A talk given online in June 2020.
My thanks to so many of you for taking the trouble today to attend this online talk from the Balfour Project, I hope you will find it stimulating and thought-provoking. It may be a little confusing at times because we’re going to be jumping between Palestine or Israel/Palestine as it became and New York, with a stop in London on the way from time to time.
If you’re new to the Balfour Project and you feel moved afterwards to support our work in whatever way you can, we would of course be most grateful. This is a charity run on the proverbial shoestring, mainly by a group of volunteers who care passionately about the search for peace and justice in the Holy Land. And to try to be even-handed. We try very hard to be even-handed.
So friends, at a time when we may be approaching, I say may, a bitter moment of truth for the two-state solution, which has long been seen as the only viable way of resolving the competing claims of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, that is if annexation of parts of the West Bank by the Netanyahu government goes ahead, I think it’s right that we reflect today on the past. But at the same time, we need to weigh up whether the two actors highlighted in the title of this talk – the United Nations and the United Kingdom – both of which I would argue bear a heavy responsibility for helping bring about a fair and lasting resolution to this conflict, have both the ability and the political will to do so.
The United States, which has monopolised the peace process in recent decades, making itself both judge and juror, never was the honest broker it claimed to be. And under President Trump it has abandoned any pretence of even-handedness. That’s why others such as the UK and the UN, must step up to the plate, because left alone the Palestinians will be unable to get results.
Between 2002 and 2006. I was working for UNRWA in Jerusalem. My team was responsible for raising over a billion dollars a year from government donors to support the then four and a half million Palestinian refugees registered with the Agency. Among the panoply of UN organisations, UNRWA is unique in several respects, above all in that it delivers services to people which are usually provided by a state. These are education, health, social welfare, housing for the needy, sewage, and so on. A tattered blue UN flag signifying a UNRWA facility flutters over many buildings in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory beyond the pre-67 Green Line. The Israeli state and many Israelis have long resented the UN presence on the ground they consider theirs and have made repeated efforts to push UN agencies out. Such an effort is taking place nowadays against UNRWA, one of whose headquarters is located, as it happens, in a former British Mandate period police station in East Jerusalem.
One summer day in 2005, I was driving home in Jerusalem, in my distinctive car with big letters, U and N, stencilled on its side. Suddenly I found my way blocked by another car stopped in front. Judging by the way those inside were dressed, and their headgear, this was clearly a religious settler family. After waiting patiently for some time, I honked my horn to ask them to move on. Infuriated by my impudence, one of the men reached into the glove compartment of the car, pulled out a gun and started shouting, telling me to get out of the country. Technically as it happened, I was in occupied East Jerusalem at the time, but this was clearly irrelevant. A few weeks later, another Israeli motorist tried to force me off the highway, when I was driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, into a ditch.
I relate these minor anecdotes only to convey the intense dislike that many Israelis, especially those on the right, have for the United Nations. Many colleagues have suffered much worse than me, including one from UNRWA, an international official, who was shot in the back by an Israeli sniper in the Jenin refugee camp in May 2002, and killed. There is sadly little gratitude among ordinary Israelis for the United Nations which brought Israel legally into existence or even to Britain, the former Mandate power, notwithstanding the Balfour Declaration and the solid British support it has given to Israel ever since its independence.
The first casualty in the cause of UN peace-making between Israelis and Palestinians, however, was the Swedish aristocrat Count Folke Bernadotte who took up his job, with some reluctance I should add, at the end of May 1948. In his autobiography, “Instead of Arms”, which was published posthumously, Bernadotte writes frankly about the daunting challenge he faced. A novice to the subject, he thought this might give him a chance of being accepted by both sides as a mediator. That hope did not last long. Less than two months after a meeting of the warring parties on the island of Rhodes on the 24th of July in 1948, after he handed over what he deemed were acceptable proposals for the settlement of Palestine’s future, he was assassinated by the extremist Jewish group known as the Lehi. One of its members, Yitzhak Shamir, became Israel’s prime minister in 1983. Not for the last time did Zionist advocates of gaining control over the whole of Erez Israel, the historic Biblical land of Israel, and of driving the Palestinians out, scupper more moderate Jewish views. Two years earlier, Lehi had planted a bomb in the iconic King David Hotel in Jerusalem. It killed 91 British officials and military officers and injured many others.
In my opinion, an invaluable insider’s guide to the UN practical role in addressing the conflict and its early years comes from the distinguished Briton, Sir Brian Urquhart, one of the founding members of the UN Secretariat and the pioneer of its peacekeeping work. I am fortunate to count myself as a friend of Brian’s. I shall let his words speak for themselves.
“In 1947, we were naively optimistic as to what could be done about this most complex and tragic of historical dilemmas, where two ancient people were in an unequal, but deadly, competition for a small, but infinitely significant piece of territory; a struggle made critical by Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews of Europe on the one hand and the emergence of Arab nationalism on the other. The Jewish refugees from World War II must be allowed to settle. The Palestinians, interests and rights must be protected. A plan must be found to accommodate the conflicting rights and demands of Arabs and Jews. The international community, through the United Nations, must restore peace and execute the plan. In our innocence, none of these things seemed to us impossible.”
Sir Brian is today 101 years-old and still living in New York. His reflections on those early days and what needs to be done have, I believe, stood the test of time, even if his over-optimism about the capacity of the UN has been cruelly exposed. After Bernadotte’s assassination, views at the UN as to what was possible to achieve in Palestine changed. Instead of negotiating a final peace settlement, efforts would turn to negotiating an armistice and containing the conflict. Urquhart argues that the UN never subsequently fully shifted back to the original objective. I agree with him that the UN never again aspired to such a central role. But that did not stop successive Secretaries General and a cavalcade of special envoys trying to regain the trust of Israel and the Palestinians, while negotiating landmines laid by the US and others.
At this point, I shall again quote Urquhart, who wrote in his 1987 biography:
“The Palestine problem has haunted the development of the United Nations ever since 1948. It’s a matter of such passion and partisanship, of conviction so deeply held on both sides that those who become involved in it usually pay a heavy price. I do not mean to belittle the importance of the issues or the sincerity of the beliefs and aspirations of all those concerned, but the involvement of the United Nations in the Palestine problem over the years has twisted the organisation’s image and fragmented its reputation and prestige like no other issue has.”
As a footnote, I should add that I heard a similar sentiment from no less than Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General, who was my boss at The Elders until his tragic early death. Usually cautious about not upsetting the great powers, especially the US, Annan tried to steer clear of this stormy issue. When he did try to get the UN back into the game, setting up the Quartet, the international mechanism to address the conflict which consisted of the US, Russia and the EU and was convened by the UN, he came to realise later that this was a self-made trap for the United Nations. In practice, the UN became a handmaiden to the US, destroying its reputation for neutrality and its ability to negotiate with all parties in the Middle East on this conflict and on others.
Let us now leave the view from the UN aside and return to British government thinking in the fateful run-up to the end of the Mandate in May 1948.
Led by Clement Attlee, the Labour Party had won a sweeping electoral victory in July 1945 and set to work on a series of far reaching domestic reforms, including setting up the National Health Service. Government coffers were low and the British Empire hopelessly overstretched. Considering the depth of mutual antagonism between the Jewish and Arab populations of Palestine and the failure of past British efforts to find a middle ground, not to mention their own contradictory past promises to both sides, it’s hardly surprising that the Attlee government wanted to get rid of its Palestine problem as fast as possible.
Commentators have often derided Britain for cutting and running, leaving the Arabs and Jews to sort things out for themselves. There’s much truth to the denunciation. Personally, though, I find it a bit unfair and ahistorical. Historians need to put themselves in the shoes of decision makers of the time, weighing their competing priorities and claims on their attention. After final efforts in London to persuade Jewish and Palestinian Arab leaders to agree on British proposals had failed, in February 1947 Britain called for a Special Session of the new UN General Assembly to consider the question of Palestine.
Along with the United States, Britain had been a founding signatory of the UN Charter at the San Francisco conference in June 1945, exactly 75 years ago. The very first meeting of the General Assembly, the most representative body of states ever brought together in the world, took place in Westminster Central Hall in January 1946. Britain was also appointed one of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.
Even though many politicians in Britain, especially in the Conservative Party, still felt at the time that the age of empire was not over, in the immediate post-war years overwhelming sentiment in this country was in favour of decolonisation. Palestine was part and parcel of that wish. But, far more important to government thinking was India, where Gandhi was leading a mass nationwide movement that was then on the verge of success. Passing the thorny problem of Palestine’s future to the fledgling United Nations was a logical step, I believe, on the part of Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary. Bevin was no Zionist, as Abba Eban, the young British Jewish lawyer working for the Jewish Agency who later became Israel’s Foreign Minister, makes clear in his own autobiography.
At the United Nations in New York, the Brazilian politician and diplomat Osvaldo Aranha was elected President of the General Assembly’s Special Assembly to consider the Palestinian question in April 1947. Aranha unquestionably did favor the Zionist cause due to his religious beliefs. Overlooking the fact that it had no official standing, he permitted the Jewish Agency, an NGO in today’s terminology, to make official representations to the UN on behalf of the Jewish cause. The Palestinian Arab Higher Committee naturally protested. It was therefore also allowed to appear before the General Assembly and present its case.
Almost forgotten today, but of historical importance is how the UN Special Committee for Palestine was created in 1947 and how its mandate was agreed. This was when the United States under President Truman first showed its hand in favour of the Zionists. There were two competing resolutions in the General Assembly. The first, sponsored by Argentina, would have been scrupulously neutral and heard all sides equally. The second, proposed to by the United States, linked the question of Mandate Palestine to the future of the Jews in Europe, decimated by the Holocaust. Abba Eban himself was one of those Jews making the Zionist case in New York. The latter resolution was the one that eventually passed.
