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The United Nations: Dividing Israelis and Arabs for Over 50 Years

By Ronen Mukamel

The UN’s consideration of Israel…has been a continuing case study of political manipulation, mistreatment and dishonesty. What this record tells Americans is that the near-theological rhetoric about the UN’s purposes and principles is just rhetoric, pure and simple.
-John Bolton, Senior Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute, to the 106th U.S. Congress, July 14, 1999.1

The United Nations was founded in the aftermath of World War II to protect the world “from the scourge of war” and maintain “international peace and security.” It was to be a democratic forum, “based on…the sovereign equality of all its members,”2 in which feuding member-nations could solve their conflicts through diplomacy rather than warfare. As part of its mission, the UN sought to promote democratic ideals such as human rights and racial equality around the world.

Yet, as Bolton points out, the UN’s actions have not always lived up to its ideals. In September 2001, for example, the UN held its first Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Despite its lofty name, the conference ultimately did little to combat racism. In fact, it may have done more to promote it. The Arab delegates hijacked the conference, replacing language in the conference’s declaration that condemned anti-Semitism with language that equated Zionism and racism.3  The conference became such a one-sided attack on Israel that both the United States and Israel decided to abandon it altogether. The incident was truly unfortunate: The conference, rather than uniting the world against the common enemy of racism, became a political tool to slander Israel and further divide the world along racial lines.

Much to the detriment of the world and the Middle East in particular, similar episodes are all too common at the UN. For over fifty years, the Arab bloc has, with the support of its Muslim and African allies, been able to obtain an automatic majority to promote countless anti-Israeli resolutions and policies that often fly in the face of all sense of reason and balance. Rather than becoming the positive force for peace in regions like the Middle East that its founders intended, the UN has become the political tool of the Arab world to slander Israel and promote its own agenda. Under Arab control, the UN has subjected Israel to an undeniable double standard while legitimizing terrorist Palestinian groups that aim to destroy the Jewish state. The UN hinders constructive dialogue between Israel and its neighbors by providing a powerful podium for uncompromising Arab maximalists to attack Israel and exacerbate the conflict. The UN has fallen short of its ideal of equality among nations, and instead succumbed to a near dictatorship of Arab interests—interests that too often work against the welfare of Western democracies in general and Israel in particular.

The Double Standard
While the UN claims to be based on “the sovereign equality” of its members, it unabashedly holds Israel to a double standard. As in the Conference Against Racism last year, the UN consistently singles Israel out on a variety of issues, including racial equality and human rights, while allowing other countries with far worse records—including, most often, Israel’s Arab accusers—to escape with little or no censure at all.

The UN’s discrimination against Israel is, in part, institutionalized. Since Israel joined the UN, it has been the only member not afforded the rights of other nations. The UN acts through a system of UN-run bodies each of which has a different set of objectives. Representation in several key UN bodies, like the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council, is based on groups of nations called regional groups. In order to sit on these committees, a member nation must belong to one of these groups. Yet the Asian group, in which Israel belongs geographically, is comprised mainly of Arab states that have blocked its entrance for over fifty years. For Israel to gain acceptance, the nations in the Asian group must agree unanimously, which will not happen in the foreseeable future because this requires the assent of nations like Syria, Iran and Iraq.4  Because of Israel’s exclusion from the Asian group, Israel has been the only member nation not eligible to sit on bodies like the Security Council. In June 2000, Israel finally gained membership in another regional group, the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). While Israel’s WEOG membership significantly increases Israel’s rights within the UN, the membership lasts only four years and is limited to WEOG offices in New York. Israel is still unable to participate in discussions about a variety of issues including human rights and racism in every other UN office around the world.5  While Israel’s acceptance into WEOG is a step in the right direction, Israel is still the only nation not afforded the rights of every other member nation.

In addition to, and in part because of, institutional discrimination against Israel, most of the resolutions the UN has passed on conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors have been hopelessly one-sided. The most infamous of these resolutions was the 1975 General Assembly (GA) resolution that “Determines that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”6  Zionism is the national aspiration of the Jewish people and manifests itself in the Jewish state, Israel. The resolution asserts that the UN opposes Israel’s existence as a homeland for Jews because the principles underlying its existence are racist. Statements like these not only contradict the UN’s affirmation that every member nation is sovereign and equal, but also preclude it from promoting peace in the region by showing that the UN rejects Israel’s very existence, let alone its claim to secure and recognized borders.

