On January 24, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Member states gathered in New York to recall how the world failed to prevent the most sadistic and maniacal element of Hitler’s war machine.
But that is not all that was recalled. In the shadow of the Holocaust, the newly created U.N. mobilized to protect Jews from future persecution by approving the Partition Plan and establishing the State of Israel. The first two General Assembly special sessions, held in 1947 and 1948, discussed what was referred to at the time as the “Palestine problem.”
Almost 60 years later, the “Palestine problem” remains, while Israel and the U.N. have grown estranged. As the U.N. played an increased role in the plight of the Palestinian people, Israel began to distrust the organization. To many observers, Israel has been treated as a pariah state by the very body that created it. In recent years, Israelis have come to cringe when they hear the words special session and Israel linked together; six of the 10 emergency special sessions have met to condemn Israel for its policies in Gaza and the West Bank.
The recent special session, however, represents a significant break from the norm. Creating the session required a partnership between Israel, the General Assembly and Secretary General Kofi Annan. This cooperation, unprecedented in recent U.N. history, may mark a turning point in the Israeli-U.N. relationship and offers a guide to how this rapprochement can be achieved.
The special session was called by Annan at Israel’s suggestion. This is the second time that the secretary general has used the Secretariat to promote awareness of the Holocaust and the struggle against antisemitism. Such leadership is a positive step toward reassuring Israel and Jews across the world that the world body is not blind to issues affecting Jews.
These steps are certainly not a panacea. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant source of tension between Israel and the Secretariat. With billions of dollars of the U.N.’s budget spent on aiding Palestinian refugees through the U.N. Relief and Works Administration and U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the region, diplomatic crises are sure to continue. However, nurturing partnerships between Israel and the secretary general in other matters will likely have a confidence-building effect on both sides, and could positively impact their working relationship in otherwise prickly political matters.
Even more striking than Annan’s welcome step was the General Assembly’s response to the special session: Thirty countries, including 25 members of the European Union, joined with Israel in presenting a joint request to the secretary general to convene the session. Out of 191 member states, more than 135 countries responded positively to the special session, among them the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman. These countries, many of which are normally downright hostile to Israel in the U.N., chose not to derail the initiative while others supported the effort.
At minimum, the story of the special session underscores that cooperation between Israel and General Assembly members is possible. It further illustrates that General Assembly member states are willing to vote with Israel on initiatives that do not force them to choose between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel would be wise to cultivate economic and social projects within the U.N. Reaching out to other member states, as Prime Minister Golda Meir did in the 1960s before the Six-Day War, would be a worthwhile effort. A more substantive diplomacy, one not limited to the political realm, may ultimately result in increasing Israel’s strategic depth.
That being said, any hope of a renewed relationship between Israel and the U.N. depends on who will direct Palestinian foreign policy. It is no coincidence that Israel and the U.N. were able to create the recent special session during the period when Palestinians were preoccupied with questions of succession. In the past, the primary hurdle that has prevented Israel from cultivating a more diverse and prominent role in the U.N. has been the Palestinian mission to the world body.
During the Arafat years, Palestinians politicized all agenda items of the General Assembly and delegitimized Israel in the process. Even as they conducted bilateral negotiations with Israel during the Oslo years, the conduct of the Palestinians never changed. The Palestinians persistently mobilized the near-automatic vote of the group of non-aligned U.N. member states to try to force Israeli concessions. Most recently, the Palestinian mission orchestrated a General Assembly vote on the Israeli separation fence, calling for the International Court of Justice to rule on the fence’s legality. If any rapprochement is to be achieved between the U.N. and Israel, the world body and its member states must encourage the new Palestinian leadership to promote a policy that is not grounded in divisiveness and delegitimization.
Israel and the U.N. should use the recent special session as an opportunity to open a new chapter in their otherwise turbulent relationship. While Israel persistently reminds the world body of its grievances and the immorality of siding with a cause whose tactics include targeting civilians and suicide bombings, it needs to be more than a moralizing lecturer in the U.N.
Ignoring the U.N., as some suggest, is not a pragmatic position; many states take their cues by what happens in the U.N., and are not satisfied with an American blessing of Israeli policy. Simply put, Israel must work with the U.N. However, Israel cannot create a new epoch in the Israeli-U.N. relationship alone.
The U.N. and its member states should seize upon the new window of opportunity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and encourage the Palestinians to pursue an agenda of reconciliation and moderation in the world body. The cooperation that led to the January 24 special session is exceptional in recent U.N. history; all parties must strive to make it become the rule.
Roger Zakheim is senior articles editor of the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics.