Israel-UN Relations: Three Phases and Three Questions

Arie Geronik. Israel Studies. Volume 25, Issue 1. Spring 2020.


An in-depth historical examination of relations between Israel and the United Nations reveals three distinct periods. The first (1947-55) was characterized by reciprocal trust and fulfillment of mutual expectations. The second (1956-90) was marked by constant crises, mistrust, and hostility, which peaked with the 1975 General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. The salient feature of the third period (1990 to the present) is a process of normalization with ups and downs. Israel is increasingly regarded by UN members as part of the family of nations, and the attitude towards it has become more balanced. Given the vacillations in UN-Israel relations during the organization’s first seventy years, the following three questions may lead to a better assessment of the import of these relations]: A. What provokes so many anti-Israel resolutions and do they stem from anti-Semitism?; B. Does the road to peace necessitate a “UN bypass”?; C. How might Israel be integrated in future UN projects?

Israel’s image of the UN is perhaps best captured by Abba Eban’s observation that “every anti-Israel UN resolution enjoys an automatic majority, and if Israel were to declare that the world is round, most of the UN would vote against [it].”

Voicing similar sentiments, Chaim Herzog, Israeli ambassador to the UN in the 1970s, compared Israel’s status in the organization to Alice in Wonderland:

“‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said…. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’ If Lewis Carroll were alive today, he would not have to invent a Wonderland to accommodate strange characters. All he would have to do is let Alice loose at the UN. If she wore a Star of David, she’d hear the call ‘Off with her head!’ wherever she turned.”

This attitude is reflected in the phrase coined by Ben-Gurion: “Um-Shmum” (“Um” is the Hebrew pronunciation of the acronym “UN” and the prefix “shm-” denoting contempt or dismissal), a concise and not particularly polite expression of the belief that it does not matter what the UN says or does. Yet despite the above-cited remarks, Israel’s perceptions of the UN were not always negative nor were the expectations of its decision makers invariably pessimistic.

The Charter of the UN came into force on October 24, 1945, and has ever since been regarded as the most important international body of the post-WWII era. Founded in pursuit of the principles detailed in its Charter, the UN is the epicenter of a complex cross-continental network, encompassing nearly every country in the world. Member states attribute a great deal of importance to the organization, its agencies, and the international cooperation it facilitates. Yet the UN is not a world government in the Kantian sense. Rather, it plays a key role in instilling the concept that individual states participate in a single, universal, international society.

Three Phases

A close examination of relations between Israel and the UN reveals three phases. The first, 1947-55, was one of mutual trust, shared expectations and their fulfillment. The second phase, 1956-90, was one of crisis, mistrust, and hostility which led Israel to accuse the organization of anti-Semitism which culminated with the 1975 UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution determining Zionism to be a form of racism and racial discrimination.

The third phase which began in 1990 and continues to this day has been a gradual process of normalization with ups and downs. Among UN members Israel is increasingly perceived as part of the family of nations, and the attitude of members towards Israel is more balanced than before. Indications of this new attitude include a visit in March 2005 by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Jerusalem where he participated in the re-opening ceremony at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and a UNGA discussion about the Holocaust on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Below is a more detailed description of these three phases.

1947-55: Days of Innocence

Article 1 of the UN Charter establishes purposes and principles:

  • To maintain international peace and security;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples;
  • To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all; and
  • To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

An examination of Israel’s original foreign policy principles, ratified by the Knesset on March 11, 1949, finds that they correspond with UN principles. Knesset resolutions stated that Israel’s foreign policy would be based on fundamental principles of the UN Charter and friendly relations with peace-loving states, especially the US and the USSR. The Knesset also expressed support for all efforts to promote peace and protect human rights.

Other stated principles of Israeli diplomacy are non-alignment and an aspiration for independence in global politics. It was Ben-Gurion who posed non-alignment as the obvious choice considering the unique foreign policy problems facing the Jewish state. In a 1952 essay titled “Israel among the Nations,” he continued to claim that Israel’s foremost aim was to “establish normal relations with all countries, their governments, and their peoples, without over-examining their domestic regimes, and to assist every effort and every measure intended to reduce tension between the superpowers and support world peace.” He added, “There is no external power whatsoever—be it the strongest, most aggressive, or wealthiest imaginable—that will determine Israel’s needs and values. Israel’s foreign policy is determined in accordance with the basic values and needs of the Jewish nation, not by any other determinant.”

The purposes and principles of the UN accord not only with Israeli foreign policy but also with Jewish moral principles:

One of the pillars of Judaism is justice. God has commanded Man to be just and act justly with others. “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” is a recurring biblical edict. According to the Talmud, a person with a conscience who makes an effort to be just is God’s partner in creating the world because justice is the foundation and wellspring of the universe. It is written that just action is tantamount to bringing truth, love, and peace to the world. On this basis the Jewish people gave the world one of the most enlightened collections of laws in history, a system of rules that above all identifies the unique link between law and morality. The basic principle of justice in practice is equality.

“The founding of the State of Israel was one of the most heroic events in history,” wrote the first UN secretary-general, Trygve Lie, in the introduction to his annual report to the Fourth General Assembly in 1948. At the time Israel and the UN were seemingly proceeding in unison towards a new dawn.

According to Shamai Kahane, “The Jewish Agency, the main actor in the international arena, has made the UN its prime target since the organization’s founding.” In February 1947, the Jewish Agency faced a fateful diplomatic challenge when, at Britain’s request, the UN decided to convene a special session of the UNGA in April of that year to discuss the future governance of Mandate Palestine.

