America’s Arab allies routinely support U.S. positions at the UN.”
- “Israel’s failure to implement UN resolutions is a violation of international law.”
“According to Security Council Resolution 242, Israel’s acquisition of territory through the 1967 war is ‘inadmissible.’ ”
On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, establishing the principles that were to guide the negotiations for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
The first point addressed by the resolution is the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Some people take this to mean that Israel is required to withdraw from all the territories it captured. On the contrary, the reference clearly applies only to an offensive war. If not, the resolution would provide an incentive for aggression. If one country attacks another, and the defender repels the attack and acquires territory in the process, the former interpretation would require the defender to return all the land it took. Thus, aggressors would have little to lose because they would be ensured against the main consequence of defeat.
“This is the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender.”
— Abba Eban 1
The ultimate goal of 242, as expressed in paragraph 3, is the achievement of a “peaceful and accepted settlement.” This means a negotiated agreement based on the resolution’s principles rather than one imposed upon the parties. This is also the implication of Resolution 338, according to Arthur Goldberg, the American ambassador who led the delegation to the UN in 1967.2 That resolution, adopted after the 1973 war, called for negotiations between the parties to start immediately and concurrently with the cease-fire.
“Resolution 242 requires Israel to return to its pre-1967 boundaries.”
The most controversial clause in Resolution 242 is the call for the “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” This is linked to the second unambiguous clause calling for “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and the recognition that “every State in the area” has the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
The resolution does not make Israeli withdrawal a prerequisite for Arab action. Moreover, it does not specify how much territory Israel is required to give up. The Security Council did not say Israel must withdraw from “all the” territories occupied after the Six-Day War. This was quite deliberate. The Soviet delegate wanted the inclusion of those words and said that their exclusion meant “that part of these territories can remain in Israeli hands.” The Arab states pushed for the word “all” to be added; when the Council rejected their idea, they read the resolution as if it was included. The British Ambassador who drafted the approved resolution, Lord Caradon, declared after the vote: “It is only the resolution that will bind us, and we regard its wording as clear.” 3
This literal interpretation, without the implied “all,” was repeatedly declared to be the correct one by those involved in drafting the resolution. On October 29, 1969, for example, the British Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons the withdrawal envisaged by the resolution would not be from “all the territories.” 4 When asked to explain the British position later, Lord Caradon said: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.” 5
Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg explained: “The notable omissions—which were not accidental—in regard to withdrawal are the words ‘the’ or ‘all’ and the ‘June 5, 1967 lines’ . . . the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” 6
The resolutions clearly call on the Arab states to make peace with Israel. The principal condition is that Israel withdraw from “territories occupied” in 1967. Since Israel withdrew from approximately 94 percent of the territories when it gave up the Sinai, the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank, it has already partially, if not wholly, fulfilled its obligation under 242.
The Arab states also objected to the call for “secure and recognized boundaries” because they feared this implied negotiations with Israel. The Arab League explicitly ruled this out at Khartoum in August 1967, when it proclaimed the three “noes.” Amb. Goldberg explained that this phrase was specifically included because the parties were expected to make “territorial adjustments in their peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” The question, then, is whether Israel has to give up any additional territory. Now that peace agreements have been signed with Egypt and Jordan, and Israel has withdrawn to the international border with Lebanon, the only remaining territorial disputes are with the Palestinians (who are not even mentioned in 242) and Syria.
The dispute with Syria is over the Golan Heights. Israel has repeatedly expressed a willingness to negotiate a compromise in exchange for peace; however, Syria has refused to consider even a limited peace treaty unless Israel first agrees to a complete withdrawal. Under 242, Israel has no obligation to withdraw from any part of the Golan in the absence of a peace accord with Syria.
Meanwhile, other Arab states—such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Libya—continue to maintain a state of war with Israel, or have refused to grant Israel diplomatic recognition, even though they have no territorial disputes with Israel. These states have nevertheless conditioned their relations (at least rhetorically) on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.
“There are some who have urged, as a single, simple solution, an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4. . . . this is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.”
— President Lyndon Johnson, speech on June 19, 1967 7
“Resolution 242 recognizes a Palestinian right to self-determination.”
The Palestinians are not mentioned anywhere in Resolution 242. They are only alluded to in the second clause of the second article of 242, which calls for “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Nowhere does it require that Palestinians be given any political rights or territory.
“The Arab states and the PLO accepted Resolution 242 whereas Israel rejected it.”
The Arab states have traditionally said they accept 242—as defined by them—that is, requiring Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from all the disputed territories.
The Palestinians, angered by the exclusion of any mention of them in the text, rejected the resolution. 8
By contrast, Ambassador Abba Eban expressed Israel’s position to the Security Council on May 1, 1968: “My government has indicated its acceptance of the Security Council resolution for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of a just and lasting peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State on all matters included in that resolution.”
It took nearly a quarter century, but the PLO finally agreed that Resolutions 242 and 338 should be the basis for negotiations with Israel when it signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993.
“The United Nations plays a constructive role in Middle East affairs.”
