The Security Council Intifada

The Palestinians have brought their fight against occupation to the United Nations. Is the United States too boxed in to stop them?

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

For the last several weeks, the United Nations Security Council has been the focus of unusually intense activity related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinian and other Arab diplomats have been drumming up support for a resolution that would require Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory. Working primarily through Jordan, which is now serving as an elected Council member, the Palestinians have backed a sweeping resolution that would dramatically alter the diplomatic landscape.

“We want a clear and specific resolution for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, resolving all the final status issues, releasing all detainees and refugees and labeling settlement activity illegal and should be stopped immediately, including in Jerusalem,” Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ lead negotiator on peace talks, told the media earlier this week.

For its part, France was reportedly pushing a more nuanced resolution that would call for the resumption of negotiations but without demanding an end to the occupation. In the last 24 hours, it appears that the two diplomatic streams have merged to a degree. On Wednesday evening, Jordan formally submitted a resolution that calls for a comprehensive peace within a year and an end to the occupation no later than November 2017.

The flurry of Council diplomacy is part of a broader push by Palestinian diplomats and their supporters to capitalize on international frustration with Israel and to use multilateral institutions as means of pressuring Israel into a policy shift. In recent months, the Palestinian Authority has moved to join a clutch of international organizations and treaties, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Those moves are starting to pay diplomatic dividends: A meeting of the states that belong to the Geneva Conventions, another treaty Palestine has joined, rebuked Israel’s settlement policies this week. Palestinian officials have also dangled the prospect of joining the International Criminal Court, a step that Israel fears and that Washington has warned against.

This week’s Security Council move is one piece of this broader strategy, but it also marks a new chapter in the Council’s long and tortured relationship with the Middle East. For almost 70 years, the body charged with maintaining international peace and security has failed utterly to resolve the longstanding conflict. For all the hubbub in New York, there’s little reason to believe this encounter will be any more fruitful.

The Council can point to a few limited successes on the Middle East conflict. The United States and the Soviet Union collaborated on resolutions that helped end the 1967 and 1973 wars and provided a rough blueprint for peace negotiations, including the famous “land for peace” formulation. After the Cold War, the Security Council facilitated Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in the late 1990s. But for the most part, the elite diplomatic body has been a bit player in the Holy Land. It has not played an important role in peace negotiations or in responding to the first and second intifadas. Most fundamentally, it has never summoned the collective political will to impose a solution on the parties.

There are several reasons for the Council’s recurrent impotence on the Middle East. Most important, the veto-wielding United States has had no desire to see the 15-member body any more involved than it is. Beginning in the late 1960s, the United States emerged as a staunch military and diplomatic ally of Israel. That alignment has put Washington out of step with even close Council allies, such as France and Britain, when it comes to the region. With the vote count almost always grim, generations of U.S. diplomats have preferred to minimize the Council’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. diplomats on the Security Council have spent most of their time in a defensive crouch: since 1970, the United States has vetoed dozens of resolutions that it deemed too critical of Israel.

But there is another, less frequently discussed reason for the Council’s record of marginalization: The rest of the membership has limited appetite for sustained diplomatic involvement in the conflict. Leaving aside a few diplomatic gambits, Britain, France, Russia, and China have been content to watch from the sidelines, chastising the Israelis and the Palestinians and clucking regretfully about what they consider Washington’s disastrously one-sided position.

It’s doubtful that the new initiative at the Security Council represents a major change in that dynamic. But the draft resolution does put the Obama administration and U.S. Amb. Samantha Power in a difficult position. American acquiescence to any resolution pressuring Israel would further sour the increasingly rocky U.S-Israeli relationship just a few months before an important Israeli election. Israel relies on the American veto to provide diplomatic cover, and the removal of that protection would likely be a shock to the Israeli body politic. As a story in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz noted, a diplomatic crisis at the Security Council could “push Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to pressure from his right-leaning electorate, into more extreme retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority.”

An American veto is still quite possible. In the end, however, a combination of U.S. diplomatic and domestic political calculations just might convince the Obama administration not to block even a resolution it dislikes. A veto would alienate partners in Europe and the Arab world at the same time Washington is struggling to keep intact its coalition against the Islamic State. As its bold Cuba gambit suggests, a second-term Obama administration is more willing to endure howls of outrage from Capitol Hill, which will be forthcoming if the administration opts not to use its veto.

Internal Security Council dynamics might also encourage the United States to reluctantly accept a resolution, particularly if the current draft can be softened enough. If the Council passes a resolution now it will be less likely to revisit the subject after the New Year, when Venezuela and Malaysia take up seats and make the body even less friendly to Israel. The stage may be set for another in a string of multilateral wins for Palestine. Whether it would amount to anything on the ground is far from certain.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist