Dreams of Bandung

The role of the "automatic majority" has destroyed the credibility of the UN.

Netanyahu UN speech 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu UN speech 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In September, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, addressed the General Assembly and asked that the UN accept Palestine as a member nation.
Abbas spoke to the plenary in their own language, the language of liberation, and enjoyed tremendous support.
But few of the attendees were willing to grant much credence to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech, in which he argued against the establishment of a Palestinian state through any means other than direct negotiations and without any preconditions.
On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the UN met to vote on resolution 181, which dealt primarily with the end of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel – Palestine – and the establishment of “two states for two peoples,” a Jewish state and an Arab state. Of the 57 members of the UN , 56 participated in the voting (Thailand was absent) – 33 supported the resolution, 13 opposed it and 10 abstained. Resolution 181 is the basis upon which Israel was constituted and declared its independence six months later.
Netanyahu had no illusions as he spoke to the UN , assuming that the “automatic majority” of 193 member nations, including the most recent entry, the Republic of South Sudan, would discount his words, no matter what he would say.
Netanyahu began his speech by saying that Israel had extended its hand in peace ever since its inception, 63 years ago. He continued by observing that he had no trust in the UN and condemned the assembly for unjustly singling Israel out for condemnation, more often than all the nations of the world combined.
And he added, “Here in the UN , automatic majorities can decide anything. They can decide that the sun sets in the west or rises in the west… or that the Western Wall is occupied Palestinian territory.”
What happened between November 1947, when a majority of the 57 member states of the UN voted to establish the State of Israel, and September 2011, when the UN ’s 193 states routinely condemn Israel? The answer is that the “automatic majority” was added to the number of states that are members of the UN and to their representatives in the General Assembly.
How did this “automatic majority” come to be? It began with a conference in April 1955 in the city of Bandung, Indonesia. Two thousand representatives of 29 states in Asia and Africa, whose combined territories covers one-fourth of the total land-mass of the planet, with a combined population of 1.5 billion, convened to create a new international narrative.
The “Bandung Conference” created the narrative of uprising and resistance to colonialism, national liberty and political independence for the oppressed peoples of the world.
The young State of Israel had fulfilled the vision of national liberty, achieving its independence through struggle for liberation, culminating in historic world recognition by the General Assembly of the UN .
Recognizing the importance of the conference, Israel attempted to dispatch its representatives, including Ambassador David Hacohen, who was based in Burma, hoping that the conference would provide an opportunity to open diplomatic channels with the awakening nations of Asia, especially China and India.
But Indonesia refused to grant entry permits to Israel’s envoys; South Africa and Taiwan met with the same refusal.
Tension between Israel and Egypt had been building for some time by then, due to the violent skirmishes on the border of the Gaza Strip. Regular and irregular Egyptian forces would attack IDF patrols, and the IDF would return the fire. During the month of April that year, there had been dozens of casualties on both sides. Israel had been widely condemned and was under pressure to restrain its responses.
UN officials tried to mediate between the sides and even attempted to set up a direct meeting between senior Israeli and Egyptian officials, in order to stabilize the political and security situation on the ground, but to no avail. In the background, Egypt and Czechoslovakia signed a strategic weapons deal which heightened the Egyptian military threat against Israel. The Cold War was leaving its mark on the Middle East.
Egypt’s international stature rose dramatically at the Bandung conference. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Free Officers’ Revolution and the Egyptian president, grabbed most of the headlines. His dramatic oratory captivated the 2,000 representatives and the international media. He carved for himself a prominent role as a leader of international stature. Motivated by a desire for revenge over the humiliating defeat that Egypt and the Arab world had sustained in 1948, Nasser positioned himself as patron of the Palestinian people and committed himself to bringing them their claimed rights, in accordance with their narrative of being the victims of the “Nakba” that brought about the establishment of the State of Israel, deportations, deprivations, and oppression by the newly established State of Israel.
And thus, denied the right to attend, Israel was ostracized from the emerging international narrative of liberation. The Bandung Conference led to the establishment of the Afro-Asian bloc, from which, several years later, the movement of non-aligned states emerged.
Yet, Israel did manage to escape out of that isolation that the leaders of the Bandung Conference had tried to impose. Two years later, African states obtained their independence and they responded positively to Israel’s invitations to establish diplomatic relations. Ghana was the first: immediately after gaining independence, in 1957, the Ghanaian government was pleased to engage in agricultural, medical and maritime cooperation offered by the Foreign Ministry through MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.
