'Impending diplomatic tsunami' is greatly exaggerated

When friends of Israel fret about delegitimization by the UN General Assembly, they unwittingly give the body more power than it has.

April 11, 2011 22:50
3 minute read.
The United Nations headquarters in New York.

United Nations 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Palestinian Authority’s declared intention of seeking admission to the United Nations from the General Assembly would be considered a triumph for the Palestinians and would ostensibly put Israel in instant legal and diplomatic jeopardy if it does not promptly withdraw to the armistice lines of 1949. But these assumptions give the possible GA vote far more significance and legitimacy than it deserves.

First, the General Assembly can only admit states upon the recommendation of the Security Council, where an American veto appears to block the way. In the absence of such a recommendation, seeking recognition from the GA resolution is at best a legal nullity, and a mockery of the procedures enshrined in the UN Charter.

Even within the scope of its role in admitting new members, the GA only has the power to admit states, not the power to create or determine members’ borders. (That role, within the UN system, would fall to the International Court of Justice or the Security Council). The Security Council has already determined in Resolution 242, adopted in the wake of the Six Day War, that Israel need not return all of the land it took from various Arab states in that conflict. Certainly the GA cannot overrule the Security Council. Moreover, one of the first opinions of the Court held that decisions about membership cannot be leveraged to push other substantive agendas. Thus it is meaningless to speak of the GA recognizing Palestine with any particular set of borders. Just as the GA had no binding role to play in 1947, when it came out in favor of a partition of the Palestine Mandate, it can no more enforce partition now.

Another major fallacy contends that the GA’s recognition of a Palestinian state within all of the Green Line would automatically make Israel an international outlaw, because it would be occupying some of that territory. Palestinian leaders dramatically claim that Israel would be in “daily violation” of the GA resolution. If the GA’s resolutions controlled Israel’s legitimacy, it would long have ceased to exist within any borders. The international parliament in 1975 famously adopted its “Zionism equals racism” resolution, condemning the very project of a Jewish state in the Middle East within any borders. Yet the endorsement of the idea by an overwhelming vote of the GA did not make it real or true, and the resolution was eventually rescinded, the only GA measure to meet such a fate.

EVEN IF Palestine were properly admitted to the UN, the occupation of territory within the internationally recognized borders of a UN member by another member is not uncommon. It does not result in condemnation, boycotts or even any attention. For example, Turkey occupies half of Cyprus; Russia occupies several sections of Georgia, Moldova and other former Soviet states. And that is just tranquil Europe. Indeed, Russia significantly expanded its occupation and colonization of Georgia in the war two years ago, yet it remains an erstwhile member of the Middle East Quartet. Even if a Palestinian state were announced by the GA, conflict would exist only over a small portion of the territory. Because of the Oslo process, which turned half of the West Bank over to Palestinian control, and the 2005 disengagement, which took all Israeli troops and civilians out of Gaza, Israel’s central demands now involve sovereignty over settlements, which make up a small percentage of the total area. A Palestinian state would join the long list of states that have unresolved border disputes with neighbors. None of these situations results in a diplomatic tsunami.

To be sure, GA recognition of Palestine may be turned into an occasion for further demonizing and isolating the Jewish state. But that would not be the obvious and natural effect of such a resolution. It would simply be the illegitimate use to which Israel’s critics and enemies may choose to put it, a use that has nothing to do with international law or neutral principles. Those nations and organizations willing to jump on such a hollow excuse for a diplomatic assault on Israel have clearly already made up their minds.

Delegitimization by the UN can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When friends of Israel fret about delegitimization by the GA, they unwittingly give the body more power than it has.

The writer is a professor of law at Northwestern University, specializing in international and constitutional law.

Caroline Glick’s Our World column will resume on April 26.

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