Starting in the mid-1970s, an Arab-Soviet-Third World bloc joined to form what amounted to a pro-Palestinian lobby at the United Nations. This was particularly true in the General Assembly where these countries—nearly all dictatorships or autocracies—frequently voted together to pass resolutions attacking Israel and supporting the PLO.
In 1975, at the instigation of the Arab states and the Soviet Bloc, the Assembly approved Resolution 3379, which slandered Zionism by branding it a form of racism.
U.S. Ambassador Daniel Moynihan called the resolution an “obscene act.” Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog told his fellow delegates the resolution was “based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance.” Hitler, he declared, would have felt at home listening to the UN debate on the measure. 9
On December 16, 1991, the General Assembly voted 111–25 (with 13 abstentions and 17 delegations absent or not voting) to repeal Resolution 3379. No Arab country voted for repeal. The PLO denounced the vote and the U.S. role.
“What takes place in the Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving.”
— Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick 13
Israel is the object of more investigative committees, special representatives and rapporteurs than any other state in the UN system. The Commission on Human Rights routinely adopts disproportionate resolutions concerning Israel. Of all condemnations of this agency, nearly 49 percent refer to Israel alone (38 total resolutions), while rogue states such as Iran and Libya have only been criticized once each and Syria was never mentioned until Syrian troops began slaughtering its citizens in the summer of 2011. 10
In March 2005, the Security Council issued an unprecedented condemnation of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv carried out by Islamic Jihad. Unlike Israeli actions that provoke resolutions, the Security Council issued only a “policy statement” urging the Palestinian Authority to “take immediate, credible steps to find those responsible for this terrorist attack” and bring them to justice. It also encouraged “further and sustained action to prevent other acts of terror.” The statement required the consent of all 15 members of the Security Council. The one Arab member, Algeria, signed on after a reference to Islamic Jihad was deleted. 11 The Council has never adopted a resolution condemning a terrorist atrocity committed against Israel.
In August 2005, just as Israel was prepared to implement its disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority produced materials to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal. These included banners that read, “Gaza Today. The West Bank and Jerusalem Tomorrow.” News agencies reported that the banners were produced with funds from the UN Development Program and were printed with the UNDP’s logo. 12
History has proven that the path to peace is through direct negotiations between the parties; however, the UN constantly undercuts this principle. The General Assembly routinely adopts resolutions that attempt to impose solutions disadvantageous to Israel on critical issues such as Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and settlements. Ironically, UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 proposed the bilateral negotiations that are consistently undermined by the General Assembly resolutions.
Thus, the record to date indicates the UN has not played a useful role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"[The treatment Israel receives at the United Nations] is obsessive, ugly, bad for the United Nations and bad for peace."
— UN Ambassador Susan Rice 20
“The Palestinians have been denied a voice at the UN.”
Besides the support the Palestinians have received from the Arab and Islamic world, and most other UN members, the Palestinians have been afforded special treatment at the UN since 1975. That year, the General Assembly awarded permanent representative status to the PLO and established the pro-PLO “Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.” The panel became, in effect, part of the PLO propaganda apparatus, issuing stamps, organizing meetings, and preparing films and draft resolutions in support of Palestinian “rights.”
In 1976, the committee recommended “full implementation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including their return to the Israeli part of Palestine.” It also recommended that November 29—the day the UN voted to partition Palestine in 1947—be declared an “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” Since then, it has been observed at the UN with anti-Israel speeches, films and exhibits. Over the objections of the United States, a special unit on Palestine was established as part of the UN Secretariat.
In 1988, the PLO’s status was upgraded when the General Assembly designated the PLO as “Palestine.” Ten years later, the General Assembly voted to give the Palestinians a unique status as a non-voting member of the 185 member Assembly.
Palestinian representatives can now raise the issue of the peace process in the General Assembly, cosponsor draft resolutions on Middle East peace and have the right of reply. They still do not have voting power and cannot put forward candidates for UN bodies such as the Security Council.
In 2011, Palestinian leaders went to the UN to seek recognition of a state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. By using the international body to circumvent negotiations, the Palestinians sought to avoid the necessity of recognizing Israel and ending the conflict, and to convince the UN to force Israel to capitulate to their demands.
“Israel enjoys the same rights as any other member of the United Nations.”
Israel had been the only UN member excluded from a regional group. Geographically, it belongs in the Asian Group; however, the Arab states have barred its membership. Without membership in a regional group, Israel cannot sit on the Security Council or other key UN bodies. For 40 years, Israel was the only UN member excluded from a regional group.
A breakthrough in Israel’s exclusion from UN bodies occurred in 2000, when Israel accepted temporary membership in the Western European and Others (WEOG) regional group. The WEOG is the only regional group that is geopolitical rather than purely geographical. WEOG’s 27 members—the West European states, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—share a Western-Democratic common denominator. This historic step opened the door to Israeli participation in the Security Council. Israel formally applied for membership to the Council in 2005, but the next seat will not be available until 2019.
“The United States has always supported Israel at the UN.”
Many people believe the United States can always be relied upon to support Israel with its veto in the UN Security Council. The historical record, however, shows that the U.S. has often opposed Israel in the Council.
