Doublethink on UN membership for Israel and Palestine
Crowds in Tel Aviv celebrate the UN’s vote for partition in 1947 (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem. Photo by Hans Pinn
By Jamie Stern-Weiner, Middle East Research and Information Project [MERIP]
October 10, 2013
Having declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel was lacking in international legitimacy. Recognizing the deficiency, Israeli officials invested tremendous effort over the course of 1948-1949 in securing Israel’s admission to the United Nations.
A recent paper* identifies three arguments advanced by Israeli diplomats at the time in support of Israel’s application:
Peace: “Holding the peace process hostage” to UN admission, Israeli officials argued that the latter would advance peace talks. This approach — of insisting that UN admission precede a peace agreement — was championed by Israel’s first ambassador to the UN, Abba Eban. Speaking before the General Assembly, Eban impressed upon delegates that Israel’s admission would “contribute to the rapid conclusion of [peace] agreements.” Indeed, “nothing could be more prejudicial to the prospects of conciliation and peace than…doubts regarding Israel’s international status,” for why should the Arab states recognize Israel “if the United Nations hesitated to do so itself”?
31st January 1949: A Jewish [sic] flag is unfurled at the Israeli Embassy at Manchester Square, London, following Britain’s recognition of the new state of Israel. Embassy staff stand on the balcony. Photo by Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Equality: The UN should accept Israel’s application in order to place it “on an equal footing with the Arab states in the ongoing armistice and upcoming peace talks.” “Surely,” Eban urged the General Assembly in December 1948, “the cause of conciliation would be advanced if both parties…had the same obligations, bore the same responsibility and enjoyed the same status.” It is “obvious,” he continued, that peace efforts “would be gravely undermined” without “a serious effort…to place both parties on an equal footing.” “At every stage of its chequered relations with the Arab world,” he repeated four months later, “Israel had felt equality of status to be the essential condition of partnership.”
Prestige: The UN’s legitimacy as a body aiming at “universality” would be undermined should it reject Israel’s application. UN prestige was particularly implicated in the case of Israel, whose establishment and recognition the UN had itself recommended. In rejecting Israel’s application, then, the UN would in effect be “repudiating its own decision.” “It would be an extraordinary paradox,” Eban declared in May 1949, “if the United Nations were to close its doors upon the State which it had helped to quicken into active life.” If it did so, “the future authority of the United Nations” would suffer.
In September 2011, after decades of fruitless bilateral negotiations, the Palestinian leadership applied for admission to the UN. Facing a certain US veto in the Security Council, the request was never voted on. Instead, a resolution according non-member observer status to Palestine was passed by the General Assembly in November 2012. Opposing the admission bid, Israeli officials took positions diametrically opposed to those advocated by their predecessors concerning Israel’s own application.
Rather than enhancing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian co-operation by reducing the inequalities that divide them, UN admission would simply remove Palestinians’ “incentive to negotiate.”
Far from expediting peace talks, acceptance of the Palestinian bid would fatally harm them. Even the minor step of granting Palestine non-member observer status at the General Assembly, Israel’s ambassador to the UN warned, would “push” prospects for peace “backwards,” encouraging the Palestinians to “harden their positions.”
Abba Eban (standing at back) with Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion and U.S. President Harry Truman (1951)
Whereas Eban had pressed for Israel’s admission to the UN prior to a peace agreement with its neighbours, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in 2011 that “Palestinians must first make peace” and only “then get their State.”
And despite the fact that the UN has endorsed Palestine’s establishment far more emphatically than it did Israel’s, Israeli officials warned that by upgrading Palestine’s status it would go down in “history” as having aided the Palestinians in “undermining peace.” (The Obama administration endorsed these arguments, with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice condemning the Palestinians’ UN bid as a threat to “the peace process.”)
