Palestine’s UN Cliffhanger, Then and Now
by Alvaro de Soto
The former chief UN envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict argues that the Palestinian bid for statehood is not a “unilateral action,” as some insist. It is a desperate appeal to the world made necessary by the failure of the peace process.
If anything, resorting to the UN is taking the conflict back to its original arena. In 1947, just two years after the UN’s founding, the General Assembly provided legitimacy for Israel’s statehood by approving the partition plan for Palestine, which called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. For Israel’s founders, this vote was the culmination of a generations-long campaign for statehood that had been made even more urgent by the near destruction of European Jewry during World War II. Israel’s subsequent declaration of independence established its authority on “the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly,” and today the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Web site prominently features a scratchy recording of the roll-call vote on the partition plan. It was a UN undersecretary general, Ralph Bunche, who mediated the armistice that officially ended the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, which continues to be the reference point for border negotiations.
Since then, the UN’s role in the Middle East has seen its fair share of controversy. Israel was deeply estranged from the international body when, in 1975, the General Assembly labeled Zionism a form of racism. In the late 1990s, Secretary-General Kofi Annan labored to restore a balanced climate by lobbying for Israel’s admission to the Western European and Others Group, which allowed it to put forward candidates for subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly. He later strove to recover a UN role as mediator to the conflict by helping to cobble together the Quartet in 2002 and promoting its ill-fated “roadmap” for peace. Recently, the UN’s credibility among Palestinians has been undermined by the Quartet’s boycott of the Hamas government, which was elected in 2006, and its support for Israel’s quarantine of Gaza.
I came away from two frustrating years as the chief UN envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (2005-2007) thinking that the sole way to bring about a solution would be for Israel to receive the kind of wake-up call that only the United States can muster. That has yet to happen, despite the fact that the demographics of the status quo could soon spell the end of Israeli democracy. But the coming UN showdown -- coupled with the changes sweeping the Middle East -- could spur the paradigm shift that is needed for peace.
The primary driving forces of the Arab Spring are bad governance, massive unemployment, and the unacceptable relationship between corrupt regimes and their people. But Palestinian flags fluttered at Tahrir Square, and the wave of popular uprisings has restored the significance of regional public opinion -- deeply resentful of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians -- to policy formulation. Regional governments, as well as the United States and Israel, ignore this popular sentiment at their peril.
It is this surge in popular opinion -- and not the Palestinian UN bid -- that is chiefly responsible for Israel’s diplomatic isolation, particularly from its traditional regional allies, Egypt and Turkey. The Egyptian public is manifestly unhappy with the country’s cold peace with Israel. It particularly resents former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s complicity in Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive stance toward Israel in recent weeks is hugely popular in Turkey and among Arabs. To restore its diplomatic standing, Israel will need to pursue new policies, rather than simply try to block international campaigns -- such as the Palestinian UN bid -- that it characterizes as “delegitimization.”