Israel and the UN: A tricky relationship

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' remarks may have vitiated relations with Israel, escalating with his continued criticism, but it was strained for decades

Israel and the UN: A tricky relationship
Israel and the UN: A tricky relationship


Addressing the UN Security Council during the discussion of the Jordan-led resolution calling for a "humanitarian truce" in Gaza, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had sharply condemned the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October.

But, he added, it was "important to also recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum".

Guterres noted that the Palestinian people had been subjected to more than 50 years of "suffocating occupation", and expressed his concern over the "clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza".

It didn't take long for Israel to express its outrage. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson said Guterres had crossed a red line and justified Hamas' atrocities.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel also chimed in, saying the UN chief had "failed the test". Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, immediately called for Guterres' resignation. The Israeli government even announced it would stop issuing visas to UN envoys.

Resolutions dead in the water

The showdown between the UN and Israel reared its head again in the Security Council, where two draft resolutions were up for debate on later that week (26 October).

Both resolutions actually had the same aim: For weapons to be laid down in order to allow aid deliveries into Gaza, then under total blockade.

The first draft resolution, put forward by the United States, only called for brief pauses in the exchange of fire, recognised Israel's right to self-defence and called for an end to the arming of militant groups like Hamas in Gaza. China and Russia vetoed it.

In their alternative resolution, those two countries called for a full ceasefire and for the withdrawal of Israel's order to civilians to flee from northern Gaza to the south in the face of an imminent ground offensive. This, in turn, was blocked by the US and Britain.

A compromise has proved elusive.

In West Asia, a neverending story

No other crisis-prone region has generated as many UN resolutions as Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Israel–UN relations have consistently been strained as a result.

In the UN General Assembly, there is a stable majority made up of Muslim-majority states and many countries of the Global South that regularly place the situation of the Palestinian people on the agenda and criticise Israel.

Germany generally sticks to a common EU position when casting its vote, while the US always votes with Israel's interests.

According to UN Watch, a non-governmental organisation in Geneva, the General Assembly passed 140 resolutions criticising Israel between 2015 and 2022 alone, condemning the construction of settlements and the annexation of the Golan Heights.

In the same time period, only 68 resolutions were passed concerning the rest of the world, including just five on Iran, for example.

Israel has long felt it is treated unjustly by the UN, which perhaps explains why the country's reaction to Guterres' speech was so strong.

Not all resolutions carry the same clout

UN General Assembly resolutions, which must garner a two-thirds majority to be adopted, are not binding under international law. Instead, they merely set out guiding principles or the positions of the international community on certain conflict issues.

In the UN Security Council, on the other hand, resolutions are binding under international law and are issued against states or conflict parties that endanger international security or violate international law or human rights.

However, they can be vetoed by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Here, the US shields its close ally: Washington frequently makes use of its veto in matters related to Israel.

This has led to the bizarre situation that, since 2015, of all the General Assembly resolutions criticising Israel, so far only one has been matched by the Security Council: In 2016, the highest UN body called on Israel to stop building settlements in the occupied territories. Even then, the US did not explicitly vote in favour of the resolution, but chose to abstain.

A relationship marked by highs and lows

Given the tense relationship, it is easy to forget that the UN was once seen as a sort of midwife for Israel.

In 1947, the General Assembly, despite opposition from Arab states, voted to approve the plans to divide Palestine, paving the way for the foundation of the state of Israel half a year later.

Back then, the UN was formed of just 57 member states, but amid a wave of decolonization, that number grew quickly. Above all, developing and middle-income countries joined the UN's ranks, changing the political balance in the General Assembly.

After the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that followed, the relationship between Israel and the UN soured significantly, and the number of critical resolutions passed by the General Assembly soared.

These days, the situation in the Palestinian territories finds its way on to the agenda of every meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

At the same time, a number of smaller diplomatic steps have been taken to engage Israel more with the UN. In 2012, for example, the country provided a vice-president of the General Assembly for the first time, and in 2016 an Israeli was appointed chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs.

But Israel's relationship with the UN always remained fraught, and tensions now soared after secretary-general Guterres' speech.

In fact, Guterres was not considered particularly critical of Israel. Just a few years ago in 2020, the World Jewish Congress awarded him the Theodor Herzl Award for his work, with President Ronald Lauer expressing his gratitude to the UN chief.

"Through your words and deeds over many years, you have shown that you are a true and devoted friend of the Jewish people and of the state of Israel," Lauder said in his remarks at the award gala.

Such warm words seem likely to be put on ice for the foreseeable future.

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