The resolution not only contravenes the UN’s purported objective, but the assertion that Israel is racist ignores the facts. The Jewish state does not, and has never discriminated based on race. While at the time the resolution was passed, Israel had not extended the full rights of citizenship to those living in the territories captured in the Six-Day War, this decision was not based on race. Israel denied citizenship to the civilians living in the territories because they were hostile to Israel and because Israel had pressing security needs—not because they were Arab. In fact, many Arabs had been living in Israel as full citizens since Israel’s independence in 1948. Furthermore, the Arab bloc that promoted the resolution was guilty of much worse forms of racism. While Arabs lived as equal citizens in Israel, by 1975 hundreds of thousands of Jews who had lived in the Arab world for centuries were expelled from their ancestral homes, most seeking refuge and securing citizenship in Israel.7  While racial equality in Israel was less than perfect, it was certainly better than in many nations throughout the world, in particular the Arab world.

The UN finally repealed this egregious resolution in 1991. However, as Bolton reported to the U.S. Congress’ Committee on International Relations in July of 1999, the campaign to repeal the resolution, “which should have been a self-evident proposition,” was extraordinarily difficult and took the direct involvement of high-level diplomats including then President Bush. Bolton goes on to conclude that “the very difficulty of repealing [the Zionism-is-racism resolution] showed just how deeply ingrained in the UN system were its venomous precepts, and why, even after repeal, its effects linger.” 8 The fact that Arab nations are now trying to revive the Zionism-is-racism doctrine as they did at the Conference Against Racism last year speaks to Bolton’s assessment that the UN’s bias is deep-seated.

While the Zionism-is-racism resolution was one of the most venomous anti-Israeli resolutions passed in the UN, as Bolton points out, it was “only the most visible of a long series…of offensive, anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-Western resolutions.”9  The GA, in 1998, passed 21 resolutions concerning Israel, all of which were critical of the Jewish state. Almost all of the resolutions were passed near-unanimously. Nineteen passed with only the U.S. and Israel voicing dissent; the remaining two had a few more opponents, but still passed by wide margins.10  At the annual UN Commission on Human Rights, Israel’s alleged human rights violations merited a full agenda item, while the combined violations in the other 184 member states were discussed in one other agenda item. Of all the resolutions passed in the annual commission, 26 percent condemned Israel, while Syrian and Libyan abuses have never been mentioned.11 

In February of 1999, an Emergency Session of the GA convened to discuss issues relating to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and passed resolution ES-106 entitled: “Illegal Israeli Actions in Occupied East Jerusalem And the Rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution,12  these emergency sessions can be called when the Security Council fails its mandate to maintain international peace. The UN rarely convenes these special sessions and only ten have been called in the UN’s history. Of these, six concerned Israel.13  While in the UN’s view, the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslovia did not merit these special sessions, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem did. The UN is obsessed with Israel—a country that comprises about one tenth of one percent of the world’s population. An organization truly concerned with fighting human rights abuses and racial inequity around the world would not focus such a disproportionate amount of energy on Israel.

Terror Justified: A Special PLO-UN Relationship
In December of 1970, the GA passed a resolution recognizing the legitimate right of “liberation movements” to use “all the necessary means at their disposal”14  to achieve their objectives. Four years after the GA passed this resolution green-lighting terrorism, the UN officially endorsed the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian refugees. The relationship between the PLO and the UN flourished from that point forward. The UN granted the PLO more privileges than any other non-member-nation. The PLO, in turn, twisted the UN’s democratic ideals to promote its terrorist war to destroy Israel.

The UN invited Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, to speak before the GA in 1974. At the time, the PLO’s stated objective was the destruction of Israel and its weapon of choice was terror. In an interview in The Washington Post in 1970, Arafat spelled out the PLO’s goals clearly: “The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromise.”15  Two years later, PLO terrorists killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO, reaffirmed its rejectionist policy in its 13th annual meeting in 1977, declaring it would not deal with “the racist Zionist regime” and that it would continue its armed resistance “without peace or recognition.”16  The objective of destroying Israel remained in the covenant of the council until 1996. When the UN legitimized Arafat and his terrorist organization by inviting him to speak in front of the GA, his ambition was to destroy Israel through violence and destruction.

Several months after Arafat’s speech, the GA took the unprecedented step of inviting Arafat’s PLO, a non-nation organization, to officially join the discussion about the Palestinian conflict with Israel as a permanent observer.  The UN crowned the PLO the “representative of the Palestinian people,” even though its stated objective was destruction and war—not peace, as the UN purported to promote.17  Worse still, by embracing the PLO as the Palestinian representative, the UN undermined more moderate forces within the Arab community who may have actually been able to achieve peace with Israel. The PLO, as an organization created and nominally controlled by foreign Arab states, was by no means the only natural choice. Jordan’s King Hussein, for instance, had long been an advocate for moderation with respect to Israel and, as the leader of the nation from which Israel captured the West Bank, was in a unique position to negotiate a final peace agreement.

With a foothold in the UN, the PLO proceeded to use the resources of the organization for its political objectives. In November 1975, a PLO-inspired resolution created the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), comprising of twenty member-nations, sixteen of which did not have diplomatic relations with Israel at the time.18  The following year, the committee was established and made its recommendations, which were at base a restatement of the PLO’s objectives.19  The committee recommended a two-phased program that essentially called for Israel’s destruction. In the first phase, the Arabs would set up an interim “entity” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip along the pre-1967 borders. The PLO insisted on the term “entity” (as opposed to “state”) to ensure it would not be forced to settle for a state in only the West Bank and Gaza. In the second phase, the UN would help the PLO “enable Palestinians displaced between 1948 and 1967 to exercise their right to return to their homes and property.”20  The now infamous “right” of return would, as both Israel and the PLO knew, create an Arab majority throughout Israel, giving the PLO complete control and either destroying the state of Israel entirely or destroying its character as a Jewish state. The committee disguised its recommendation to dismantle Israel as the fulfillment of Palestinian rights. The U.S. said the committee’s recommendations were “totally devoid of balance” and vetoed the committee’s recommendations in the Security Council.21  Nevertheless, the GA—in which the U.S. does not have veto power—adopted the Council’s recommendations with little change. By adopting such a one-sided position on the situation in Israel, the GA showed itself to be incapable of resisting the political power of the PLO.

In the years that followed, the PLO gained more power in the UN and began to use the organization to do more than pass one-sided resolutions. In 1977, the GA voted for the creation of the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR) within the Secretariat that was meant to publish studies, with the help of the CEIRPP, about “the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”22  The DPR became another tool for the PLO to promote its campaign against Israel under the guise of Palestinian rights. The DPR’s first Political Affairs officer went so far as to say that “everyone working in the [division] believes in the ideals of the PLO.”23  While the DPR was not the first PLO attempt to use the UN to further its political agenda, it was the first attempt to do so through the Secretariat. While other UN-bodies like the GA are comprised of interested member-nations and are therefore inherently political, the Secretariat ensures that the UN can function on a day-to-day basis and was supposed to be strictly international and unbiased in character. The creation of the DPR showed that even the Secretariat was not safe from the PLO’s political influence.

The DPR convened the following year and quickly became a propaganda machine meant to improve the image of the PLO and Yasser Arafat. One of the first tasks the DPR undertook was to establish the annual “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” On November 29 each year, CEIRPP holds special sessions as part of this Solidarity Day. For the first observance of the Solidarity Day, the DPR prepared a pro-PLO propaganda film that the New York Post called “an exercise in inflammatory irrelevance.”24  The film’s blatant misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated such an uproar, especially in the U.S., that its UN producers were forced to add a thirty second clip of Moshe Dayan addressing the GA and a news clip about a terrorist attack on Israeli schoolchildren. The PLO, outraged by the additions to the film, vetoed the project and the film was never actually released. The International Day of Solidarity is still held every November and is still a propaganda tool for the Palestinian cause. On the celebration’s website, one can read a selective account of the “History of the Palestine Problem.”25  Almost every instance of Arab aggression against Israel is conspicuously missing from the website’s account. The account fails to mention that the Arab nations attacked Israel when it declared its independence in 1948 and makes no mention of the Yom Kippur war of 1973 in which Egypt and Syria directly attacked Israel on the holiest of Jewish holy days. Also, the account’s only mention of terrorism refers to both Arab and Jewish violence before Israel’s independence. The terrorist war waged by groups like the PLO since Israel’s inception is never mentioned.  This one-sided account of the conflict provides a dangerous justification for Arab terrorism today. During the current Intifada, many Palestinian sympathizers have justified the horrific campaign of terror and suicide bombings orchestrated by groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad as products of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This theory is indeed completely plausible according to the UN’s account of the conflict as published on the Solidarity Day’s website. However, history tells us that Palestinian terrorism and Arab aggression predates and provoked the Israeli occupation, not the other way around.26 

