NEW YORK, March 28 (JTA) – With the help of a U.S. veto, Israel this week fended off Palestinian attempts to convince the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and “internationalize” the Middle East conflict.
Together with their Arab and Third World partners, the Palestinians had hoped the U.N. Security Council would express support for such a force – at least in principle – and send a strong message during the Arab League summit in Jordan.
After five days of Security Council debate on the issue, the Palestinians had secured the necessary nine votes – including Russia, which had abstained from a similar Palestinian effort in December – to pass the measure on the 15- member council.
But the United States vetoed the resolution late Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council said Wednesday that the resolution insufficiently addressed the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians need protection, and that the resolution was unclear about the necessity for Palestinian leaders to take steps to end the violence.
The veto was the United States’ first since 1997, when it vetoed a resolution that called on Israel to stop building in disputed areas of Jerusalem.
The five Security Council members with veto power – Russia, China, France and Britain, in addition to the United States – are reluctant to use it for fear of angering smaller nations.
The issue is unlikely to go away, however.
Some U.N. members are increasingly frustrated both with their perceived fecklessness in the face of continuing Mideast violence and the United States’ ability to undermine U.N. efforts to get more involved in the conflict.
These countries hint of more drastic measures such as bypassing the Security Council in favor of the General Assembly, where the vast Arab and Muslim bloc holds sway among the 189 members.
Unlike Security Council resolutions, however, those passed in the General Assembly are not legally binding.
Describing the situation as “worsening,” Colombia’s U.N. ambassador, Alfonso Valdivieso, told JTA before the vote that the Security Council “cannot remain silent.”
“We cannot continue with the idea that involvement of the Security Council is harmful to the process; it’s an error,” Valdivieso said.
The United States maintains that an international force – ostensibly intended to protect Palestinian civilians – must have the consent of both Israel and the Palestinians. In practice, no country would agree to provide soldiers or other personnel for a mission likely to be greeted with hostility.
Israel opposes the force as unnecessary, and says it is likely to be ineffective.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said earlier this month that if Palestinians stopped attacking Israeli troops – and launching terrorist attacks against civilians – they wouldn’t need “protection” from any Israeli response.
Moreover, Israel believes U.N. intervention might lead to an imposed, not negotiated, solution to the conflict – one imposed by a world body Israel sees as inherently biased against the Jewish state by virtue of the large Arab and Muslim bloc and its allies.
Valdivieso, who served as ambassador to Israel in 1992, said he appreciates the Israeli perspective and the complexity of the situation.
However, he said, “The international community is receiving the wrong message, that the Security Council is apart from the conflict. We must defend the role of the Security Council and comply with our responsibility to confront the violence.”
Valdivieso said he hoped an international mission would act as a catalyzing force whose presence would bring a halt to the violence, paving the way for a resumption of peace talks.
But Israeli officials say the effect would be just the opposite.
“It would just be a prize for Palestinian cynicism,” one Israeli diplomat said. “They started the violence, then they ask for protection from violence.”
This week’s Arab summit included surprisingly harsh criticism of Israel from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who in the past has been praised by Israeli leaders for his moderation.
“The international community and the Arab world have every right to criticize Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and for its excessively harsh response to the Intifada,” Annan said. “But these points could be made more effectively if many Israelis did not believe that their existence was under threat.”
To some Jewish observers, calling Israeli reaction to attacks “excessive” is a way of blaming Israel for the ongoing violence.
Observers say that Israel’s success in forestalling a U.N. force is only partial; the Arabs and their U.N. allies will try to paint Israeli resistance to such a force as a lack of sincerity to end the violence.
“We can ignore it as the same-old, same-old, but the U.N. has tremendous authority around the world and the Security Council has binding legal authority according to international law to enforce their decisions,” said Shula Bahat, acting executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “So it does matter what happens there.”
U.N. pressure on Israel is unlikely to let up.
If the issue does move to the General Assembly, Palestinian supporters might argue that a Palestinian state already exists de facto in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and thus an intervention force can be sent there.
Some dismiss that scenario as implausible because the United Nations would need Israeli clearance to physically enter the Palestinian territories.
“Do the Arabs use the U.N. for theater or for resolving problems? They use it for theater,” Bahat said. “The Palestinians are not serious about reaching a peace settlement, so they use the political force of the global arena to try to accomplish their goals.”
But Jewish observers say there’s more to the request for peacekeepers than just “protecting” Palestinians.
Any sort of international presence coordinated by the United Nations would advance the Palestinian agenda, Jewish observers say.
Rather than force Palestinians to return to the negotiating table – and American mediation that the Arab world views as pro-Israeli – a force from the Palestinian-friendly U.N. would create “facts on the ground” that could be expanded over the years.
This time, “they would settle for observers who write reports,” Bahat said. “The next time it could be beefed up to include humanitarian or logistical analysts, then civilian police, then military observers, until you have armed peacekeepers.”
Observers say it’s not unusual for U.N. peacekeepers to be used as shields. For example, if Hamas were to shoot at Israeli troops from among a crowd of U.N. peacekeepers, Israel presumably would be reluctant to shoot back.
And Israeli officials note that last October, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers on patrol along the Israel-Lebanon border, while U.N. peacekeepers reportedly looked on from a nearby outpost.
A peacekeeping mission also raises another question: Which countries would commit troops? Would they be friends or foes of Israel?
Peacekeepers are human, and have their own preferences and prejudices. The U.N. mission in Bosnia in the mid-1990s was tainted when it emerged that French peacekeepers had tipped off the Bosnian Serbs to U.N. plans.
Valdivieso was asked if Israeli concerns of unfair treatment at the United Nations are irrational.
“I understand that’s a feeling that comes from reality; it’s not invented by Israel,” he said. “The paradox is, Israel was established and allowed to exist through the U.N.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.