The UNGA made plans to send a delegation to the Middle East, the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in order to study the issues. Opinions apparently varied within the delegation as to recommendations: a trusteeship, a binational state, partition into Arab and Jewish states, partition into a federation of cantons, or perhaps a mosaic of independent states and international zones. The Zionist objective was immediate statehood, even at the cost of partition, as full Jewish independence presumed to be impossible otherwise. Ultimately, despite conflicting opinions, most UNSCOP members recommended termination of the British Mandate, independence for Jews and Arabs, and a brief transition period during which Palestine would be governed by a UN trusteeship.

The UNGA approval of the UN Partition Plan on November 29, 1947, was seen as a great achievement for Zionist diplomacy. As Ben-Gurion observed years later, on December 3, 1967, “Despite everything, this is the greatest historical achievement of the Jewish people. Politically, this is the first time in human history that the founding of a state was preapproved by a majority of humanity.” These remarks reflect the future state’s hopes of being admitted into the family of nations.

In the period between the adoption of the UN Partition Plan and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Arab states prepared to wage war on Israel. The Jewish Agency notified the UN Security Council (UNSC) that immediately following the British withdrawal, and no later than May 16, an established provisional Jewish government would cooperate with the UN and strive for peace with the Arabs.

On May 14, the day Israel declared its independence, the UNSC was engaged in seeking an envoy to mediate between the rival parties in Palestine. On May 20 the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte was charged with securing a truce and resolving the situation in Palestine in a peaceful manner. He succeeded in negotiating a truce between the exhausted parties, which began June 10 and lasted four weeks, and thus became the mediator for Israel’s communications with the UN on political and military matters. At the time Ben-Gurion remarked that two basic premises were at work:

(1) The November 29 resolution is dead, or so it seems to me. We might find that we have no choice but to accept [it] as a basis for settlement, but I do not see any enthusiastic supporters of that resolution, and if none exist then it is indeed dead. (2) The conflict will be resolved by force. The political problem is now, in fact, a military one.

On September 16, Bernadotte submitted his proposals for a political settlement of the Palestine question which included a reassessment of the November resolution, but not in the direction Ben-Gurion sought. The Israeli government rejected his proposals, primarily because they significantly reduced the territory it had been allocated under the Partition Plan, and because it proposed a right of return for Arab refugees, including the return of property or payment of compensation. The Arabs rejected Bernadotte’s proposal if only because it accepted the existence of the State of Israel. Bernadotte was assassinated by LEHI members in Jerusalem on September 17, sparking outrage against Israel among governments and the international community at a time when their support was vital.

To facilitate future political arrangements following Bernadotte’s proposal, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was created and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established to provide aid for refugees.

Israel’s UN delegation focused on the political issues and on reinforcing its international status. To this end, the UNCCP provided the forum Israel needed to pave its way as a member of the UN and—using the meeting ground provided by the UN—to persuade states with which it did not have official relations to establish ties.

UN membership depended on overcoming obstacles posed by hostile actors. Israel faced tests that no other candidate member state before or after had to face. It had to pledge to abide by the UN Charter and resolutions, specifically those dealing with the Middle East. Israel’s envoys passed the test, and on May 11, 1949, the eve of Israel’s first Independence Day, it was admitted to the UN as a full member.

Under the terms of the Armistice Agreements, any amendment required further negotiations between the parties. The agreements expressed the hope that they would lead to negotiations for a peaceful settlement, a hope also conveyed by the UNSC in Resolution 73, August 11, 1949. The armistice arrangements were based on mixed commissions. Each commission included a UN observer and representatives from Israel and the relevant neighboring state, and was chaired by the chief UN observer, who reported to UN headquarters. The UN observers represented an immediate, daily embodiment of the concept “the United Nations,” and if they proved a source of disappointment, this reflected on the entire organization (The perception of a link between the attitude and conduct of UN representatives in the field and the attitude of the UN as a whole manifested once again years later, in October 2000, when Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon under the watchful eyes of UN peacekeepers).

In 1951, the UNCCP attempted to persuade the parties to declare their interest in a peaceful settlement. Israel agreed, but the Arabs did not respond. The Commission eventually concluded that Israel was not prepared to implement Article 11 of the December 11, 1948, UNGA Resolution on refugee repatriation, whereas the Arabs were unwilling to fulfill the demands of Article 5, calling for a comprehensive settlement by peaceful means. The Arab states insisted that the refugee problem must be resolved immediately, irrespective of any other issue. Blame was directed at Israel for at least part of the problem. Israel’s basic position on the return of refugees, which it maintained during subsequent decades, appears in Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett’s response of August 1, 1948, to Bernadotte’s memorandum on the matter: “Israel sympathizes with the plight of the refugees, but because of urgent security considerations and concern for the stability of future peace agreements, it cannot agree to their return.”

Related to this was the peace initiative presented to the UNGA by Israel’s UN ambassador, Abba Eban on December 11. The plan drew positive responses, and a draft resolution was submitted to the UNGA in its spirit calling for negotiations between Israel and the Arab states on an agreement. Had the draft resolution been put to a vote by the entire UNGA in this form, it would have neutralized Arab demands that the arrangement be based on 1947 and 1948 UNGA resolutions. However, in the time between discussions in the drafting committee and submission of the resolution to UNGA for a final vote, the New York Times published an interview with Ben-Gurion in which he dismissed the issue of Jerusalem’s internationalization, claiming the city was no different from Washington, Paris, or London.

Following the interview, a number of Catholic states withdrew their support for the resolution, lest it be interpreted as acceptance of Ben-Gurion’s denial of Jerusalem’s universal importance. There would still have remained a sufficient majority, however, had the issue not been defined as “important”—thus triggering the stricter requirement of a two-thirds majority, which no longer existed. “This was the final attempt at the UN, for the next fourteen years, by any state, to dare to propose direct Israeli-Arab negotiations, and twenty years [would pass] before the UN adopted a resolution compelling direct negotiations.”