The United States did not cast its first veto until 1972, on a Syrian-Lebanese complaint against Israel. From 1967–72, the U.S. supported or abstained on 24 resolutions, most critical of Israel. From 1973–2010, the Security Council adopted approximately 130 resolutions on the Middle East, most of which were critical of Israel. The U.S. vetoed a total of 43 resolutions and, hence, supported the Council’s criticism of Israel by its vote of support, or by abstaining, roughly two-thirds of the time. 14
American officials also often try to convince sponsors to change the language of a resolution to allow them to either vote for, or abstain from a resolution. These resolutions are still critical of Israel, but may not be so one-sided that the United States feels obligated to cast a veto. In 2011, for example, the Palestinians called on the Security Council to label Israeli settlements illegal and to call for a construction freeze. The U.S. ambassador to the UN tried to convince the Palestinians to change the wording, but they refused. After vetoing the resolution, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice still criticized Israeli policy. 15
In July 2002, the United States shifted its policy and announced that it would veto any Security Council resolution on the Middle East that did not condemn Palestinian terror and name Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as the groups responsible for the attacks. The U.S. also said that resolutions must note that any Israeli withdrawal is linked to the security situation, and that both parties must be called upon to pursue a negotiated settlement. 16 The Arabs can still get around the United States by taking issues to the General Assembly, where nonbinding resolutions pass by majority vote, and support for almost any anti-Israel resolution is assured.
“America’s Arab allies routinely support U.S. positions at the UN.”
In 2010, Morocco was the Arab nation that voted with the United States most often, and that was on only 35 percent of the resolutions. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt, voted with the United States only 32 percent of the time. As a group, in 2010, the Arab states voted against the United States on nearly 70 percent of the resolutions. Syria was at the bottom of the list, opposing the U.S. 84 percent of the time. By contrast, Israel has consistently been America’s top UN ally. Israel voted with the U.S. 92 percent of the time in 2010, outpacing the support levels of major U.S. allies such as Great Britain, and France, which voted with the United States on only 73 percent of the resolutions. 17
“The UN has the image of a world organization based on universal principles of justice and equality. In reality, when the chips are down, it is nothing other than the executive committee of the Third World dictatorships.”
— Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick 18
“Israel’s failure to implement UN resolutions is a violation of international law.”
UN resolutions are documents issued by political bodies and need to be interpreted in light of the constitution of those bodies. Votes at the UN are not based on legal principles, but the self-interest of the member states; therefore, UN resolutions represent political rather than legal viewpoints. Resolutions can have moral and political force when they are perceived as expressing the agreed view of the international community, or the views of leading, powerful and respected nations.
The UN Charter (Articles 10 and 14) specifically empowers the General Assembly to make only nonbinding “recommendations.” Assembly resolutions are only considered binding in relation to budgetary and internal procedural matters.
The legality of Security Council resolutions is more ambiguous. It is not clear if all Security Council resolutions are binding or only those adopted under Chapter 7 of the Charter. 19 Under Article 25 of the Charter, UN member states are obligated to carry out “decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter,” but it is unclear which kinds of resolutions are covered by the term “decisions.” These resolutions remain political statements by nation states and not legal determinations by international jurists.
Israel has not violated any Security Council resolutions and the Council has never sanctioned Israel for noncompliance.
1 Abba Eban, Abba Eban, (NY: Random House, 1977), p. 446.
2 “Middle East Peace Prospects,” Christian Science Monitor, (July 9, 1985).
3 Security Council Official Records, 1382nd Meeting (S/PV 1382), United Nations, (November 22, 1967).
4 Eban, p. 452.
5 Beirut Daily Star, (June 12, 1974).
6 Speech to AIPAC Policy Conference, (May 8, 1973).
7 “Address by President Johnson at National Foreign Policy Conference of Educators,” (June 19, 1967).
8 Joel Beinin, “The Palestine Liberation Organization,” Middle East Research and Information Project, http://www.merip.org/palestine-israel_primer/intro-pal-israel-primer.html.
9 Chaim Herzog, Who Stands Accused?, (NY: Random House, 1978), pp. 4–5.
10 “Human Rights Actions,” Eye on the UN, accessed on April 27, 2011; “Anti-Israel Resolutions at the HRC,” UN Watch, accessed on April 27, 2011.
11 “Policy Statement by Security Council on Terrorist Attack in Israel,” Press Release SC/8325, United Nations, (February 28, 2005).
12 “U.N. Funds Palestinian Campaign,” Fox News, (August 17, 2005).
13 New York Times, (March 31, 1983).
14 U.S. State Department.
15 Richard Grenell, “Susan Rice Fails to Convince the Palestinians, and Offers a Rebuke to Israel,” Huffington Post, (February 17, 2011), accessed April 27, 2011; “United States vetoes Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements,” UN News Centre, (February 18, 2011).
16 Washington Post, (July 26, 2002).
17 “Voting Practices at the United Nations—2010,” U.S. State Department.
18 Jerusalem Post, (September 5, 2001).
19 Bruno Simma, ed., The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 237–241; 407–418.
20 Natasha Mozgovaya, "Israel's Treatment at the UN 'obsessive' and 'ugly,' US Diplomat Says," Haaretz, (December 15, 2011).