Business as usual

What is it about the UN that prevents it from falling in line with its own peace-pursuing charter?

When Richard Schifter represented the United States at UN bodies in Geneva and New York in the 1980s, there was a joke among diplomats about a parallel universe the UN world existing alongside the real one. The "UN world is a make-believe world," Schifter says, pointing out the continued battery of anti-Israel resolutions that accompany the organ's preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which is why, in spite of Israel's disengagement from Gaza, the UN General Assembly, which opened September 17, will go about business as usual. That business will revolve around empty political resolutions that, in striving to be even-handed, miss the gravity of Israel's recent move and, as a consequence, the opportunity to help pave the road toward peace at a critical juncture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The harbinger of what's to come debuted only last month. The UN Security Council issued a press statement supporting the disengagement process, but fell short of directly commending the Israeli government. And a monthly security council briefing on the conflict tempered its praise of the Israeli withdrawal with criticisms of Israeli actions like settlement building. Taken together, the moves disappointed Israeli officials, reinforcing their interest in avoiding UN intervention. This lukewarm UN stance comes, ironically, as a wide swath of diplomatic leaders from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have congratulated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his disengagement plan. So what is it about the United Nations that prevents it from adjusting to reality, in line with its own peace-pursuing charter? And what do those discrepancies cost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the organization itself, especially as it prepares for a major internal reform? Despite its membership in the diplomatic Quartet along with the United States, European Union and Russia which has devised the road map peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, the United Nations, on its own, is impotent. Widespread recognition of UN bias even among the countries that vote against Israel has led to a serious credibility problem. The UN itself acknowledges this failing in its own reform plan. The organization's ability to help broker progress in resolving the conflict is undermined by its institutional collusion with the Palestinians, the only people to hold a division within the UN secretariat devoted to their political plight. As noted in a July 2005 report of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), which is chaired by Schifter, the UN Department of Political Affairs contains a Division for Palestinian Rights, a body comparable to divisions responsible for entire hemispheres. Additionally, the Division for Palestinian Rights provides support to a UN General Assembly committee whose mandate flies in the face of the road map. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People states its purpose is to "enable the Palestinian people to exercise their inalienable rights to self-determination without external interference, national independence and sovereignty; and to return to their homes and property." Since the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees is one of the key sticking points to be resolved under the road map, the Division for Palestinian Rights undermines the UN role in the Quartet, says the AJIRI in its analysis of institutional anti-Israel bias of the United Nations. In addition there's the UN Relief and Works Agency, a program exclusively devoted to Palestinian refugees, while the rest of the world's refugees are grouped together under a separate UN body. Against this backdrop there are those UN member states that behave like malicious Jenga players, eager to play a part in the collapse of the peace process. The Palestinian UN representative, who holds observer status, floats an idea to members of the Arab League to sponsor a resolution. These nations, in turn, garner the support of the Non-Aligned Movement and its over 100 member-states and instantly create a majority in the 191-member UN. The European Union then waters down the resolution, which was intentionally exaggerated in anticipation of this result, and abstains from voting to show a dispassionate stance. The cumulative effect of this routine impedes the peace process by inflating Palestinian expectations regarding negotiated results. As Schifter puts it, "It makes a good many of the Palestinian extremists feel that the world is on their side, and if they just hang on long enough, Israel is going to go away." So what should the United Nations do? The estimated $3 billion reconstruction of Gaza is being coordinated by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, appointed by the Quartet as special envoy for the Gaza disengagement. UN relief organizations, which have long run operations on the ground, await further instruction from Wolfensohn, whose spokesman says a concrete plan will be hammered soon. In the meantime, "the UN needs to be mindful that it's probably better to say less than more," says Stuart Holliday, former US ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs. Holliday, who now directs the international practice of the Washington, DC, public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie, adds that while the United Nations can help develop civil society in Gaza, it has no record of delivering commitments from either party to the conflict. But years of anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly backed by a body that acts like a fortress in defense of Palestinian polemics will not change quickly if at all, says Holliday. "All it takes is one country to take the floor in the General Assembly and then there's business as usual at the UN, which is to use the General Assembly to pass dozens of frivolous resolutions that basically are one-sided and view the problem only through the prism of the Palestinians," he says. "If a Palestinian representative declares tomorrow that the moon is made of green cheese than it's very possible that a majority of member states will declare that indeed the moon is made of green cheese," says David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee. "And if its green and not white cheese it's because the Zionists have poisoned the cheese, and that's the way it works," he said.