Israel’s status at the UN took a turn for the worse in 1954, when the Soviet Union invoked its first Security Council veto in favor of an Arab state—Syria. Until then Israel’s relations with Soviet bloc countries had been friendly. Israel had many reasons to be grateful for their decisive voting on important matters. Six Soviet bloc countries now joined the Arab and Muslim states in expressing open hostility towards Israel and its policies. This was the “autumnal” harbinger of the coming winter in UN-Israel relations, foreshadowing the end of the current phase: the number of enemies within the UN increased even further following the 1955 Bandung Summit and emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement—which, despite its name, was in fact an anti-Western bloc.

1956-90: A People that Dwells (Almost) Alone

In the chilling aftermath of 1955, matters related to a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict deteriorated further still with the rise of Nasserism in Egypt and Soviet intervention in Middle East politics coupled with hostility toward Israel. In the international arena, decolonization was underway. Many Third World nations, mainly in Africa and Asia, having gained independence and recognition as sovereign states, joined the UN, and now formed a majority. Arab and Muslim states were among the most active and influential in the Afro-Asian bloc, which closed its doors to Israel and provided decisive support for anti-Israel UN initiatives. We should also recall the 1973 oil crisis, which exacerbated Israel’s international isolation.

Mordechai Kidron, a member of Israel’s UN delegation during those years, described Israel’s situation prosaically:

Now not only the Security Council but also the General Assembly and its subsidiary bodies, and the specialized agencies, were closed to us. Israel essentially became a pariah at the UN, the focus of constant attacks on our activities, our morality, our independence as a state, and even our identity as Jews. (One Arab representative questioned whether it was at all possible to believe or trust the nation that had crucified Jesus.) Every committee and conference in the UN system became an arena for unbridled assault against Israel, regardless of the issue—from education, postal issues, and weather, to the status of women. The annual verbal outburst at the General Assembly on certain aspects of the Palestinian question set an extremely unpleasant tone.

And according to Yehuda Blum,

During those years the UN devoted disproportionate time and energy to various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while ignoring other crises facing the planet. For example, the UN found no time to discuss the Vietnam War. Instead the UN devoted dozens of meetings to the “Golan Law” passed by the Knesset, establishing Israeli jurisdiction and administration in the Golan Heights. Indeed, during the early 1980s the Security Council devoted more meetings to the Arab-Israeli conflict than to all other global problems combined. Israel’s status at the UN probably reached an all-time low in 1982, when, as part of a general campaign to delegitimize the state, the first attempt was made to prevent the approval of Israel’s credentials at the General Assembly.

Within the vast arena of UN engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, three incidents deserve special attention for the impact they had on Israel’s international standing and relations with the UN: UNSC resolutions 242 and 338 of 1967 and 1973, respectively; the Jarring Mission; and UNGA Resolution 3379 identifying Zionism as racism.

Resolutions 242 and 338

During the three weeks of waiting which preceded the Six-Day War, Israel demanded that the UNSC and Secretary-General take action against Egypt’s threats of war, its blockade of the Straits of Tiran and its deployment of a large military force to the Sinai Peninsula. When war broke out on June 5, 1967, Israel’s campaign at the UN stressed:

  • Threats of war and acts of provocation by Egypt and Syria, about which Israel had consistently complained to the UN, to no avail.
  • Capitulation by the UN Secretary-General to Nasser’s demands that the observers withdraw from Sinai and Gaza.
  • Breach of the 1957 promise by the maritime powers to intervene—even by force—to defend freedom of passage in the Gulf of Eilat.
  • The Security Council’s lack of response to calls, issued before the war by Israel and other states, for immediate action to reduce tension and eliminate the threat.

After the war the UNSC began discussing a draft resolution on the conflict, but the summer came to an end without the US and Soviet Union having reached an agreement on its formulation. Behind the scenes, however, diplomatic activity continued. In early October the British ambassador to the UN, Lord Caradon, presented Israel with a draft resolution compiled from elements of Soviet and Latin American drafts, which included a recommendation to appoint a UN mediator.

When the Security Council convened on November 9, 1967, it had before it Indian and American drafts. To most delegations it was obvious that a draft proposal that triggered American opposition and was rejected by Israel would be worthless. However, the Indian draft was likely to draw more supporters in the Security Council. In light of this dilemma, Caradon decided it was time to submit a compromise draft. After intense negotiations with the delegations of Israel and the United States, Caradon presented five principles, which were incorporated verbatim into Security Council Resolution 242. To ensure a majority of votes, Caradon included a provision on “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” which drew Latin American support and, given its focus on Israel, substantial Soviet support as well. Before the voting phase, the Arab delegations, strongly backed by the Soviet Union, attempted to amend the provision on withdrawal to have it call on Israel to withdraw its forces from “all the territories” rather than just “territories,” but they encountered fierce opposition by Israel and the United states, which sought to leave an opening for Israel to retain part of the territories. The US rejected these measures.

On November 22, the UNSC unanimously adopted the unrevised resolution, which entered the history books as UNSC Resolution 242. The resolution did not mention the Palestinians, because the territories had been captured not from them but from neighboring Arab states, and the resolution’s sponsors presumed that the future of these lands and their residents lay with Israel or those states, which would undoubtedly demand their return.

