Israel Pulse

Will Israel ever learn from its UN mistakes?

Article Summary
The failure by the United State and Israeli to pass a resolution condemning Hamas suggest that Israel needs to examine its understanding of the limits of its Middle Eastern relations and adjust its attitude toward the United Nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t think much of the United Nations. The fact is, the prime minister decided to appoint Danny Danon as Israel’s ambassador to the organization, the man who dared to run against him in elections to head the Likud. Netanyahu’s most important speech each year takes place at the UN General Assembly meeting in September, and he always prepares a surprise for the occasion. He is like the head of the Jewish family following the tradition of hiding a piece of matzah during the Passover dinner for the kids to find. Each year, he finds a new place to hide the afikomen. 

Despite the attitude of Netanyahu's right-wing government toward the United Nations, it is shaken to the core every time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joins a UN-affiliated organization, usually one no one has ever heard of. It also jumps for joy at any abstention on an anti-Israel resolution, which means fewer votes opposing its policies.

Maybe because the Israeli government doesn’t think much of the United Nations, it received with deep and vocal sorrow the news of Nikki Haley's resignation as US ambassador to the world body. Haley was considered by many as representing Israel as well as her own country, so with her leaving, Israel would be losing an irreplaceable supporter. Her attempt to give Israel a parting gift in the form of a resolution censuring Hamas, for firing rockets at Israel, was seen as the first sign of salvation.

Danon, Haley’s loyal assistant, carefully prepared for the US ambassador’s initiative during the first week of December, but he forgot the biblical maxim “Let not him who girds on his sword boast like him who ungirds it!” (Kings I 20:11). It appeared that Israel might be on the verge of a rare victory in New York as a result of a recent wave of adoration flowing from Arab nations as well as smart international diplomacy. All the calculations suggested that this time it would be possible to slap Hamas’ cheek after it had fired more than 400 rockets from Gaza toward Israeli civilian targets, including nursery schools, on Nov. 12.

Haley and Danon had convinced me without much difficulty, because after 700 censures of Israel, the time had finally come for the UN General Assembly to for once censure an Arab group, a truly due condemnation. That said, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza forgot one thing that every parliamentarian in the world learns his first day on the job: You have to know the rules by heart.

When the Arab nations saw that a majority of the assembly supported Haley’s resolution, they quickly asked its members to take a vote on the size of the majority needed for the resolution to pass. The result was that a majority of the 193 members of the respected forum supported a resolution requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. With the situation suddenly changed, Haley made the rounds, visiting the heads of delegations, threatening here, asking there, and some say even begging, until the voting began on Dec. 6.

Since 33 nations abstained from voting, and 16 delegation heads disappeared from the hall, a majority in favor of Haley’s resolution emerged, 87 to 57. In the case of needing a simple majority, victory could have been declared, but the resolution failed, lacking a two-thirds majority. Not only did the assembly not bother to censure Hamas for its harm to Israeli civilians, it decided problematically to oppose censure. One could view this as the reverse of the biblical story of Balaam.

The prophet Balaam was paid by a non-Israelite king to curse the people of Israel, but in the end he offered them a blessing. At the United Nations, the situation evolved counter to the Balaam incident: Instead of receiving a blessing from the United Nations, Israel received another strike. Haley’s swan song turned into a victory for Hamas on the diplomatic level. Even Abbas worked against the resolution and praised its failure, and everyone knows that he wouldn’t shed a tear over an international censure of Hamas.

The results from a dissection of the vote are not surprising. Israel's (half-heartedly) intimate allies China and Russia voted against the resolution and maintained a longstanding tradition that does not allow Israel to criticize them too harshly. Egypt and Jordan, nations that signed a peace accord with Israel and for whom Hamas is a bone in the throat, also opposed Haley’s resolution, as did all the other Arab states.

Right after that vote, the assembly held a third vote, passing an Irish resolution that called on the United Nations to, among other things, insist on the realization of Security Council Resolution 2334, approved in December 2016 at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term. It resolved that West Bank settlements are illegal and noted parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Netanyahu government had rejected the resolution with contempt.

The recent US-Israeli failure at the United Nations was a resounding one, but Israel of course doesn’t admit to failed moves. Its ambassador to the United Nations called on everyone who opposed the resolution to be ashamed of themselves. Netanyahu spoke of the glass being half full, noting that there had been a majority in favor of censure. He praised the nations that voted in support of Haley’s resolution and expressed confidence that the majority would increase in the future. It’s hard to tell whether the effort to present this failure as a semi-victory has convinced anyone.

Abdallah al-Mualimi, head of the Saudi delegation to the United Nations, was the most pathetic of all. In an interview immediately following the vote, he claimed that if Haley’s resolution had been adopted, it could have damaged the possibility of reaching a two-state solution. No more no less. Why?

Hamas itself vigorously opposes a two-state solution, and on a good day it’s prepared to talk about an initial stage where a Palestinian state is established within 1967 borders, without noting who would be such a future state’s neighbor and how the organization intends to bring about its demise. Mualimi certainly knew what he was talking about, however, when he added that Haley’s resolution would have drawn attention away from the Israeli occupation, the settlements and the siege of the occupied territories.

Yes, the US ambassador’s resolution was in the right, and it would have been right for the United Nations to censure Hamas. The way in which she and Danon tried to obtain a majority at the UN General Assembly was clumsy, however, by not being mindful of all the rules. The result was harmful and proved once again that the United Nations is an important body that cannot be ignored.

When the great David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, derided the United Nations by saying “UN” rhymes with “nothing” (in Hebrew), he uttered foolishness. Today, last but not least, the Israeli delusion by which Arab nations would stand as one and vote against a Palestinian group is on a gradient somewhere between naivety and foolishness. Whoever tries to achieve peace with the Arab world while bypassing the Palestinian issue will fail.

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Yossi Beilin has served in various positions in the Knesset and in Israeli government posts, the last of which was justice and religious affairs minister. After resigning from the Labor Party, Beilin headed Meretz. He was involved in initiating the Oslo process, the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.

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