At the AIPAC conference in Washington DC last week, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that “the days of Israel-bashing at the UN are over.” Describing herself as a “new sheriff in town,” she promised to “change the culture of the UN” by making it clear that the U.S. would not tolerate opposition to Israel’s policies within the international body. As evidence of this supposedly new U.S. influence, she pointed to the pressure she exerted to censor the report by UN ESCWA which determined, that Israel is guilty of apartheid according to international law. She also bragged about blocking the appointment of Salam Fayyad as UN envoy to Libya simply because he is Palestinian, a move that former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro called “stunningly dumb.”
While this bluster proved appealing to the AIPAC attendees who showered Haley with applause, it was little more than hot air. It is clear that “Israel-bashing” for Haley simply means attempting to hold Israel accountable for its violations of human rights and international law against the Palestinians—violations for which Israel has enjoyed near-endless impunity. What has made this possible is the fact that the only UN organ with any real clout, the Security Council (UNSC), reflects the interest of the Permanent Five (P5), which have veto power. For the U.S., this means that its position on Israel triumph.
THE U.S. AND ISRAEL AT THE UN
Staunch U.S. support for Israel at the UN is nothing new. In fact it predates Israel’s establishment in 1948. It is to such historic U.S. influence that Israel partly owes its legal foundation. In 1947, a recommendation to partition the former British Mandate for Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, was introduced at the nascent UN General Assembly (UNGA). It was followed by a concerted U.S. effort to pressure, threaten and coerce fellow UN members into supporting the Zionist-backed plan. Despite the fact that the plan violated the will of the Palestinian majority, 33 of 56 member nations voted for the proposal. Although the plan was never fully implemented, passage of Resolution 181 gave a legal imprimatur to Israel’s establishment, and gave the Zionist forces’ military conquest of Palestine legitimacy. In light of all this, Haley’s rhetoric is hardly the advent of a new policy: rather, it is a continuation of historic U.S. endorsement of Israel at the UN.
Today, however, the United States no longer holds as much sway at the General Assembly. When the State of Palestine formally applied for non-member observer status in 2012, the resolution passed with ease (despite the usual threats). Instead, the United States operates primarily in the Security Council to dictate policy on Israel, using its P5 status and veto power. Since 1948, the U.S. has employed its veto more than forty times to stop resolutions critical of Israel. Such diplomatic cover has allowed Israel the impunity described. This is not to say that the U.S. has blocked anti-Israel resolutions without exception. It has withheld its veto historically to nudge Israel and ensure that UN policy follows its own, as in 1980 when Israel passed its Basic Law on Jerusalem or recently with Resolution 2334 on settlements. But if Trump and Haley’s rhetoric is anything to go by, such instances will likely become a thing of the past.
Indeed, Hayley’s bravado stands a good chance of becoming an embarrassment. The UN is not a monolith. There is a stark distinction between political organs like the UNSC and other bodies over which the United States has very little influence. Indeed, many of these agencies have boldly and courageously defended Palestinian human rights and opposed Israel’s oppressive policies, particularly in the occupied territories. Furthermore, the options for further internationalization of the Palestinian struggle at the UN may demonstrate to Haley that she does not hold the power she thinks she does. As an example, after UNESCO voted to accept Palestine as a member state, it stripped the United States of its voting rights for failing to pay its dues rather than cave to U.S. opposition and threats to withhold funding. Last week, the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements, and calling for their boycott, despite U.S. and Israeli attempts to scuttle the measure. Finally, the ESCWA report, which uses the UN’s own convention on the crime of apartheid to expose Israeli apartheid, was a clear and principled example of advocacy for Palestinian rights under the UN umbrella.
The relative freedom of these cultural and humanitarian organs to criticize Israel stems in part from the United States’ lack of institutional influence in these bodies. Unlike at the Security Council where it holds veto power, the United States is merely a member of UNESCO and UNHRC. It can vote against measures and threaten and cajole fellow members, but cannot silence critical measures.
It is possible that Hayley’s attempts to “change the culture” at the UN will backfire. The Trump administration budget proposal includes deep cuts to U.S. contributions, which could severely damage the UN budget, since the United States is one of the international body’s largest funders. Former George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams recently suggested using this contribution as leverage (perhaps more accurately described as blackmail?) to ensure the placement of U.S. officials in influential positions in order to maintain Washington’s sway. While he did not mention Israel specifically, his track record certainly includes support for Israel amongst the U.S. interests Abrams was advocating.
On the Palestinian side, the political leadership has the option to continue expanding its internationalization efforts. In addition to signing the Rome Statute and joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), the PA and Palestinian NGOs have submitted evidence to the court that could see the indictment of Israeli officials for war crimes. Ruthless smear campaigns, including death threats, likely with Israeli government involvement, have ensued in an attempt to derail such action at the court. Resort to such base and desperate tactics at the ICC betray the lack of influence of both Israel and the United States at the UN beyond the UNSC.
Nikki Haley would do herself and all of us a favor if she understood that.