The DPR is only one of the UN bodies that the PLO has used to spout its anti-Israel propaganda. In 1983, the Security Council, considered baseless accusations that Israel was responsible for “mass poisonings” by the PLO. Israel denied the accusations and both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United States Center for Disease Control confirmed the Israeli position. Nevertheless, the Security Council called for an inquiry into the claims and for complete World Health Organization control of health programs in the territories.27  More recently, the PLO observer to the UN told the 1997 Commission on Human Rights that Israeli doctors had given Palestinian children HIV—an accusation which of course was later proven false, yet nevertheless contributed to the on-going denigration of Israel’s image in international public opinion.28 

In addition to legitimizing the PLO’s agenda through propaganda, the UN treats Palestinian refugees differently from every other group of refugees to further the Arab political agenda. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the body charged with “the world-wide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems”29  either through repatriation or settlement in another country. The agency cares for all refugees “world-wide” except for Palestinians. Palestinians are cared for by a separate agency, the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), created by the UN in 1949 to specifically address the Palestinian refugee problem. The UNRWA’s objectives fundamentally differ from those of the UNHCR in that the UNRWA does not actively seek to permanently settle Palestinian refugees. Instead, the UNRWA only provides humanitarian aid to the refugees. While this may relieve some of the Palestinian’s acute suffering, in the long run, this special treatment of Palestinian refugees serves only to perpetuate their political repression.30 By bearing the cost of maintaining the refugees as a political weapon against Israel, the UN removes the economic incentive for the Arab states to solve the problem.  Ralph Galloway, a former UNRWA official, commenting on the UN’s policy observed that: “The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”31  By keeping the Palestinian refugees in limbo with the help of the UN, the Arab states can perpetuate their conflict with Israel and thereby divert both domestic and international attention from their own human rights violations.

In another stunning reminder of how far the UN has deviated from its original goal of promoting peace, the GA condemned the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The GA, in an obvious reference to the accords, stated that it “condemns all partial agreements” because, in the view of the majority, such agreements undermined the rights of the Palestinian people.32  Despite this resolution, the agreement between Israel and Egypt showed for the first time that peace between Israel and Arabs was possible and that Palestinian rights might one day be fulfilled. The Camp David Accords have been a model for peace between Israel and its neighbors: Israel traded land for genuine peace that lasts to this date. The GA’s reaction to the Accords is merely an extreme example of how the PLO turned the UN into a peace-condemning organization.

The UN in the Current Conflict
The UN’s actions regarding the current conflict have reflected much of the same bias and extremism. For the first eighteen months of the conflict the UN sat idly by, passing a resolution every now and then that condemned the violence on both sides. During these months, Palestinians intentionally targeted Israeli civilians, a clear violation of international law, in their campaign of terror and suicide bombings. In January 2002, when Israel seized the Karine-A, a ship sailing with 50 tons of Iranian weapons bought by the Palestinian Authority (PA), it became clearer than ever that the PA was in fact promoting terrorism. Despite this, the UN did not see fit to investigate the PA’s involvement in the violence over which Arafat claimed to have no control. When Israel invaded the Jenin and Balata refugee camps in February following a spate of suicide attacks and found bomb factories and stockpiles of arms demonstrating that the UN run camps had become hotbeds of terror, the UN did not see fit to confront its own role in facilitating terrorism.33 

After a second Israeli operation in Jenin in April 2002, when Palestinians and UN officials alleged that a massacre had occurred and that Israel had committed war crimes—even though no substantive evidence to support these claims could be produced—the UN decided to investigate. Israel, with nothing to hide, immediately agreed to a fact-finding mission. Aware of the UN’s consistent bias, however, Israel placed several conditions on its cooperation with the commission to ensure a balanced outcome. In the end, the UN proved unwilling to provide any assurance of balance, refusing to investigate allegations of Palestinian wrong doing in Jenin in addition to the allegations against Israel. The UN ultimately aborted the mission.34 The incident generated a great deal of international attention and damaged Israel’s image. The UN finally published a report in August, based on reports made by other humanitarian groups, verifying most of Israel’s account of the battle and rejecting the accusation that Israel had committed a massacre in Jenin. While the report refused to judge whether or not Israel had done everything possible to protect civilians, it certainly debunked claims that Israel intentionally massacred Palestinian civilians.35  The report, unfortunately, received only a fraction of the attention garnered by the initial conflict over the probe and ultimately did little to reverse the damage to Israel’s image.