UNSC Resolution 338, a product of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, built on Resolution 242. Its final version was formulated by US Secretary of State Kissinger, in Moscow for consultations on a ceasefire at the height of the war, and the Soviets. It was immediately affirmed by the UNSC, on October 22. The first paragraph called for a cease-fire, and the second called on the parties to commence negotiations “under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.” This provision satisfied Israel’s consistent demand for direct negotiations between the rival parties, and was arguably an improvement over Resolution 242, which called for negotiations but did not require that they be direct, and in fact assigned a role to a special UN representative. Israel commended Kissinger for this provision and indicated its agreement to a cease-fire along the frontlines it had reached, which served as valuable bargaining chips for future negotiations.

Resolution 242 was arguably the first UN resolution to recognize Israel’s 1967 borders as a minimal baseline, thus making it a major (and perhaps the only) political victory for Israel in the Six-Day War. It was first UN resolution adopted with the approval of both Israel and its Arab neighbors, and even though the rival parties attribute to it and Resolution 338 different and even conflicting interpretations, there appears to be no alternative mutual basis for future peace processes (see below), which makes these resolutions extremely significant.

The Jarring Mission

In December 1967, Gunnar Jarring of Sweden, a former ambassador to Moscow, began serving as special representative of the Secretary-General for the Middle East peace process. This was the final attempt by the UN to mediate between the Middle Eastern rivals. In retrospect this all-encompassing and seemingly all-important effort ended with the parties divided by a rift at least as deep as it had been at the start. These developments took place against the background of rising political and military tension, which led to the War of Attrition over the Suez Canal and accelerated the arms race.

Jarring carried out his mission through discussions and correspondence with the governments in Jerusalem, Amman, and Cairo (the United Arab Republic (UAR) capital, serving both Egypt and Syria) and their representatives in New York. He consulted extensively in the hopes of finding some basis for agreement. Initially Israel’s policy was to avoid any commitment before clarifying Arab intentions with respect to a comprehensive peace agreement.

When Jarring proposed a meeting with the parties in Cyprus, Israel agreed, hoping it would lead to direct negotiations, but Egypt objected and Jarring abandoned the idea. After further consultations, Jarring concluded, in a report to the Secretary-General, that the differences of opinion between Israel and the Arabs centered on three main points:

First—Israel holds that only after direct negotiations leading to a peace agreement will it be possible to discuss withdrawal, whereas the Arabs argue that there is no place for peace talks until Israel withdraws to pre-June 5, 1967, lines. The second relates to each party’s interpretation of Resolution 242. Israel holds that the resolution’s paragraphs should only be seen as negotiating points, whereas the UAR argues that the resolution itself presents a plan for settlement of the conflict and the parties need only execute it in accordance with procedures determined by the special representative. A third point of dispute relates to the scope of withdrawal. The Arab states insist that Israel withdraw from all territories occupied since June 5, 1967, while Israel asserts that the scope of withdrawal should be determined by the outcome of an agreement on secure, recognized borders (that is, Israel would only withdraw to borders agreed upon through negotiation).

In 1970 the UNGA passed a resolution basically affirming the Arab interpretation of Resolution 242 and the Jarring Mission, recognizing the need to clarify Palestinian rights as an inseparable part of stable peace in the Middle East, and calling on the parties to instruct their representatives to continue discussions on the implementation of Resolution 242.

Israel categorically rejected the resolution, arguing that the UNGA lacked the authority to make recommendations regarding the Jarring Mission. As Sadat’s proposed interim agreement for the southern front was not accepted and the Jarring report itself was shelved for lack of efficacy, the Mission became pointless. Its failure marked the final attempt by the UN to act as peace mediator between the rival parties in the Middle East, and the US now took this role upon itself. In retrospect, the Jarring Mission, despite its failure, was significant because it helped publicly clarify the contours of the conflict and points of dispute. In addition, the failed negotiations probably contributed to the Arab impression that the only way to force Israel to engage seriously in negotiations was through another round of violence, which indeed occurred in October 1973.

The Palestinian Issue and Zionism as Racism

The apparent vacuum created by the failure of the Jarring Mission in the UN’s Middle East agenda was quickly filled by attention to the territories and their Palestinian residents. There soon emerged a wide-ranging political discussion on the question of self-determination and Palestinian statehood.

In late 1969, UNGA Resolution 2535 recognized the inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees, thereby lending its support to Palestinian demands for repatriation, the return of property, and compensation. A year later the UNGA passed a resolution recognizing the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination, thus linking Palestinians in the territories with diaspora Palestinians.

On December 9, 1973, the GA pronounced that the Palestinians’ right of self-determination and right of return were indispensably linked (Resolution 3089). At the time Israel, Egypt, and Syria were focused on the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Israel managed to prevent participation by Palestinian representatives at the Geneva Summit, but the Palestinian question was already lurking behind the door.

The anti-Israel campaign at the UN intensified during the 1970s and peaked with UNGA Resolution 3379 of November 10, 1975, identifying Zionism as a form of racism. Some regard this resolution as legitimizing the slander of Israel and Zionism and even expressions of anti-Semitism, especially by Arab and Soviet representatives.

The process leading to this resolution began in July 1975, with preparations by states hostile to Israel to have it expelled from the UN or barred from participating in the GA session. Speaking before the Knesset, Foreign Minister Yigal Alon argued that because of the US veto, expulsion was unlikely so long as it required Security Council approval, but that there was a possibility that Israel could be banned from other areas of UN activity.

From the very start of the UNGA session that year, anti-Israel delegates tried to gauge the extent of support they could enlist to demand Israel’s suspension. When they realized that they lacked sufficient support, they shifted attention to the UN Third Committee, which deals with racism. As at earlier thematic meetings, here, too, they were able to insert a clause on Zionism in the resolution condemning racism. Their automatic majority ensured seventy votes, while twenty-nine states opposed the resolution and sixteen abstained.

