UN Security Council on the Arab-Israel conflict

The UNSC may decide to use whatever power it has within a non-binding framework to assist in conflict-resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis.

UN security Council 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
UN security Council 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The recent decision by the UN Security Council to impose a mandatory no-fly zone on Libya calls attention to the power of the UNSC and a potential role it can play in the Arab-Israel conflict.
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The only framework in which the Security Council can make binding decisions is if the Council determines that there has been an act of aggression by a state or that a situation threatens world peace. If the Council makes such a determination and declares that it is acting in accordance with chapter VII of the UN Charter, then all states are obliged to comply.
Just like Council resolutions in the past concerning Iraq, Iran, North Korea and apartheid South Africa, the decision concerning Libya was in accordance with chapter VII. Since 1948, the UNSC has never adopted a chapter VII resolution concerning the Arab-Israel dispute. All resolutions concerning the dispute - including the renowned Resolution 242 from 1967 - were non-binding recommendations and bore no mandatory authority.
Unless all five permanent members of the Council drastically change the nature of their relations and ties with Israel and its neighboring Arab states, it is safe to assume that the Council will continue to abstain from operating under chapter VII with regards to the Arab-Israel dispute.
However, within the non-binding framework, the Council is likely to become involved in two ways within the efforts to solve the Arab Israeli dispute: Firstly, it can dispatch peacekeeping forces to assist in monitoring a future Israel-Palestinian agreement. The UN has already dispatched such forces to Lebanon and the Golan Heights, and in the past, also to Sinai. Since 1948, UN forces in the Middle East have kept a permanent HQ in the imposing building in Jerusalem that formerly housed the offices of the British Mandate High Commissioner for Palestine.
However, UN peacekeeping forces have no combat capabilities or authority. They are present purely as observers, and only with the consent of the host states. If ordered to leave by the host state (as Egypt ordered UNEF to do prior to the 1967 Six Day War) they must oblige immediately. So, even though peacekeeping forces may have a role in a future agreement, it will be a minor one as observers only. Those who push for UN forces to be part of Israel's security arrangements in a future agreement, must take into account that should hostilities break out they will invariably disappear. Abba Eban likened this very scenario to a fire brigade running away each time a fire breaks out.
The second possible way for the UNSC to be involved is if the Palestinians submit a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. If submitted, such a resolution will be the first time in the UNSC’s history that it will be requested to determine an international boundary. The UNSC has no authority to determine borders and the UN Charter does not grant such power to the Council.
Although not binding, such a Council resolution would be flagrantly opposed to the accepted norms of international law which states that except in cases of inheriting a border of a previous state, borders must be agreed upon between the states involved. It is also worth noting that when the Council authorized UN teams to demarcate the border between Iraq and Kuwait, its members were careful to state for the record that they were not determining or changing borders, they were merely marking out a pre-existing one. Israel and a future Palestinian state will require a clearly defined border between them. No outside authority can serve as a substitute for the joint agreement needed to achieve this.
The writer teaches international law at the Hebrew University and is the former legal adviser to the Israel Foreign Ministry.