Yosef Tekoah, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, remarked in the preface of In the Face of Nations, that:

Few nations feel as profound an affinity to the ideals of the United Nations as the Jewish people. The vision of universal peace is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Prophets. The concept of a family of nations upholding the values of justice and morality is a cardinal tenet of the Jewish faith. So are also the principles of human rights.39 
Given that the ideals of the UN and the Jewish state are so commensurate, it is astounding and disheartening that the UN has been so consistently hostile towards Israel. Why does the world’s democracy condemn the shining example of democracy in a sea of oppressive Middle Eastern regimes? Former U.S. ambassador John Scali, addressing the GA, explained the apparent contradiction:
The function of all parliaments is to provide expression to the majority will. Yet, when the rule of the majority becomes the tyranny of the majority, the minority will cease to respect or obey it, and the parliament will cease to function. Every majority must recognize that its authority does not extend beyond the point where the minority becomes so outraged that it is no longer willing to maintain the covenant which binds them.40
The UN’s legitimization of terror and unrelenting bias against Israel do more than hurt Israel’s standing in the world. They are evidence of a perversion of the UN’s democratic principles. By exacerbating an already hopeless conflict between Arabs and Israelis, the UN undermines the peace and equality among nations it pretends to promote. The UN’s consistent mistreatment of Israel demonstrates that the organization does not legitimately express the will of the world but is rather beholden to a tyranny of Arab interests.
Ronen Mukamel, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Rochester, New York.
1. “The Treatment of Israel by the United Nations,” hearing before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 106th Congress, July 14, 1999 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999), p. 69.
2. “Charter of the United Nations,” UN (http://www.un.org/aboutun/charter/index.html).
3. “Arabs Reject Racism Compromise,” CNN.com, September 6, 2001.
4. “Israel’s Request to Join WEOG,” (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/UN/weog.html).
5. Israel is barred from UN offices in Geneva, Nairobi, Rome, and Vienna because of its limited membership in WEOG.
6. GA Resolution 3379.
7. It is estimated that in 1948, 850,000 Jews lived in the Arab world. By 1984, only 29,000 remained, most of them having moved to Israel. See Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial (Chicago: J. KAP, 1984), p. 33.
8. Congress, p. 70.
9. Ibid..
10. Ibid., p. 83.
11. Ibid., p. 63 (statistics as of 1999). Both Syria and Libya commonly practice torture, extrajudicial execution and political imprisonment. See the “Human Rights in the Middle East,” Amnesty International, (http://www.amnesty-volunteer.org/usa/)mideast/reports/).
12. GA Resolution 337.
13. “GA Emergency Special Sessions,” UN (http://www.un.org/ga/documents/liemsps.htm).
14. GA Resolution 2708, as cited in Harris Okun Schoenberg, A Mandate for Terror: The United Nations and the PLO (New York: Shapolsky, 1989), p. 73.
15. Ibid., p. 37.
16. Ibid., p. 126.
17. GA Resolution 3210, as cited in Ibid., p. 51.
18. GA Resolution 3376, as cited in Ibid., p. 113. The GA appointed 20 nations to sit on the committee: Afghanistan, Cuba, Cyprus, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Guinea, Hungary, India, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Pakistan, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Turkey, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Yugoslavia. Only four of these countries maintained diplomatic relations with Israel: Cyprus, Malta, Romania, and Turkey.
19. Ibid., p. 115.
20. Ibid., p. 116.
21. Ibid., p. 118.
22. Ibid., p. 122.
23. A. W. Siddiq from Afghanistan as quoted in Ibid., p. 128.
24. Ibid., 131.
25. “The History of the Palestine Problem,” UN (http://www.un.org/Depts/dpa/ngo/history.html).
26. For instance, between 1951-1955, Arab terrorists who crossed the borders between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan killed 922 Israelis. For a list of some of the significant terrorist attacks between 1948 and 1967, see “Which Came First, Terrorism or Occupation?” Ministry of Foreign Affairs (http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0ldc0).
27. Congress, p. 93.
28. Ibid.
29. “UNHCR,” UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.ch).
30. Schoenberg, p. 182.
31. As cited in Ibid.
32. GA Resolution 3490.
33. Michael Rubin, “The UN’s Refugees,” The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2002.
34. David Tell, “The Jenin Probe Ends,” The Daily Standard, May 1, 2002.
35. “Report of the Secretary-General on Jenin,” UN (http://www.un.org/peace/jenin/).
36. Yosef Tekoah, In the Face of the Nations: Israel’s Struggle for Peace (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 11.
37. Schoenberg, p. 42.

This Issue

HIR Notebook
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Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

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An Interview with Efraim Karsh