Israel’s representatives could take comfort in knowing that other anti-Israel resolutions had drawn larger majorities. Nonetheless, this was undeniably a new record in the UN assault on Israel and in effect on all Jews. The general feeling among Israelis and Jews was given voice in one of the fiercest and most impressive speeches ever delivered at the UN by Israeli representative, Ambassador Herzog:

Herzog explained the significance of Zionism and the place of Zion in Jewish history and culture, surveyed the aspirations of Jewish nationalism, and compared them with those of Arab nationalism. [He] argued that the issue is not the fate of Zionism but the future of the UN, which had become a center of anti-Semitism and sunk to the lowest level. [He] concluded by stating that as far as the Jewish people were concerned, the resolution was no more than a piece of paper and should be treated as such. He then tore it to shreds at the UN podium before everyone’s eyes.

As Herzog himself summarized it, “The resolution on Zionism represented the first major international anti-Semitic assault since the days of Hitler.” Some years later Yehuda Blum added, “During the decade that followed, relations reached an unprecedented state of isolation and alienation. Perhaps these relations are gradually undergoing repair now, but as far as Israel is concerned they can still be described as ambivalent at best.”

1991-2019: Process of Normalization with UPS and Downs

With the end of the Cold War, attention shifted to the Middle East peace process. After the Madrid conference of October 1991, a transformation took place in Israel’s relations with other UN member states and the various UN bodies and Secretariat.

By 2019, the UN had expanded from fifty-one founding states UN in 1945 to 193 members, of which 161 maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel has initiated and sponsored resolutions, such as the draft resolution on the Middle East peace process submitted in December 1993, which drew support from 155 states, with only three objections. Similar resolutions, with comparable backing, were adopted again by the GA and other UN bodies in December 1994.

As the world and the Middle East underwent change, so, too, relations between the UN and Israel were gradually transformed. As the UN sought to adapt to global changes, Israel, seeing the changes at the UN, tried to adapt as well. The UN’s repeal of its resolution equating Zionism with racism marked a significant turning point in Israel’s status at the organization. UNGA Resolution 4686 on December 16, 1991, repealed the finding of Resolution 3379, which in practical terms granted international legitimacy to Zionism and Israel. A total of 111 states voted in favor of the resolution, with 15 opposing and 13 abstaining; that is, the resolution rejecting the equation of Zionism with racism passed by a far larger majority than the resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Over time, the number of resolutions condemning Israel gradually declined. Dramatic changes in the Middle East during the early 1990s, the Declaration of Principles and the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, diplomatic relations with non-neighboring Arab states, and the peace treaty with Jordan all contributed to this shift, as reflected in resolutions and states’ voting patterns:

Of the twenty-seven negative resolutions at the 1993 General Assembly, resolutions critical of Israel, twenty-two were revised. Some underwent significant, far-reaching revisions, and some were reformulated, with condemnations of Israel deleted. Four resolutions were withdrawn or not submitted for a vote. Only five negative resolutions remained unchanged. A similar pattern was evident at the 1994 General Assembly. In other international organizations such as UNESCO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and many others, “favorable” resolutions on the peace process were adopted, resolutions were improved, and condemnations were deleted. The Human Rights Council in Geneva, for the first time ever (on March 9, 1994), adopted a resolution appointing a special task force to investigate and report on incidents of racism, including anti-Semitism.

As a gesture to the UN, Israel agreed to cooperate with multilateral UN working groups and welcomed envoys of the Secretary-General or UN bodies who arrived to discuss matters within their mandate which Israel had previously been unwilling to discuss with UN representatives.

On January 11, 1994, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gad Yaacobi, presented four objectives related to future UN-Israel relations: (1) Israel should belong to one of the UN’s regional groups. Its natural place would be with the group of Asian states, but political reality makes this impossible. Until then, Israel should be admitted to the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). (2) The number of Israelis elected or appointed to positions in various UN bodies should be increased. (3) UN resolutions should be revised to reflect the new reality in the Middle East. (4) Israel should increase its engagement in UN activities, including those not directly related to Israel and the Middle East.

In retrospect we see that Israel’s status did in fact improve in the following areas. In addition to Western European states, WEOG currently includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. Today this group is seen as one of the leading and most influential groups in the UN. Regarding the number of Israelis filling UN posts, the crowning achievement in recent years seems to be the election in June 2005 of Danny Gillerman as vice-president of the 2005 UNGA session. In the past Israelis had been prevented from serving in high-ranking UN positions, except for two instances: the election of Zena Harman in 1951 to the executive board of UNICEF, a position she held for fifteen years, even serving as chairman of the board from 1964 to 1966; and the election of Abba Eban in 1953 as UNGA vice-president. Yet these appointments were based primarily on individual skills, and were not necessarily a vote in favor of Israel. Following the Gillerman precedent, a second Israeli ambassador, Danny Danon, was appointed to the posts of UNGA vice president and chairman of the UNGA Sixth (Legal) Committee.

Regarding the congruence between UN resolutions on the Middle East and contemporary reality, during an unprecedented period of two years (1993-95) the Security Council did not condemn Israel despite Arab demands to do so, not even after the February 1994 massacre in Hebron. While the UN took a stern position on the incident, it condemned the massacre rather than Israel—a significant change. In the ensuing decade, the number of UNSC resolutions condemning Israel declined substantially.