Unlike the Arab Higher Committee, which refused to cooperate with it, Jewish organisations inundated the UN committee with submissions. One of them came from David Ben Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister the following year, Ben Gurion attacked the Attlee government in strong terms for abandoning its “sacred trust” to promote the Jewish national home, as the Balfour Declaration had stated. Stung into responding, the UK publicly defended its record of having worked during the Mandate to promote the Jewish Homeland denouncing the Zionist arguments as “a gross self-deception.” However, what the Zionist movement was really prepared to settle for in the end was obscure – and was the key unknown question for the United Nations. Chaim Weizmann for one made clear that he would be willing to live with the partition of Palestine. During this time, I should add, Britain had become a temporary bystander to events.
Representatives of 11 UN member States spent five weeks in Palestine in the hot summer of 1947. The majority of them, all from European or Latin American states, recommended partition. The two States were to be politically separate and independent but administer a unified economy. Jerusalem would be an international city. These two important caveats, never implemented, were crucial. A minority of three states on the committee, India, Iran and Yugoslavia, recommended instead a federal state with Jerusalem as its capital. The last member, Australia, abstained, from voting.
Behind the scenes Zionist lobbying in capitals, especially in Central and South America had a considerable role in shaping the eventual outcome. What all committee members agreed upon, however, was that the Mandate should end at the earliest practicable date. And they agreed that the United Nations should be the temporary administrator of Palestine and prepare it for independence.
When I was preparing this talk, I was reminded that 52 years later, in one of its last actions in support of decolonisation, the Security Council also authorised a temporary UN governing role in the form of Portuguese colony Timor-Leste, which Indonesia later annexed. I served in that UN administration, which prepared the territory for independence over a three-year period. The great difference with Palestine is that unlike Portugal in the former case, the colonial power, Great Britain never actively worked with the UN in enabling self-determination to take place.
The partition debate in the General Assembly in November 1947 was passionate. A two thirds majority was needed for the resolution to pass and it was highly uncertain this barrier would be overcome. Britain as the Mandate power has already declared its intention to abstain. Zionist lobbying in capitals was relentless and effective. When the vote was finally taken, on the 29th, to general surprise, partition was approved by 33 votes in favour with 10 against – almost all of them Muslim States. The 10 states who had abstained, mainly from Latin America, had tipped the balance.
The passage of UN Resolution 181 controversial as it was at the time, remains the landmark document. Starting a few days later, however, events on the ground in Palestine overtook what had just been decided in New York. Beginning in early December 1947, when Arab families started to flee the cities of Palestine to safety, after the massacre of scores of Palestinian civilians in Deir Yassin near Jerusalem in April 1948 the trickle turned into a flood. As revisionist Israeli historians have subsequently revealed, contrary to the longstanding public Israeli line, there were explicit plans by the Haganah, the Jewish forces, to clear as much land as possible of the original Palestinian inhabitants. British military forces stationed in Palestine were more concerned about their own protection and planned evacuation. Shamefully, they did next to nothing to prevent the creation of the huge refugee crisis that lives with us to this day and remains perhaps the most intractable issue to resolve.
In December 1948, the General Assembly passed another landmark resolution, Resolution 194. It had two elements. First it established an inter-governmental Conciliation Commission as it was called, to be headquartered in Jerusalem. And it also addressed the refugee problem. This resolution is the basis for the demand made ever since for Palestinian refugees, now numbering over 7 million, to be allowed to return home and live at peace with their Jewish neighbours. Critics make much of the fact that unlike Security Council resolutions General Assembly resolutions are not binding on UN Member States. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, much to the irritation of Israel and its supporters, this “right of return” clause is repeated annually in UN resolutions. Added force to it comes from the policy established by UNHCR, the other main UN agency responsible for refugees, in the 1951 Refugee Convention that the first option available to refugees should always be to return to their homeland.
A distinguished African-American mediator, Ralph Bunche, meanwhile, had succeeded Count Bernadotte as the UN’s mediator for Palestine. His right-hand man was Brian Urquhart. It was their task to try and negotiate an end to the war that took place between the new Israeli state, after it declared its independence in 1948, and four neighbouring Arab States who invaded Palestine. Armistice agreements were signed in the period between February and July 1949. But the map on the ground, drawn by the ceasefire lines he negotiated, was very different from that previously envisaged by the UN. In practice, the new Jewish state now had been considerably enlarged, had more contiguous territory and controlled West Jerusalem, although not the Old City and the city’s eastern districts, which remained in Jordanian hands.
After 1947, when UN Member States first tried to play a direct role in trying to find a solution to the Palestinian embroglio, they tried again in January 1949. The Conciliation Commission for Palestine had three members, France, Turkey and the United States. In May of that year at a conference in Lausanne, the commission persuaded the Arab States (the Palestinians not being present or even invited) and Israel to sign protocols whereby the boundaries established under Resolution 181, would be accepted as a basis for future discussions with the UN. In effect, in doing so Israel was accepting the intended creation of a Palestinian state alongside it. A day earlier, on the 11th of May 1949, Israel had been admitted to the United Nations – on the condition that it undertook to observe the provisions of both Resolutions 181 and 194. The importance of these provisions cannot be overstated. But they are often overlooked in most analysis of relations between the UN and Israel.