US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. She “reiterated President Obama’s comments to the world body on unilateral Palestinian efforts toward statehood jeopardizing the peace process.’Unilateral actions, including initiatives to grant Palestinians non-member state observer status at the United Nations, would only jeopardize the peace process and complicate efforts to return the parties to direct negotiations,’ Rice said in remarks at the U.N. Security Council’s Open Debate on the Middle East, citing Obama’s comments to the U.N. General Assembly last month” [JTA]. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters
Since crushing Palestine’s bid for UN membership, the Obama administration and Israel have pursued a renewed bilateral peace process. Reproducing the structure of countless previous rounds of negotiations, the process has also replicated the results: no sign of diplomatic progress, no sustainable development in the Palestinian territories and continued Israeli settlement construction on the ground.
Curious that what was “obvious” to Abba Eban should now be so difficult to grasp: “Equality of status” is an “essential condition of partnership,” and the international community’s failure to take measures to “place both parties on an equal footing” leaves the “cause of conciliation” — and, with it, the prospects for ending what is now going on seven decades of violence and misery — “gravely undermined.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during celebrations for their successful bid to win UN statehood recognition, December 2012. Photo by AP
Notes and links
*‘Finishing the Enterprise’: Israel’s Admission to the United Nations
By Marte Heian-Engdal, Jørgen Jensehaugen & Hilde Henriksen Waage, The International History Review
Volume 35, Issue 3, 2013
During 1948–9, Israeli leaders placed considerable importance on the country’s efforts to secure membership in the United Nations (UN). Israel’s foreign relations at the time, however, were complicated not only by the country’s lack of UN membership. Israel was also at war with its Arab neighbours, and the newly created state was thus without clear borders and faced with several unresolved political problems with clear international ramifications: the future status of Jerusalem and the growing Palestinian refugee problem. Despite this, and despite the international pressure these unresolved issues triggered, Israel succeeded in securing UN membership in May 1949, which entailed a de facto international recognition of the new state. How might a political achievement of such magnitude be explained? Looking in greater detail at how Israel argued for its admission to the UN, and how it successfully countered the arguments voiced internationally against its application for membership, this article shows how Israel was able to achieve its goal of UN membership without making any concessions on its positions on territory, Jerusalem, or the question of the Palestinian refugees. In essence, it was able to do this by holding the Arab–Israeli peace process hostage to its UN admission.
1948: A year of myth or miracle?
From the Higher School Certificate, NSW [!]
The United Nations (UN) vote for the partition of Palestine, conducted on 29 November 1947, illustrates well the public and private faces of Israeli policy during the period 1947–49. As the relieved and joyous crowds danced in the streets of Tel Aviv, there was talk of the hand of God miraculously delivering his people. On a more terrestrial level, the success of the Zionist enterprise can be attributed to the work of seasoned political in-fighters such as Golda Meir, Abba Eban and, above all, David Ben Gurion.
Lobbying for the vote in favour of partition of Palestine
Two examples serve to show how the establishment of the Jewish state was not left to chance or divine whim. As the date for the UN vote neared, the Arabs showed their naivety by eschewing the back-room deals and corridor meetings that are part and parcel of Western diplomacy. Not so the Zionists. Sustained and encouraged by the personal sympathy of President Truman of the United States of America and the powerful Jewish lobby of the eastern American seaboard, they began a process of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to maximise the vote in favour of partition. Pressure was placed on the ambassadors of less committed small countries, such as Cuba, Haiti and Liberia, whose votes would help to determine the decision. In the case of Liberia, the owner of the American Firestone Rubber Company, which held large economic interests in the African country, was enlisted to pressure the Liberians to vote for partition.
Away from the corridors of the UN, Golda Meir met secretly with King Abdullah of Transjordan on 17 November 1947 and, in return for Abdullah’s agreement not to interfere with the establishment of the Jewish state, committed Israel to turning a blind eye to Abdullah’s ambition to annex that Arab part of the partitioned Palestine known today as the West Bank.
The partitioning of Palestine was not welcomed by all Jews. Significant among the dissenters were the leaders of the Irgun, a terrorist group formed in the 1930s and led by Menachem Begin (prime minister of Israel,1977–83). The tension between Begin and Ben Gurion was to surface with dramatic effect in mid-1948.
What will the Palestinians gain from new UN status? November 30th, 2012
Obama: the block to change December 3rd, 2012
Nations vote to bring Palestinians into the edges of the fold, November 30th, 2012
France, UK ready to back Palestinians at UN this week, November 27th, 2012