With regard to Israel’s engagement in international problems, even those unrelated to the Middle East and Israel, notable examples include Israel’s contribution of seven observers to the UN’s monitoring of South African elections in April 1994, and the dispatch in October of that year of a security force to assist humanitarian efforts in Haiti. This trend continued, and in November 2005, the UN Department of Peace Operations requested that Israel send a military unit to one of its peacekeeping forces in conflict zones like Haiti, the Congo, Liberia, or Kosovo, and a medical team or airborne medical rescue unit to such a zone. The UN even inquired about purchasing advanced Israeli military equipment for communications and night vision, among other things.

Another indicator of improved UN-Israel relations was the Secretariat’s announcement that Israel had fulfilled its obligations under UNSC Resolution 425 following the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Opinions vary as to the nature and scope of UN-Israel relations in the post-Cold War era. According to former ambassador Blum, “Even though the cold relationship between Israel and the UN has seen some change in recent years, that organization is still far from being friendly territory for Israel.” Nevertheless, according to former ambassador Bein:

There is a genuine change in Israel’s reciprocal relations with the UN system and international organizations. Israeli representatives are involved in the substantive work of the organizations, and Israelis are elected to positions in the UN and its agencies, the number of hostile resolutions has decreased significantly, and the content of resolutions and voting patterns of states have improved.

Blum’s view is reinforced by the fact that during the sixtieth UNGA, between September 2005 and September 2006, 20 (26%) of the 27 draft resolutions submitted related to Israel. “No state other than Israel has received so much attention from the General Assembly.”

Three Questions

Given the vacillating nature of UN-Israel relations during the organization’s first seven decades, it seems fitting to pose three questions in order to understand the quality of these relations, assess the organization’s capacity to meet the expectations of Israeli decision makers and public opinion, and gauge the possibility of a brighter and more stable future for these relations, which are as important as ever for Israel.

What Drove the Many Anti-Israel UN Resolutions, and were the Attacks on Israel Driven by Anti-Semitism?

The UN is essentially an association of member states and should not be viewed as an autonomous body with a will of its own but rather as a forum for exchanging views and coordinating activities. The organization facilitates processes through which states confront one another, and through such confrontations give expression to what may be termed “global public opinion”—which in turn conveys moral authority that is hard to ignore. Hence the UN may certainly be considered greater than the sum of its parts.

In the early days, Israel had various advantages and power resources which helped it become integrated in the organization. There was a prevailing sense at the time that the international community owed a debt to the Jews as victims of Nazism, and a general recognition that the UN, as successor to the British Mandate, had a duty to ensure a national home for Jews in Palestine. There were expressions of Jewish solidarity and active political and public support from Jewish figures and organizations in various countries, particularly the US, and political support from Christian governments, communities, and personages for cultural, historical, and even religious reasons, along with admiration for the Zionist enterprise, or appreciation of Israel’s strategic potential. There were concerns among the superpowers and Third World countries about the repercussions of the Jewish-Arab conflict if it remained unresolved, at a time when the Jews were demonstrating their willingness to compromise while the Arabs were refusing. Generally speaking, the impression in the US and the West was that they could rely on Israel in the event of a confrontation with the Soviets in the Middle East.

The growth in number of UN member states significantly reduced the organization’s capacity to take coordinated, targeted action. As the number of UN members increased, its homogeneity decreased, especially following the 15th General Assembly, in 1960, when seventeen states (nearly all African) joined. In the mid-1980s more than half of the organization’s members were African or Asian states, compared with less than a quarter in 1945, and since then their number has further increased. This is what generated and still fuels the “North-South” divide. It was therefore only natural that during the years 1960-90 this division impeded cooperation among members.

Israel now found itself in the minority camp:

During the 1950s, Israel was portrayed as a humanitarian, socialist, neutral, anti-colonial state. The Holocaust, the UN Partition Plan, support by both blocs for the state’s founding, its steadfastness when greatly outnumbered during the war, and Israeli socialism as a “middle path” between capitalism and communism created an attractive image…. [But] in the mid-1960s Israel’s image began to change radically, as it came to be considered a developed, technologically advanced, military, rightist, Western European, anti-Communist society.

To this one might add the image of Israel as a neo-colonial state in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. “Above all, one should not ignore the impact of Israeli policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict on relations with African and Asian states that, alongside the Arab world, belong to the Afro-Asian bloc and the Third World.”

The UNSC has been involved in border disputes in the region since the early 1950s: in 1950, a year after the Armistice Agreements were signed, Arab states began submitting complaints directly to the UNSC in addition to, and sometimes instead of, the relevant armistice commission. To ensure that the Israeli side was heard as well, Israel began submitting counter-complaints, generating a backlog in the Council’s timetable.

From 1950 to 1954, when there were relatively few border incursions, about a third of the Security Council meetings were devoted to violations of the Armistice Agreements. After that, until the 1956 war broke out, the Security Council was mainly preoccupied with this issue. When another issue, such as the question of Kashmir, arose, it was regarded as anomalous. “After all, the main role of the Security Council is to address the question of Palestine”: border incidents, the Egyptian blockade of the Suez Canal, Syrian intervention in Israeli irrigation projects, the Independence Day March in Jerusalem, and the like. Some of the debates were on unbelievably trivial issues…. There was a Jordanian complaint about failure to comply with the provision restricting military forces in Jerusalem. Jordan had observed a long convoy of vehicles approaching Jerusalem and being welcomed by a large group of people in dark uniforms, which certainly constitutes a scandalous breach of the Armistice Agreement and a severe military threat. At the Security Council meeting it was patiently made clear that a revered Hasidic rabbi had arrived at Lod airport that morning, and in accordance with custom, some of his followers traveled to Lod to greet him and escort him to Jerusalem, while others, wearing the traditional black clothing of Hasidim, gathered at the entrance to the city to welcome him to the Holy City. The Council wasted several days discussing this weighty issue.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the UN focused its attention on Jerusalem. The Partition Plan had recommended that the city and its surroundings be granted separate status under an international regime for a period of ten years, and requested that the Trusteeship Council establish specific guidelines for the city. Nearly every subsequent resolution of the UNGA or UNSC during that period included references to Jerusalem and the vital need to preserve law and order in the city and in the administration of holy sites. Although the resolutions on Jerusalem noted its sacredness for the three monotheistic religions, the call for Jerusalem’s internationalization was driven mainly by Christians because of the city’s centrality for the Vatican and because Catholic states constituted more than a third of UN members at the time.