Although the role of the United Kingdom in the crucial events immediately after 1948 was minimal, I have dwelled at length on this period today because it set the pattern for the future and because it is not so well known nowadays. The history of the UN’s involvement in this issue can however, be roughly divided as follows: after the brief, and unsuccessful, initial efforts to negotiate a political solution between the Zionists and the Palestinians, the first two decades from 1947 to 1967 were devoted largely to peace-making and peacekeeping, and dealing with the consequences of conflict, in other words, the refugee issue. By contrast the next five decades, after the June 1967 war, focused much more on the political dimensions of the Palestinian question, notably problems related to the exercise of Palestinian self-determination. It’s in this more recent period that I believe Britain, as a permanent member of the Security Council, and thus obligated under international law to help uphold the Council’s resolutions and preserve peace and security worldwide, could have played a larger, and more meaningful, role in helping bring about the Palestinian state it has long been committed to.
Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which skilful British diplomacy helped draft and negotiate, is the starting point. Today, when the Netanyahu government is seriously considering annexing swathes of the West Bank, it’s worth recalling the key provisions of Resolution 242. Its’ preamble begins: “emphasising the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every state in the area can live in security.” The resolution’s first Operative Clause then calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Ever since then Israel and its supporters have argued that the lack of a definite article before the word ‘territories’ means that Israel is not obligated to withdraw fully to the pre 1967 Green Line borders. This claim is disingenuous, as the French language version contains the definite article and at the UN both language versions have equal legal standing. The intent was and remained clear.
What is worth stressing, now, however, is what was not mentioned in Resolution 242. There was no reference whatsoever to Palestine or the Palestinians. There were only vague references to the refugee problem. It took another two years until 1969, more than 20 years after the original partition resolution, for the UN General Assembly to formally recognise the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. In 1970, it recognised for the first time that “the people of Palestine are entitled to equal rights and self-determination in accordance with the Charter.” For good measure, it went on to add that full respect for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people was “indispensable for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
This was a high watermark for the UN’s recognition of the political dimension of the Palestinian conflict. Predictably, though, it also set the stage for many decades of conflict with Israel and its main supporter, the United States, over what was perceived to be UN partisanship in favour of the Palestinians and excessive, undeserved criticism of Israel, including over human rights abuses. Israel has never acknowledged that the territories beyond the Green Line were legally occupied, which would mean de jure application of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Instead it refers to the territories as ‘disputed,’ arguing that Jordan’s unrecognised annexation of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967 meant there was no previous sovereign rule there. In practice, Israel has consistently refused to cooperate with the UN’s human rights mechanisms whenever they wish to enter the Palestinian Territories or investigate alleged war crimes.
In this regard, the case currently before the International Criminal Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber at The Hague, brought by Palestine, could be a game-changer, if the Court indeed decides it has jurisdiction.
After the 1967 war between Israel and Arab States, there were a series of UN peace-making missions. None of them were successful. In practice, the baton was taken up by the United States, which took upon itself the role of principal mediator and increasingly bypassed the UN. When the Quartet was set up in 2002, a precondition set by Washington was that the new mediation group would have no organisational link to the Security Council. It would not even report back to the UN. Not content with regularly exercising its veto power in the Security Council to block resolutions critical of Israel, Washington was now going further. It was deliberately excluding the UN from exercising the role it is charged under the Charter, which all Member States have signed up to, with playing.
A succession of UN Special Envoys to the Middle East Peace Process, based in Jerusalem, have thus found themselves virtually ignored by the Israeli authorities and marginalised from the centre of decision-making. Their reports to the UN have become willingly routine and inconsequential. And their role on the ground has been reduced lately to trying to secure such things as marginal easings of the blockade of Gaza.
For the PLO, meanwhile, its own recognition by the General Assembly in 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people was an enormous step forward in gaining international respectability, as well as recognition of the justice of the Palestinian cause. Over the decades, UN Member States have periodically tried to overcome blocking actions in the Security Council by the United States, by using a procedural mechanism called ‘Uniting for Peace’ to pass the same resolution in the General Assembly instead. These resolutions may have only symbolic and moral value; but they nevertheless express the sentiment of a vast majority of countries about the Palestinian cause.
The state of Palestine was recognised by the General Assembly as far back as 1988. But it was only in November 2012, that the UN changed the designation of the PLO from being an observer organisation, to being the representative of an observer non-member state. It may have been rather tortured language, but it amounted to recognition by the UN that Palestine was indeed a state, albeit one without internationally defined and recognised borders. I should point out here that this was just as Israel had previously been recognised in 1949, within undefined borders still to be negotiated.
And what was the British government doing all this time?
Well, most of the time it has been content to keep its head below the parapet and play second fiddle to the United States. In practice, this meant arguing that the United States was a) acting in good faith, b) was unique among states in having real leverage over Israel and c) could be relied upon to help deliver what the UN had consistently said needed to happen. That is the creation of a “viable, contiguous, and sovereign Palestinian state” living in peace and security alongside Israel in the post 1967 occupied territories. I would argue that these were excuses for inaction and, in reality, a sad abrogation of British responsibility.
In 2003, when Tony Blair as Prime Minister was making the case to the British people for the country to join the United States and go to war against Iraq, he promised doubters that once the war was over, the very first thing he would do would be to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Things did not turn out as he had predicted. In June 2007, Blair indeed stepped down as Prime Minister and was appointed as the Quartet Envoy. He hoped to be able to get the Bush administration to give him a wider political mandate but was unsuccessful in that first effort.
For the next eight years, any objective observer would agree that he wasted the political capital he had started with. His bias towards Israel and the Zionist cause became ever more pronounced, so much so that towards the end of his tenure, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah refused to deal with him any longer. In the meantime, he and his team ran up huge bills at the luxurious American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. His single achievement was negotiating the improvement of the water treatment system in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. In my humble opinion, given Tony Blair’s insistence as Prime Minister in building close ties to successive US administrations and his affinity for Israel and the Jewish people, he could, indeed should, have been able to achieve much more. His was a sorry legacy and a huge lost opportunity to bring real change.
For those who have always doubted or harboured doubts about the sincerity of successive US administrations and its genuine commitment to a Palestinian state the unveiling of the Trump plan last January, and Washington’s declaration that the West Bank was not after all occupied territory, must have torn away the last shreds of any illusions in Britain, especially at the Foreign Office.
That puts the Johnson government today in an acute dilemma. How can it, on the one hand, not upset Britain’s most important ally, with whom it wants to strike a valuable new trade pact, and on the other hand, continue to claim that the UK upholds international law, a rules-based international order and UN Security Council Resolutions? When one compares the efforts made over the years by the two prominent Britons I’ve mentioned, Brian Urquhart and Tony Blair, to help end this conflict and bring peace and justice for both sides, I know which one of the two men I prefer.
Thank you for your attention. I’m now happy to take your questions in the remaining time we have available.
Andrew, that was so fascinating.
I’ve got a bunch of questions for you on annexation. So, I’m going to read you the first one from Tony Klug, who’s here with us today. “Do you share my concern that if the annexations are delayed or even called off, we may be lulled into thinking something very important has been achieved, when it actually would have done is a reversion to a dreadful and worsening status quo? I wonder if you agree that the proposed annexation should be used as a spur to turn the tables, to go on the counter offensive, to step up the pressure to bring the occupation to a final end?”
And then we also have from Ian Black, “What will the UN reaction be if Israel goes ahead with the annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank?”
And Susan Murphy says she’s heard two versions of what will actually be annexed and wondered if you could clarify, if you have any more information about what they’re actually talking about.
Okay. Well thank you for those questions. They’re all important ones.
To respond to Tony who makes two different points. He is right. I share his view that we shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief if annexation doesn’t go ahead as is being threatened by Bibi because indeed the situation was steadily worsening. There was de facto annexation taking place. And in practice, Israel was extending its law and its authority increasingly over many parts of the West Bank. Many people would argue that actually Bibi Netanyahu is more comfortable with the status quo because it allows him wriggle room to be able to get away with what he wants to do without facing international opprobrium.
So yes, I do think that now world attention is focusing on this issue (and I’ve been really very pleased to see the rallying by many people, many Jewish people, who consider themselves good friends of Israel, including today), to criticise Israel for the planned annexation and who are concerned about the loss of the Jewish and democratic character of the Israeli State. But going back to the status quo ante is not good enough.
So yes, I agree with Tony that this ought to be a moment when concerned people across the spectrum should really try to get together and pressure their governments into undertaking some serious actions to be able to, once and for all, try to make sense to knock sense into the parties. This requires exercising real leverage. Sadly, though it won’t happen under the Trump administration. I think we will have to wait and hope that Joe Biden becomes president in the United States after the November elections.
In answer to Ian Black’s question, the UN will certainly pass resolutions, condemning the annexation, as it must do, both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council, or at least attempt to pass it in the Security Council, but undoubtedly the United States will use it to veto to be able to block any condemnation in the Security Council.
That then comes back to what I mentioned in my talk, which is that the ball will be tossed back to the General Assembly, and they will use the ‘Uniting for Peace’ mechanism to pass exactly the same resolution in the General Assembly. It doesn’t have a practical effect. It can’t oblige anyone to do anything, but I think it will be a strong signal of condemnation.
As for which parts are going to be annexed, the third question, I truly cannot tell. Experts are really divided about how far they will go. Probably if I had to put money on it, I would say that it would be a relatively small and modest annexation of settlement blocks closest to Jerusalem, which Israel would argue it had always intended to keep under a final peace settlement anyway.
Very thorough answer. Thank you so much. We’ve got a question that’s come in on the chat from Pia. “Why was the UN so unprepared for the political realities of the conflict in 1947?”
I think we have to be fair to the UN. It was really finding its feet in those early days. And the UN was not set up at that time to be able to investigate the issues fairly. It was, as Brian Urquhart said, a highly sensitive and contentious issue; one on which opinions were deeply divided and, as today, Member States are divided on.
I think at that time, it really did not have the capacity to do much more. Remember it was a member state committee that went to Palestine in 1947. And it was able to spend five weeks, only five short weeks, really looking into what were the options that they could recommend after listening to the parties. And the conclusion that it came up with was a map that was hopelessly unrealistic in terms of the ability to be able to create a lasting solution. I must say, as a footnote here, that it’s not too different from the map that the Trump administration has drawn, which was unveiled in January, in terms of the lack of continuity between different territories controlled by Palestinian or by Israel.
The next question is from Ron, from Bristol Kairos Community. It’s a theme that quite a lot of people have been asking about, basically the relationship between the UN and the US. “Given the poor track record of the UN’s ability to address the Palestinian situation, what are the prospects that the UN will intervene effectively in light of the US’s uncritical backing of Israel’s policies?”
Well, this is the central question which has been the case going back before the UN was created, to the League of Nations, that any efforts or multilateralism depends heavily on whether the US is going to cooperate and not simply letting the US walk away as the most powerful economic, military, and some would say political power in the world, reduces the legitimacy of the UN. It makes it work much less effective, and it can encourage others to walk away also. So, therefore, for every Secretary General, it has been a central task for them to be able to try and keep the US on board and to try to curb its unilateralist instincts. That’s been particularly difficult most recently for Antόnio Guterres with President Trump. But it’s not unique to him. It’s happened several times in the past. So, this is a reality. One has to work with Washington and not against Washington.
We’ve got another question about General Assembly Resolutions. “As General Assembly resolutions are not binding, why was the GA’s partition resolution considered binding, and why was it a GA and not a Security Council resolution?”
This is really a very good question. The General Assembly is the supreme body of the United Nations, not the Security Council. And it is the body that is called upon to opine on the biggest questions of the day. The Security Council is meant to restrict itself to narrower questions relating to the preservation of peace and security. In this issue, we’re essentially talking about an issue which the UN defined as a decolonisation issue. It was the ending of the Mandate given by the League of Nations to Britain to be able to prepare Palestine for independence and to prepare the two peoples for self-rule. So, in the end, it was seen as a legitimate issue for the General Assembly and not for the Security Council. Only later in the light of armed conflict between the parties, did the Security Council directly get involved.
The next one I can give you is: “Given the marked decline in UN institutions at the present time, especially under Trump, what is the chance of the UN playing a pivotal role now? And what is the role of the ICC?” This is from Sarah.
The role of the ICC is potentially very important because the issue of accountability for breaches of human rights. In this regard, anything from the transfer of the Jewish population to the occupied territories to individual acts undertaken during wartime that contravene the Geneva Conventions are considered as potential war crimes. So if the International Criminal Court were to accept that Palestine is indeed a state, which is an issue in dispute at the moment, and if it was to decide that it could exercise jurisdiction, I believe that this could have a significant chilling effect on the Israeli political establishment and on the government. It could potentially lead to actions against individual named Israelis, that could restrict their travel movement. And, besides, it would be a considerable source of shame that they had had been stigmatised in the way that war criminals from other countries have been.
We’ve had some questions about the Quartet. “Hasn’t the Quartet, with its unanimity requirements for action been a successful US manipulation to prevent the UN, the EU, and Russia from playing any constructive role in Palestine?” That’s from John Whitbeck in Paris.
I followed the work of the Quartet quite closely when I was still working at the UN and became regularly frustrated with it, because, in theory, it could and should have been a lot more effective. If the other members of the Quartet had stood up to the United States and if it had a developed its own independent secretariat. The problem with the Quartet is that it had a very weak secretariat and in practice accepted what the United States tried to set our as its agenda for work. US voices were always more powerful.
My sense is that a multilateral mechanism that is acceptable to both sides, and it has to be to both Israel and the Palestinians, is needed. And rather than reinventing the wheel my own view is that the Quartet should be enlarged to bring in the major Arab states, particularly the neighbours in Egypt and Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia and possibly one or two others such as the United Arab Emirates, who have weight on this issue: in order to be able to, first of all, provide some support and comfort to the Palestinian side, who feel very much cornered, but also to be able to give it greater legitimacy, particularly in the region. And then I would give it an independent secretariat and properly fund it and make sure that the UN has a stronger role in being able to help set its agenda and include a link to reporting back to the Security Council on a periodic basis, as other international mechanisms do from time to time. It shouldn’t be detached from the UN’s machinery, given the responsibility that the UN has for trying to end this conflict and bring about a Palestinian state.
I’ve got another question about the ICC from Jane. “Do you believe that the ICC investigators will be allowed into Israel and Palestine to do their jobs, or not, in investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity?2
I regret that the answer is very short. I don’t think that Israel will allow the investigators to go in. They’re already trying to stigmatise them, even down to somewhat racist language that is used occasionally against the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC. So, given the past record of lack of cooperation, I think that there is no chance whatsoever of this happening.
And the next question from Chris Greenwood, “Is it necessary/essential for public and political pressure in the US and Britain to force policy change on their own governments i.e. to support all previous UN resolutions. Because if those two countries took their changed policy to the UN, then I assume the UN position would change accordingly. If this, for any reason, is not the only source of the solution, then what is?”
In these democratic states, yes, public opinion does matter, and it should matter. And so therefore governments ought to take heed of changes in public opinion. I believe that in the United Kingdom, the British public opinion is changing across the board and that the government is rather out of touch with the public mood on this particular issue.
So, as we have seen, an increasing number of parliamentarians and members of the House of Lords express their concerns over this issue, I think that if it were not for the current coronavirus pandemic which is distracting attention one would get a lot more pressure on the government in order to be able to change course and not simply make empty rhetorical remarks, which we have heard until now. I would like to be able to give the Johnson government the benefit of the doubt and say it’s serious; but at a time when it needs to negotiate a new trade deal with Israel and is looking for friends and allies, and at a time when there is strong security cooperation between Britain and Israel I’m not holding my breath that this will happen. But nevertheless, in answer to the questioner, I would still say, absolutely this must happen. We really do need to mobilise public opinion in the major democracies.
We have a question that’s come in from Ian Tegnor. “I would be interested to know what, if any, influence the US with its strong pro Jewish leanings had on the way in which the British sought to handle the development of the Jewish Homeland up to 1948?”
I am not aware that the US actively intervened to pressure Britain. The US was a member of the League of Nations in its early years and certainly was sympathetic to the Jewish cause. But before the Second World War there wasn’t the degree of partisanship that there is today. And, so, I don’t think that the US prior to the establishment of the state of Israel was actually a goad in the side of Britain to do more for the creation of a Jewish Homeland.
And we’ve got a question from John Quigley, “If Israel terminates its occupation, it has no basis for retaining possession of Palestinian owned lands on which the settlements are built. Right of possession automatically works to the owners. How will the UN ensure effectuation of this right of reversion?”
Property issues are really important. And it has been a tricky issue for the UN to handle in practice. There is a small and rather obscure UN body (UNRoD), which has been looking for some years now at the effects of the confiscation of Palestinian farmland to prepare for the building of the Separation Barrier or Wall that runs through across the West Bank. And yet that body, which is intended to document the case for compensation for the Palestinians, has had its work cut out, even to be able to document the actual facts of what are going on. It really does need a great deal more weight in practice. The UN has had to tiptoe around this issue.
We saw the same thing happening with the pressures to disclose the companies which were alleged to be cooperating with the Israeli occupation in helping build settlements. I’m talking about international companies here. Finally after months and months of pressure on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the details were released. But Israel went to great lengths, and so did the United States, to try to prevent the disclosure of that list and thereby embarrass companies cooperating with the occupation. So, I certainly don’t hold my breath that anything more ambitious than that is going to be possible in practice.
We’ve got a question from Noah. “The Palestinian status in the UN is paradoxical because it is not officially recognised as a country, yet it benefits from the international organisation. Is its only benefit the help it can get from the humanitarian organisations and judicial entities such as the ICC, for example?”
Its status in the UN is anomalous, and to use a legal term, sui generis. It is unique. But it is something which is a halfway house, a compromise that really is rather unsatisfactory, I think, to all concerned. When I was working at the Elders, we had a meeting with President Abbas on the margins of the UN General Assembly, when he was hesitating over whether or not to go to the UN Security Council and get it to recognise Palestine as a state, as the majority of Security Council members who were willing to do. The problem with that was that it was likely to prompt a US veto and thus be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, as a rhetorical action by itself. In the end, the fact is that, when belatedly and rather half-heartedly, the Palestinians went ahead with seeking international recognition, they rather zig-zagged on this issue, I think helped them to be able to gain some greater international legitimacy. It changed nothing on the ground whatsoever. They have new letterhead that called themselves The State of Palestine. But that doesn’t make any difference in terms of Israeli control over the territories, over there air space, over the movement of people in and out of the territories. Not one iota changed at all. But it does help to be able to give some kind of encouragement and support to say that the Palestinians have world opinion on their side. That is probably the best that can be said for it.
We’ve had some questions on East Jerusalem. So, I’ll take the one from our chair, Sir Vincent Fean, who’s joining us today. Hello, Vincent. “Could you say something about the role of UNRWA in East Jerusalem and the risk of eviction?”
