Paul Pillar

The UN, the PA, and the Peace Process

George Orwell, who imagined a Ministry of Truth that dispensed untruths, and Charles Dodgson, who as Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty making words mean whatever he wanted them to mean, would appreciate how some concepts routinely get flipped and stood on their head in much of what is said about the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the recurring examples was in full display this week as the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a pro-peace-agreement resolution. It seems that only in this conflict can involving the United Nations—the most multilateral forum on the planet—be routinely denounced as “unilateral.” This latest effort at UN involvement failed, while actual unilateral moves on the ground, which make a peace agreement ever more difficult, continue.

Routine abuse of other concepts in talking about this conflict also were evident at the Council this week, including in the statement made by U.S. ambassador Samantha Power while voting against the resolution. Power said her government opposed the resolution because peace “will come from hard choices and compromises that must be made at the negotiating table” and because hardships and threats associated with the conflict “will not subside until the parties reach a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations.” This continues the canard that a multilateral resolution of this sort is somehow a substitute for, or an attempt to circumvent, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians when in fact it is nothing of the sort. The draft resolution repeatedly, and either explicitly or implicitly, recognizes that any agreement will have to emerge from such negotiations. A central operative paragraph is an exhortation to the parties “to act together in the pursuit of peace by negotiating in good faith.”

The resolution does get into some of the substance of what is to be considered an acceptable resolution of the conflict, but only in ways that already are broadly recognized by the international community—and for the most part explicitly by the United States—as necessary parts of any agreement that ever could be reached and would stick. Some principles are laid out, but specific hard choices and compromises will still have to be made at the negotiating table. The resolution states, for example, that the boundaries of the Israeli and Palestinian states should be based on the June 1967 borders with “mutually agreed” and “equivalent” land swaps; exactly what those swaps will be must come out of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The resolution calls for “a just and agreed solution to the Palestine refugee question” but does not presuppose what that solution should be.

Another commonly abused concept is “balance.” Power's statement asserted that the resolution is “deeply unbalanced” and “addresses the concerns of only one side.” In fact, the resolution is centered on the objective of “two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine.” It calls for security arrangements “that ensure the security of both Israel and Palestine through effective border security and by preventing the resurgence of terrorism.” It declares that a final status agreement shall put “an end to all claims and lead to immediate mutual recognition”; references in the resolution to the Arab League peace initiative lead to the clear conclusion that mutual recognition would include recognition of Israel not only by Palestine but by the other Arab states.

The resolution is about as balanced as it can be in the face of a highly unbalanced situation. An unhelpful fiction plaguing discussion of this issue is that the conflict is symmetric when in fact it is highly asymmetric. The fundamental asymmetry today is that one side is the occupier and the other side consists of those who are occupied. The occupier could, if it chose, make it possible for a Palestinian state to be established this year. Those who are occupied have no such power. The most peaceful and respectable thing they can do, in addition to negotiating in good faith at a bilateral negotiating table, is to plead their case at the United Nations.

The United States (and, of course, Israel) lobbied hard against the resolution, being particularly assiduous in twisting the arm of the Nigerian president. The pressure succeeded in getting enough abstentions (in addition to a “no” vote from Australia) that the resolution failed to get the nine affirmative votes needed for passage, even though it did get a majority. Thus the Obama administration can say that it was not the U.S. veto that prevented adoption of the resolution. But make no mistake: this pro-peace resolution failed because the United States, once again, did the bidding of the Israeli government and opposed it.