Israel opened its first embassy on the black continent in Accra, and the second in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Over time, Israel forged a network of contacts and cooperation throughout the continent – much to the displeasure of Egypt and the Arab countries of North Africa, which held to the positions of the movement of the non-aligned nations and persisted in isolating Israel in all of the UN institutions, and especially at the General Assembly.
By the time Netanyahu gave his speech, there were 108 members of the non-aligned movement, ready to cheer for Abbas and to frown at Netanyahu’s address.
Let us leave aside the UN charter and the claimed moral high ground of multilateralism as the preferred means for solution of international conflicts. To a great extent, the dynamics of “automatic majority” reflect the manner in which affairs are conducted in the parliaments of most member states. In fact, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, isn’t really any different – the coalition provides an “automatic majority” and its votes are determined by the party discipline to which its members are bound.
Thus, every day, deals and agreements are cut in the corridors of the UN and other international institutions. But Israel is the exception because, unlike most of the nations of the UN , it is not part of a diplomatic group organized according to a geographic key. For years, Israel has been trying unsuccessfully to become a member of the Asian Group, where it naturally belongs, or even WEOG (the Western European and Others Group), where it has taken decades of an uphill struggle to enable Israel to claim its rightful membership.
This failure, more than anything else, reflects the extent to which Israel is isolated in the international arena.
This isolation impacts on Jerusalem’s ability to protect Israel’s interests in the international arena. Only the Security Council actually has the power and authority to implement binding decisions, and there the US has veto power, which it has used to protect Israel for many years from negative resolutions. In the General Assembly as well as in other UN institutions, the cumulative consistent diplomatic offensive on Israel has a corrosive effect on its ability to protect its standing within the family of nations.
Israel’s vulnerability is exacerbated by the extensive changes in the map of world powers. Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the US has been tied up in war against terrorism, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the unprecedented world economic crisis limits the US’s freedom of military movement and is forcing Washington to adopt a more cautious agenda in its relationships with the Arab and Muslim world.
In the long run, this will have implications for the US’s ability to devote political and diplomatic resources to aid Israel. Newly emerging powerful players, such as Brazil, Turkey, India and China, have become economic empires with their own ambitious international agendas. This, too, affects Israel’s maneuverability and ability to promote sensitive issues, such as sanctions on Iran.
Combined with the social/economic/political crises of the Arab Spring in which the Middle East finds itself, Israel’s political assets with regard to its security in the region have been exposed.
But Israel’s own policy with regard to peace with Palestine is also a main contributor to its own isolation. The Bandung Conference took place long before the Six Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories became an overriding issue at the UN . Yet ever since Netanyahu established his second government, Israel’s international stature has been deteriorating even further. The decision by Netanyahu and his government to abandon the vision of “land for peace” and an end to the occupation, which have long formed the basis of the international perception of a possible solution of the conflict in the Middle East, have brought further alienation towards Israel, especially among the non-aligned states.
The 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the entry, by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, into negotiations for a permanent solution based on the Annapolis parameters boosted support for Israel, including within the non-aligned movement. However, even countries that previously bothered to pay attention to Israel’s needs have abandoned that commitment as the Netanyahu/Lieberman government sharpens its messages and makes every attempt to undermine any peace process predicated on the principle of “two states for two peoples.”
There still has been no positive Israeli official response to the “Arab Peace Initiative,” which was first put on the table nearly a decade ago in March 2002 at the Arab League summit in Beirut.
This initiative provides Israel with the opportunity to expand the agreement with the Palestinians to include the entire Arab world.
The Conference of Islamic States has also adopted this initiative.
The implication presumably is that the moment the sides come to a final agreement with regard to the core issues – security, borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees – Israel will enjoy normal relations with all of the Arab and Muslim states.
This will provide Israel with a symbolic retroactive ticket to the Bandung Conference and recognition of the Jewish national liberation narrative in the Land of Israel as part of the worldwide narrative of freedom and justice from the yoke of colonialism. Israel would be provided with new diplomatic and security resources with regard to each of the issues that we are dealing with today, including the Iranian nuclear threat.
In any event, any Israeli prime minister who would step up to the podium at the General Assembly after signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians would be greeted with a standing ovation – including from the benches of the “automatic majority” that Netanyahu felt the need to condemn.
The writer is a former ambassador and a member of the Council for Peace and Security.