Paul Pillar

Another Shameful Veto in the Making

The fulminations over the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to receive at the United Nations a multilateral affirmation of the principle of Palestinian statehood have been so viscerally unrelenting that one should pause to note just how contrary to logic, to evidence, and even to language these fulminations are. First is the idea that action by the United Nations, which is as non-unilateral as international politics ever gets, is somehow  “unilateral.” This is a use of language that is something out of the stories of either Lewis Carroll or George Orwell, in which words mean whatever the user wants them to mean, even if that is the opposite of what they generally mean. Then there is the notion that such action by the United Nations is somehow a threat to, replacement of, or rejection of bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Abu Mazen has repeatedly pointed out, it is no such thing. Nothing that takes place at the U.N. will draw any boundaries or settle any of the specific issues.  All the final settlement issues would still be there to be negotiated bilaterally. Nothing that happens in New York will mean any less (or any more) negotiating work for Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.

All that could possibly result from action by the Security Council or General Assembly this month would be a partial leveling of the diplomatic playing field as Israel and the Palestinians address those issues in dispute and a reaffirmation of what the United Nations, the United States, the other members of the quartet, the Palestinians, and the Israelis—even, grudgingly, Benjamin Netanyahu—have all said should be the product of a peace process: a Palestinian state to live side-by-side in peace with the State of Israel. If, as many indications unfortunately suggest, Netanyahu and his government do not really accept that product or any Palestinian entity worthy of the name state, let him end the charade and say so.

The Israeli government has talked about “dire consequences” if an initiative at the United Nations goes forward. But the only negative consequences would be any that Israel itself chooses to impose, out of spite, revenge, to make a point or for whatever reason. The only reason Israel would be discomfited by U.N. action is the embarrassment that would come from a demonstration anew of how offensive the Israeli policy of clinging to, and colonizing, captured territory—the action that really is unilateral, and that really does damage the prospects for a negotiated settlement by creating even more facts on the ground—is to the community of nations. And the only reason the United States would veto any such action is that it is considered political poison within the United States for political leaders to go against strong preferences of the Israeli government, however inconsistent those preferences may be with the United States' own best interests.

None of this is about any threat to the security, integrity or legitimacy of the State of Israel. It is about Israel's continued grasp of occupied territories and the embarrassment that comes from Israeli policies toward those territories that are an affront to the sense of most of the peoples and countries of the world about what is right and just.

Although Israel's own policies have made the United Nations an inhospitable place for itself, Israelis would do well to remember that the closest thing to an authorization for the creation of their own state was an action by the United Nations. Any new action this month would effectively merely restate what that action back in the 1940s already stated: that two states should emerge from the mandate of Palestine, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The history and nature of the dispute between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine makes a United Nations role very appropriate, even if the specific issues still have to be settled through bilateral diplomacy. A less narrow-minded and more constructive approach by Israel and the United States would have embraced that role in response to the Palestinian initiative rather than pretending that the initiative is some kind of negotiation-killing rogue act, which it is not.

A U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution affirming Palestinian statehood would add to the harm the United States already has incurred by reflexively covering for whatever are the policies of the Israeli government of the day. It would be a direct, explicit rejection of what the United States has long said it supports: establishment of a Palestinian state. The harm of a vote against sovereignty for the Palestinians would be amplified by coming at a time when the demands for popular sovereignty by other Arabs throughout the Middle East are louder than ever before. A U.S. veto would be both shameful and damaging to U.S. interests.