Having declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel was lacking in international legitimacy. Recognizing the deficiency, Israeli officials invested tremendous effort over the course of 1948-1949 in securing Israel’s admission to the United Nations.
A recent paper identifies three arguments advanced by Israeli diplomats at the time in support of Israel’s application:
- Peace: “Holding the peace process hostage” to UN admission, Israeli officials argued that the latter would advance peace talks. This approach — of insisting that UN admission precede a peace agreement — was championed by Israel’s first ambassador to the UN, Abba Eban. Speaking before the General Assembly, Eban impressed upon delegates that Israel’s admission would “contribute to the rapid conclusion of [peace] agreements.” Indeed, “nothing could be more prejudicial to the prospects of conciliation and peace than…doubts regarding Israel’s international status,” for why should the Arab states recognize Israel “if the United Nations hesitated to do so itself”?
- Equality: The UN should accept Israel’s application in order to place it “on an equal footing with the Arab states in the ongoing armistice and upcoming peace talks.” “Surely,” Eban urged the General Assembly in December 1948, “the cause of conciliation would be advanced if both parties…had the same obligations, bore the same responsibility and enjoyed the same status.” It is “obvious,” he continued, that peace efforts “would be gravely undermined” without “a serious effort…to place both parties on an equal footing.” “At every stage of its checkered relations with the Arab world,” he repeated four months later, “Israel had felt equality of status to be the essential condition of partnership.”
- Prestige: The UN’s legitimacy as a body aiming at “universality” would be undermined should it reject Israel’s application. UN prestige was particularly implicated in the case of Israel, whose establishment and recognition the UN had itself recommended. In rejecting Israel’s application, then, the UN would in effect be “repudiating its own decision.” “It would be an extraordinary paradox,” Eban declared in May 1949, “if the United Nations were to close its doors upon the State which it had helped to quicken into active life.” If it did so, “the future authority of the United Nations” would suffer.
In September 2011, after decades of fruitless bilateral negotiations, the Palestinian leadership applied for admission to the UN. Facing a certain US veto in the Security Council, the request was never voted on. Instead, a resolution according non-member observer status to Palestine was passed by the General Assembly in November 2012. Opposing the admission bid, Israeli officials took positions diametrically opposed to those advocated by their predecessors concerning Israel’s own application.
Rather than enhancing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation by reducing the inequalities that divide them, UN admission would simply remove Palestinians’ “incentive to negotiate.” Far from expediting peace talks, acceptance of the Palestinian bid would fatally harm them. Even the minor step of granting Palestine non-member observer status at the General Assembly, Israel’s ambassador to the UN warned, would “push” prospects for peace “backwards,” encouraging the Palestinians to “harden their positions.” Whereas Eban had pressed for Israel’s admission to the UN prior to a peace agreement with its neighbors, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in 2011 that “Palestinians must first make peace” and only “then get their State.” And despite the fact that the UN has endorsed Palestine’s establishment far more emphatically than it did Israel’s, Israeli officials warned that by upgrading Palestine’s status it would go down in “history” as having aided the Palestinians in “undermining peace.” (The Obama administration endorsed these arguments, with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice condemning the Palestinians’ UN bid as a threat to “the peace process.”)
Since crushing Palestine’s bid for UN membership, the Obama administration and Israel have pursued a renewed bilateral peace process. Reproducing the structure of countless previous rounds of negotiations, the process has also replicated the results: no sign of diplomatic progress, no sustainable development in the Palestinian territories and continued Israeli settlement construction on the ground.
Curious that what was “obvious” to Abba Eban should now be so difficult to grasp: “Equality of status” is an “essential condition of partnership,” and the international community’s failure to take measures to “place both parties on an equal footing” leaves the “cause of conciliation” — and, with it, the prospects for ending what is now going on seven decades of violence and misery — “gravely undermined.”