Until 1967, the Arab-Israeli conflict centered primarily on Israeli territory, but after the Six-Day War it extended to include the territories occupied by Israel. Paradoxically, this rid Israel of some of its problems vis-à-vis the UN, but these were replaced by others that required new diplomatic initiatives. For example, UNSC Resolution 237, sponsored by the US and adopted immediately after the fighting ended, demanded that Israel permit dispossessed persons to return to their homes without delay. Israel refused to implement this resolution, and the Council reaffirmed it the following year.

After the 1967 Arab League Summit in Khartoum, at which the Arab states adopted the famous “Three No’s”—no recognition, no negotiations, and no peace with Israel—it was easier for Israel to reject such demands by the UN. These No’s provided convenient ammunition for Israeli public relations and diplomacy.

After Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the question of Jerusalem returned to the diplomatic spotlight. When the Arabs wanted to accuse Israel of violating the sacred status of Jerusalem or of attempting to “Judaize” it, they sought, and sometimes found, partners among Christian communities around the world. Thus, they could present the struggle against Jerusalem’s Judaization as a shared Muslim and Christian goal.

The Arab policy at the UN changed in many respects, particularly that of the “warring states”—Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which had lost territories. (A) As far as these three were concerned, the return of territories captured from them took priority over concern for the Palestinians…. (B) Jordan, which was already overflowing with 1948 refugees and had difficulty absorbing those dispossessed by the most recent war, had an interest in having dispossessed persons returned to the occupied territories…. (C) When the Arab governments realized that the US and Israel were holding the cards, and the Soviet Union and UN were unable to impose their own arrangements on Israel, they began coming to terms with the need to compromise regarding the US demand to commence peace negotiations, although they made every effort to have the negotiations conducted not with the government of Israel itself, but rather with and via the UN and the US.

The reasons Israel “earned” so much attention by the UN and such condemnation under its auspices are complex. They stem from a number of individual sources and their combined effect.

The Middle East conflict is the only regional conflict that preoccupied the international arena throughout the “Long Peace” following WWII. With the brief exceptions of the India-Pakistan conflict and the Congo crisis in the early 1960s, all of the UN’s peace efforts were directed at the Middle East.

Within this arena, Israel was seen as failing to abide by the values of the international system. These values had been framed by Third World countries whose policies drew inspiration from the 1955 Bandung Summit, which sanctified what Israel did not represent: anti-colonialism or socialism. Moreover, to counterbalance US influence at the UN and meet the demands of national pride, domestic public opinion, and various sources of resistance, all the Arab governments united around the 1967 Khartoum Summit resolutions. They set out to undermine Israel’s bargaining power by submitting countless complaints about it.

The international recognition granted to Israel by the UN in November 1947 reflected a different reality from the one created by Israeli statehood in four areas: non-establishment of a Palestinian state, the refugee problem, permanent borders, and Jerusalem. These points of dispute required Israeli willingness—which did not exist—to relinquish lands gained in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Israel’s stance was consistent with one of its supreme objectives in UN-related activity after 1948: to thwart any discussion regarding territory, so as to preserve the facts on the ground.

Nonetheless, one should not overlook anti-Semitic motives behind the multitude of UN resolutions. According to Chaim Herzog,

[Events of] recent years at the UN prove that our enemies do not differentiate between Israel and the Jewish people. Despite their efforts to attack only Zionism, they are engaged in daily anti-Semitic assaults of the most malicious sort. It would not be an overstatement to say that the resolution on Zionism turned the UN into the global headquarters of anti-Semitism.

Does the Path to Peace Require “Bypassing” The UN?

One cannot separate the UN’s paralysis in handling the Arab-Israeli conflict since the mid-1950s from its overall decline in status due to Cold War friction. The UN Charter presumes cooperation among the P5, but East-West rivalry deprived the UNSC, and the organization as a whole, of the ability to function efficiently and outline a clear policy. Following Soviet intervention in the Middle East and the escalation of regional tension beginning in the 1950s, it became evident that beyond its limited mission of peacekeeping, the UN could not play any meaningful part in promoting regional peace.

On November 9, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced his willingness to visit Jerusalem, and Begin responded to this gesture by inviting him. On November 20, the two leaders addressed the Knesset, but neither one mentioned the UN or its resolutions.

Israel and the US did not want the UN to play any part whatsoever in negotiations on the Camp David Accords that took place in September 1978. Nevertheless, the accords do rest on universal principles that appear in the UN charter, and include several provisions for cooperation with the UN in their implementation, specifically through peacekeeping forces. Of all the UN resolutions, only UNSC resolutions 242 and 338—the only ones accepted by both sides, (which merely affirmed pre-existing agreements between the superpowers) are mentioned in the agreements and serve as a seal of approval.

Moreover, as Blum describes it, “and this truly borders on the grotesque,” on all matters related to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the General Assembly “not only declined to affirm the agreement, it even condemned that historic breakthrough in Arab relations with Israel. The General Assembly, it should be recalled, is one of the main UN organs mandated by the Charter, first and foremost, to promote international peace and security.”

