The United Nations: Israel’s other battle front

The dispute between Israel and the international institution bring to the fore the deep divisions that are hindering the agency’s work

War Israel Gaza
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the Security Council meeting on October 24.Pacific Press (Pacific Press/LightRocket via Ge)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Support for the non-binding resolution calling for a pause in the Israeli bombing of Gaza was overwhelming. With the vote of 120 countries in favor, and only 14 against, the U.N. General Assembly on Friday called for a pause to be able to bring humanitarian aid to the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in the enclave. Despite this, 5,600 miles from New York, Israeli forces began a new phase of their war in the Gaza Strip, with the worst bombings so far. “We reject outright the U.N. General Assembly despicable call for a ceasefire,” Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, posted on X (formerly Twitter).

On Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that, after the vote on the resolution, he felt “encouraged by what seemed to be a growing consensus for the need of at least a humanitarian pause in the Middle East.” “Regrettably, instead I was surprised by an unprecedented escalation of bombardments, undermining humanitarian objectives,” he added in a message on X.

The criticism from both Guterres and the Israeli authorities culminated a week of disagreements between Israel and the United Nations. The dispute — which began on Tuesday after Guterres’ address to the U.N. Security Council — has revealed the deep divisions in the world order, including within the European Union. These divisions have a long history, but have become increasingly serious, threatening the very functioning of the U.N. The war between Israel and Hamas has only served to highlight them.

Guterres’ address on Tuesday was, in principle, only going to be a standard speech on the conflict. But it unleashed a storm. He told the U.N. Security Council: “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.

“They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing. But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

The top U.N. representative also denounced the “clear violations of international law” in Gaza and reiterated his call for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

Cohen and Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, were quick to respond, accusing him of justifying terrorism. The two called for Guterres to resign, while Erdan announced that Israel would “refuse to issue visas to U.N. representatives.” The first victim of this rule was Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. “The time has come to teach them a lesson,” said Erdan.

The Israelis were offended by Guterres’ address, says Richard Gowan, a former U.N. official who now works for the NGO International Crisis Group, which is specialized in conflict prevention. According to Gowan, Israeli leaders “are convinced from birth that the entire U.N. system is tilted against them” and the criticism from Guterres — who had previously been “quite pro-Israel” — was especially impactful. The expert also points to another possible explanation for the clash, arguing that “many diplomats suspect that the Israelis have exaggerated their dispute with Guterres to distract attention from the criticism they are receiving at the U.N. about their campaign in Gaza.”

The dispute has spread to other U.N. countries and other international forums. Spain and Portugal expressed their support for Guterres; while British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticized the senior international official. In Brussels, at the European Council, Spain and Ireland backed the proposal for a humanitarian ceasefire and demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respect international law. Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic aligned themselves with Israel. Those same dividing lines were repeated in Friday’s vote in New York.

“The EU’s utter failure to coordinate a common position on this vote is in many ways more shameful and serious than the petty showdown over Guterres last week. Guterres presented a clear, if controversial, statement of U.N. principles. The EU simply descended into chaos. We can be critical of the U.N., but let’s be honest about the fact that the situation in Gaza leaves everyone confused and out of ideas,” said Gowan.

The row is by no means the first between the U.N. and Israel. Nor will it be the last. The two maintain a relationship as intimate as it is schizophrenic. The Jewish State is, precisely, a creation of the United Nations: in 1947, it decided to partition Palestine, which was then under British mandate. The U.N. has monitored and protected each and every one of Israel’s borders at some point in the country’s history. There is constant communication between the Israeli army and the U.N. authorities in Gaza and the West Bank.

At the same time, most countries in the U.N. General Assembly tend to vote against Israel, which, in turn, frequently attacks the organization to which it owes its existence. Israel systematically fails to comply with the resolutions that affect it. And it has even hit its facilities: during the war against Hezbollah in 2006 it bombed a U.N. observation post in Khiam, in southern Lebanon, killing four international observers. Since the beginning of the current conflict, 57 United Nations workers have died in Gaza.

To a degree, Israel’s complicated relationship with the U.N. reflects the deep divisions that weigh down the institution. The U.N. Security Council has become a boxing ring in which two blocs, one led by the United States and the other by Russia and China, engage in diplomatic sparring and almost systematically veto each other’s resolution proposals — including those presented on the current conflict in the Middle East.

The diplomatic crisis comes at an already complicated time for the U.N. regarding the war in Ukraine. Russia “has done everything possible to pressure the U.S. over Gaza, perceiving it as an opportunity to take diplomatic revenge on the U.S. for its efforts to use the issue of Ukraine to isolate it at the United Nations,” said Gowan. And at the same time, “many non-Western countries that aligned themselves with Washington to support Ukraine now feel alienated by the West’s attitude toward the Palestinians.”

The U.N. is struggling to work amid the divisions and bureaucratization. Countries such as Brazil have vocally criticized the institution for not attempting to reflect the new world order, which is no longer the one that emanated from the Breton Woods conference in 1944. The permanent member countries of the Security Council — armed with veto powers, which allow them to block any decision that they do not like — have resisted attempts to expand the council, fearing it could dilute their influence.

“Today, the United Nations system is sclerotic and hobbled by hostile forces,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

“The U.N. is also facing a number of crises in Africa, such as those in Sudan and the Sahel, where it is struggling to make an impact. There is a feeling among many diplomats in New York that the organization is experiencing a credibility crisis. The crisis in Gaza simply fuels this gloomy feeling,” said Gowan.

Guterres has agreed with the criticisms. A Future Summit is planned for September next year to address some of the planet’s most pressing problems, from disarmament to economic development. “The U.N. is still providing critical life-saving help to people in Palestine, Afghanistan and many other trouble spots. That is irreplaceable,” said Gowan. “Supporting it remains a moral question.”

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