By Marie-Eve Loiselle
Centre for International Governance and Justice, ANU
The treatment of the Israel-Palestine question within the UN’s supreme decision-making body is a stark reminder of the Council’s inherently political nature.
Hope for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is fading. If it has any chance of seeing the light of day, action is needed now. Challenging the creation of a Palestinian state is emerging support for a bi-national state. The Economist wrote in March about the eclectic mix of proponents of this outcome: on one side those who see the area as totally Jewish or Arab; on the other, idealists hopeful that Palestinians and Jews have a chance at coexisting together in one state. Many of those who support the one-state solution hold that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are now so entrenched that it would be impossible to reverse the cycle and establish one viable Palestinian state.
Most Security Council members condemn the recent surge in Israel settlement in the West Bank. European Union members of the Security Council in December 2012 issued a joint statement in which they declared they ‘[were] extremely concerned by and strongly oppose the plans by Israel to expand settlement construction in the West Bank.’ Yet, there is little the Security Council can do to fast track the peace process without the support of the United States. And the US practice of shielding Israel within the UN Security Council is well documented. The best example of this was the US veto of a Security Council resolution in 2011 that would have reaffirmed the illegality of those settlements. In light of this trend, there seems little scope for a breakthrough at tomorrow’s Security Council open debate on the Middle East.
Still, a number of commentators and experts, including D.C.’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), say that US support for Israel at the UN isn’t boundless. In its recent report dedicated to the Future of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership, the think tank maintains that US protection of Israel in the UN Security Council puts it at odds with many of its allies. The CSIS notes that while the US has repeatedly maintained that resolutions condemning Israel undermine hopes of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, Israel’s lack of commitment to a negotiated two-state settlement could induce the US to support such a resolution in the future. Recent actions by Israel, including the launch of Operation Pillar of Defence on 14 November 2012 (which intensified settlement activities – especially in the E-1 zone), and the withholding of taxes and tariffs collected on behalf the Palestinian Authority (in the area of $120 million/month or 44% of total Palestinian Authority spending), could further try US patience.
Supporting this view, some contend that Obama may be less accommodating of Israel in coming years, now that he is in last Presidential term. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as new Secretary for Defence has been perceived in some circles as a sign that Obama is ready to push more strongly for a peace settlement. Yet during his confirmation hearing, the soon-to-be US Defence chief, seen by many as posing a threat to Israel’s interests, was strafed with questions from worried Republican senators about his views on the Israel/Palestine question. According to Max Fisher from the Washington Post, Israel was the most cited country during the hearing with 178 references. By comparison, Afghanistan was mentioned 38 times, Syria 18, and North Korea 11. This is revealing of how sensitive the issue is in Washington and prompts the question whether President Obama will deem it worth embarking on a campaign that could cost him political capital at home. Recent declarations by US diplomats at the UN suggest the answer is no.
Statements by US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, at January’s quarterly Security Council debate on the Middle East indicate that the US is unlikely to increase pressure on Israel to stop its settlement activities. Most revealing of this qualified support for Israel are Ms Rice’s comments reiterating the US position on General Assembly resolution 67/19, which grants Palestine the status of non-member observer state at the UN, and remarks regarding the presence at the meeting of Mr Riad Malki, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Observer State of Palestine to the United Nations:
The position of the United States regarding Palestinian status, including as reflected in our explanation of vote in connection with the adoption of Assembly resolution 67/19 (A/67/PV.44, page 13), remains unchanged. The United States does not consider that the resolution bestows Palestinian statehood or recognition. Only direct negotiations to settle final status issues will lead to that outcome. In our view, therefore, any references to the State of Palestine in the United Nations, including the use of the term “State of Palestine” on the placard in the Security Council, or the use of the term “State of Palestine” in the invitation to this meeting or in other arrangements for participation in this meeting, do not reflect our acquiescence to the view that Palestine is a State.
This was the core of her message on the issue. As opposed to other UN representatives, Ms Rice barely touched upon the increasing rate of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Israel’s withholding of tax revenue.
Australia’s statement in the Security Council debate shared the same concern regarding GA resolution 67/19. It noted that Australia’s abstention from vote on the resolution
reflects both our support for a Palestinian State and our concern that the only way to achieve the reality of statehood for Palestinians is through direct negotiations. Australia urge[s] both Israel and the Palestinians not to exploit or overreact to the vote.
The statement brushed over some of the recent actions by Israel towards Palestine. While acknowledging the illegality of Israel’s settlement activities, Australia was more cautious in denouncing such actions than most members participating in the debate, including the UK.
Indeed, many states expressed hope that the Security Council will act more decisively on the issue. As noted by the New York-based NGO Security Council Report, the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of 120 member states, has called ‘for the Council to uphold its Charter responsibility…with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, as did the IBSA countries (India, Brazil and South Africa). A similar position appeared in the EU UN member states’ December joint statement:
the responsibility lies also with the international community, and notably the Security Council, to provide urgently for a credible framework for the resumption of direct talks.
This sense of urgency was also palpable in declarations by Council members at the last open debate on the Middle East in January this year.
Council members were anxious to see whether any breakthrough would come out of Obama’s visit to the Middle East. But the Presidential visit gave no indication that the US stance towards this issue in the Security Council will change soon. President Obama did not renew his demand for a halt to settlement activities while overseas. As for one of the highlights of his visit, his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Centre, this is perhaps best seen as the first step in a long-term strategy aimed at winning the hearts of the Israeli population for the two-state solution, ultimately persuading them to put pressure on their leaders.
In sum, it will be surprising to see any headway on the issue at tomorrow’s Council meeting. Sadly, that could be just what is needed to revive the peace process.