Likewise, the 1993 Oslo Accords and 1994 peace treaty with Jordan were negotiated and concluded outside of the UN framework and without its active engagement. As with the Camp David Accords, these agreements only referred to UNSC resolutions 242 and 338. Gradually it became evident, even in the Arab camp, that it would not be possible to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict through the UN, and that the only practical option was to assign the task to the US and abide by its terms.

Today the UN seems to be in higher demand and busier than ever resolving international conflicts and crises. The end of the inter-bloc rivalry contributed to this unprecedented scale of activity because the organization no longer served as the “rope” in a game of “tug-of-war” between the superpowers. During the Cold War, each superpower had tried to create a coalition of sorts between itself and the UN in an effort to circumvent the latter’s policy, thus paralyzing it. But the end of this paralysis did not herald independence for the organization because, in the absence of a counterforce, it fell like ripe fruit into the hands and agenda of the US. A review of the conflicts and crises in which the UN has intervened since the dissolution of the Soviet Union reveals that the US supported UN-led efforts in the former Yugoslavia and Western Sahara, but it played a key role outside the UN framework in Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, and Iraq.

The conclusion is that today, in the era of American hegemony, the UN can be more active in outlining global policy and serving as a force for peace. Israel might argue—especially given the traditional hostility between it and the organization—that with the hegemon on its side, it does not need the UN. That view is shortsighted, however, both because US hegemony at the UN might, and likely will, diminish (a first indicator being the UN refusal to authorize US action in Iraq in March 2003), and because resolutions of the UN—as a global, transnational organization—have a moral dimension, and thus it is in Israel’s interest to secure such authorization for its activities.

Notwithstanding the UN’s historical inability to facilitate regional peace, the Middle East peace process did bear fruit at the UN in terms of Israel’s standing: by 2018 Israel had diplomatic relations with 161 member states (83% of all UN members), 32 of which had established or renewed ties following the 1991 Madrid Summit, and another 36 of which did so after the 1993 Oslo Accords.

How Might Israel Integrate into Future UN Activities?

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a reduced likelihood of global military confrontation on the scale of last century’s world wars. Yet the inter-bloc thaw also led to a sharp increase in the number of tribal, ethnic, or religious clashes. During the first half of the 1990s, for example, more than two million people were killed in such clashes, about a third in Rwanda alone. The UN, as the only body currently able to resolve problems and impose peace in such regional conflicts, has therefore become a focus of ever-increasing attention.

Although decision makers still devote most of their attention to matters of war and peace, other matters of “low politics” that cannot be ignored—including overpopulation, economic and social development, human rights, the status of women, and democratization—are receiving higher priority on the international agenda. Despite its many limitations, the UN still provides the best and perhaps the only means of establishing the international cooperation needed to resolve these issues. Yet to succeed in this mission, it must adapt to a world characterized more than ever by globalization, the blurring of borders, and a decline in the value and importance of the nation-state in the format that existed seven decades ago, when the UN was founded.

For these reasons, in 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on UN member states to adopt reforms that would enable the organization to better adapt to the new world order. The four main principles of reform were as follows:

  • Security Council expansion: One proposal was to add six permanent members, without veto power, to the current fifteen. Another was to add eight semi-permanent members.
  • Security: New laws against terrorism, based on a new definition, should be adopted. Non-nuclear weapon states would receive incentives in exchange for voluntarily relinquishing uranium enrichment or plutonium production programs.
  • Use of force: The Security Council would adopt a series of principles by which to determine, for example, whether a military operation constitutes a reasonable response to a specific threat and is reasonably likely to succeed.
  • Human Rights Council: Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal was to establish a new body that would replace the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, to be tasked with coordinating a joint response to instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. (Indeed, in June 2006 the Human Rights Council was established in Vienna. “At its first meeting this body decided to make Israel a permanent item on its agenda. Israel is the only state to have earned this dubious honor.”)

To better integrate into the UN as it seeks to adapt to the new world order, Israel needs to proceed along two parallel tracks: it must continue struggling against discrimination in administrative and specialized bodies, and it must contribute to the organization, particularly in areas where its experience and capabilities offer added value.

The first track has seen some success, evidenced by Israel’s inclusion in a UN regional group and the election of Israel’s ambassador as GA vice president. Also notable was the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic campaign to have anti-Israel resolutions of the UN and other international bodies repealed. EU members (followed by Asian states) were the primary target audience of this campaign because their votes carry decisive political and moral weight in international arenas, and the US joined Israel in this effort. Another indication that Israel had stopped avoiding the UN was its request, presented by Foreign Minister Shalom to the Secretary-General in June 2005, to be admitted to the Security Council as a non-permanent member.

As to the second track, Samuel Huntington argues in “The Clash of Civilizations?” that “the central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be… the conflict between ‘the West and the Rest’ and the responses of non-Western civilizations to Western power and values.” He adds, “Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western.” To date only Japan has actually succeeded, which probably explains the lack of cultural or ideological tension between it and the West. The primary role of the UN in the twenty-first century might therefore be to assist non-Western cultures in attaining modernization while preserving their unique culture, rather than to westernize them. The key to world peace in the twenty-first century might lie in the ability to separate Western culture from modernization.

Israel, which sees itself as an outsider in terms of culture, religion, ethnicity, and even governance within the very system in which it is in the spotlight, and which is located precisely at the junction of cultures, can contribute to other conflict areas by drawing on its efforts at integrating into the region while preserving its culture. The more progress Israel makes in the peace process, the more likely it is to succeed in this important mission.