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ConflictsMiddle East

Israel and the UN: A tricky relationship

Thomas Latschan
October 28, 2023

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' recent speech escalated the dispute between Israel and the United Nations, but the relationship has been strained for decades.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks into a UN microphone in front of flags
Guterres didn't have a reputation for taking a tough line on Israel but now faces calls for resignationImage: Craig Ruttle/AP/picture alliance

Addressing the UN Security Council this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sharply condemned Hamas' October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel. But, he said, it was "important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum."

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

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed building after an Israeli airstrike
Gaza has been pounded by Israeli airstrikes following the Hamas terror attacksImage: Ali Mahmoud/AP Photo/picture alliance

The first draft resolution, put forward by the United States, only called for brief pauses in the exchange of fire, recognized Israel's right to self-defense, 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.

A never-ending story in the Middle East

No other crisis-prone region has generated as many UN resolutions as Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Israeli-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 criticize 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 organization in Geneva, the General Assembly passed 140 resolutions criticizing 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. 

Soft teddy bears with their eyes covered and showing signs of injury are displayed to highlight the young children and babies currently missing, believed to be held hostage by Hamas
Israel, still missing hostages, was incensed by Guterres' commentsImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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 criticizing Israel, so far only one has been matched by the Security Council: In 2016, the highest UN body called on Israeli to stop building settlements in the occupied territories. Even then, the US did not explicitly vote in favor of the resolution, but chose to abstain.

On Friday, the General Assembly passed a fresh Middle East resolution: Jordan and 21 other Arab states introduced the draft calling for a ceasefire and unrestricted access for humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

UN General Assembly calls for humanitarian truce in Gaza

Israel is described in the text as an "occupying power" and its right to self-defense is not mentioned. However, Hamas — classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the United States and even some Arab states — is not mentioned by name in the text. Israel's UN ambassador Gilad Erdan strongly criticized this on X, formerly Twitter. Nevertheless, the UN General Assembly passed the proposal with a large majority.

The militant Islamist group Hamas welcomed the resolution. Erdan continued to denounce the text with strong words even after the vote: "The only place this resolution belongs is in the dustbin of history." The UN had shown that it "no longer holds even one ounce of legitimacy or relevance."

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.

What is the two-state solution?

But Israel's relationship with the UN always remained fraught, and tensions have 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.

This article was originally written in German. Since its original publication, it has been updated to reflect the UN resolution passed on Friday, October 27.