The way people carry on, you might think the United Nations Security Council was some sort of street gang waiting to beat us up on our way to school. Diplomats say that’s an unfair characterization; they speak of the council as though it were a gathering of tribal elders divining eternal truths.
They’re both wrong. To understand the Security Council, think of it as a combination of county courthouse, U.S. Senate and student council. Friends of Israel don’t get that, which is why they keep getting disappointed.
Case in point: the February 18 council meeting where the U.S. vetoed a resolution demanding that Israel stop building what were termed illegal settlements. As in any courthouse, the complaint was read, and then advocates for both sides began speechifying and jabbing their fingers. Then the jurors voted.
As in any courthouse, the important question isn’t whose feelings get hurt but whether a defendant gets jail time — or, in Security Council terms, is threatened with economic sanctions or an armed incursion, a la Korea 1950 or Kuwait 1991.
Yes, the Security Council can send soldiers. That’s why the U.S. veto is so crucial to Israel. Condemnation from the General Assembly is no big deal. It’s just a debating club. The Security Council is more like a billy club. It’s the U.N.’s enforcement arm.
On the other hand, wielding the veto is not a simple decision these days. There hadn’t been a veto in five years. Back when the council was constantly thrashing Israel, the American veto routinely ignited bursts of Arab indignation, brief but fierce. Today, Washington’s relations with the Arab world are more volatile. Tempers are raw after a decade of American military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. To top it off, the Arab street is on fire. Pro-American regimes have toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, and another is teetering in Bahrain, home of our Fifth Fleet. According to Israeli news reports, American officials worried that a veto would give fuel to radicals.
That, not anti-Israel bias, is why the Obama administration tried desperately to avoid using the veto. The American ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, tried in vain to have the wording changed from “illegal” to “illegitimate” and to downgrade the draft from a binding “resolution” to a non-binding “statement.” Being called illegitimate is a slap on the wrist. Having your behavior formally ruled illegal — for the first time in 44 years — lays the groundwork for sanctions or worse. That’s bad.
When all else failed, President Obama phoned Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas the day before the vote and spent 50 minutes trying to convince him to withdraw the motion. Abbas replied, Israeli officials told The Jerusalem Post, that he wouldn’t survive if he backed down. Not after Cairo.
Facing a binding resolution, America had no choice but to veto. Not because it approves of settlements. America thinks settlements are a terrible idea, as Rice glumly stated after the vote. But America wants the dispute settled in negotiations, not courtroom battles. American officials are peeved at Israelis and Palestinians alike for failing to negotiate and leaving Washington to take the heat.
Israel, of course, says it’s all the Palestinians’ fault. It says their U.N. gambit is just the latest move in their campaign to isolate and delegitimize Israel, proving again that they won’t accept Israel’s existence. Israel has no choice but to resist their assault using the tools at its disposal, including the American veto.
The Palestinians tell it differently. They say they were negotiating earnestly back in 2008 and were close to a deal when Israel changed governments. Incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had run for office vowing to roll back his predecessor’s concessions. Netanyahu asks for negotiations but insists on starting from scratch as though the previous talks never happened. The Palestinians say they won’t fall for that, and they have a few tools at their disposal, too. Israel has the State Department and warplanes; the Palestinians have the U.N. and the campuses. If they outdo Israel in the court of world opinion, maybe Israel needs better lawyers.
Fortunately for Israel, the court of world opinion doesn’t work like other courts. As noted, it’s a lot like the U.S. Senate: Having a majority doesn’t mean you win. On February 18, for example, Israel managed to defeat the resolution by a very senatorial margin of one nay to 14 yeas.
If the council vote were merely a trial, Israel could say it escaped unscathed. One acquittal is as good as another. But the Security Council isn’t just a courtroom. It’s also a bit like a student council election. It shows what your peers think of you. By that standard, 14-to-1 is a very lonely ratio. It means almost none of your classmates likes you. What’s worse, you’re back in school the next day, walking the same halls, watching them look at you and wondering what’s next.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).