Yes. This is an issue. And it’s one that I’m personally familiar with. When I was working as an UNRWA official, I was very familiar with the UNRWA-managed camps and the facilities and the services that they do there. This is a long-standing issue because Israel has been trying for many years to be able to persuade UNRWA to move its headquarters in Jerusalem to Ramallah. And that would be a symbolically bad move as far as the Palestinians were concerned because of the need to preserve a UN agency in East Jerusalem, to recognise that under international law it remains occupied territory.
So the moves that Israel is making at the moment to try to take over responsibility from UNRWA for services that are provided to the Palestinian refugees living inside, from the Jerusalem Municipality, should be seen for what they are, which are attempts to try to delegitimise the presence of the UN there, and to be able to strip the refugees of their link to the international community, which they hold on to very tightly. It has great symbolic value for them to receive a bag of flour that has got UN stamped on the top of it; as it’s their connection to that feeling that they remain recognised as refugees and as people whose fate has not been finally resolved.
I’ve got a very good question to end on Andrew. So I’m going to give you this question and then if you could hopefully answer and give us some of your concluding thoughts, that’d be fantastic. “What is the future role of UNRWA, even though the Trump administration has cancelled its finances to the organisation?” That’s from Gian Claire, and we’ve had quite a few other people commenting on the UN, the US cutting the funding and the effects that that’s had.
I am not an uncritical admirer of UNRWA. I recognise its faults. It’s an old fashioned, rather bureaucratic organisation. It’s been difficult to change its ways. But at the same time, I am deeply appreciative of its critical role as a stabilising force in the region. And if it were not for UNRWA, I think that there would be a great deal more radicalisation of young Palestinians who have little else to be able to live for. I’m also conscious of the way in which UNRWA, over many years, helped to educate and provide initial primary health services for young people who went on to become professionals in the Gulf region and formed subsequently the backbone of the professional classes of those Gulf countries and thus the basis of their prosperity.
So, I think that the world has a great deal to thank UNRWA for and to show appreciation for UNRWA. But the fact is that the numbers of people on its books grow inexhaustibly, while donor funds are not inexhaustible. And, after the pandemic and after the cut of the US funding, which was previously the largest single donor, the strains are really getting to near breaking point. This may require some difficult decisions on the part of UNRWA’s new Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, a friend of mine, over what to do.
Cuts will be strongly resisted by the refugee host countries and by the refugees themselves, understandably. But hopefully there are ways in which UNRWA can make itself more efficient and can reach agreements with other UN agencies or with the host countries. But it needs to be doing things differently in ways that reduce the cost but maintain its presence. Because while UNRWA is not there in order to be able to promote the “right of return”, as is wrongly stated by some people, it does recognise that this is an unresolved political issue. UNRWA is a humanitarian agency. It’s not a political one. But it lives and works and breathes in a deeply political context. And that is what makes it a shooting target for so many critics.
So, in conclusion, what I’d like to say is simply that when I was preparing for this talk, I was thinking of the title of a book that I was going to write on this subject. Rather pessimistically, I was going to call my book, which would be about the UN’s role and responsibility for the Palestinian question, ‘From Midwife to Pallbearer.’ That may be too bleak. But I do think that, unfortunately, this is a tragic story where the good intentions of the United Nations were constantly being frustrated by major powers, in particular the United States, to not allow it to do the job that has been allowed to do. But there is much more that could be said on this matter on another occasion.
Well, thank you so much for that. Vincent Fean has reminded me that we also have our Jerusalem conference coming up in October, Andrew, you’re playing such a big role in organising that and getting the speakers involved. This was of course going to be an in-person conference. Now it’s going to be online. So do you want to talk about it a little more?
I’d like simply to give some advance warning to people that we will have a full day conference on the 27th of October with speakers from the United States, from Israel and Palestine, as well as from the UK, covering a range of topics related to the centrality of Jerusalem. I think that whatever their political affiliation people would agree this is a central issue which needs to be addressed in a way that is inclusive and not exclusive for one community or one faith group.
So what we’re going to look at, hopefully in a fair and balanced way, with eminent speakers who really know their subject well, is going to the historical dimensions of Jerusalem, the religious dimensions and the holy sites, international law and human rights. We’ll also be looking at the contemporary situation, plans that have been made to share Jerusalem, to try to divide it, which is so difficult. Or else to allow all peoples to be able to gain access to their holy places freely. And then finally we shall be looking ahead to Britain’s role, because after all the Balfour Project is about focusing on Britain and its role. And we will look at that with a group of serving politicians: What it is that Britain could and should be doing in order to be able to advance the objectives laid out in the earlier hours of the conference.
If you’re interested in the conference, make sure you’re signed up to the mailing list and we will get more information out about that. And I just want to thank you again for being absolutely amazing. So informative, everyone’s commenting about how interesting it was. Lots of calls for you to write that book. So, whatever the title is, please get on that because we would find that fascinating.
I’m glad that it was interesting. I know that I can’t make everyone happy, but I hope at least it kept people’s attention.
Well, it sounds like it did. And I would like to thank everyone who came along and especially for those people who gave us donations, we really appreciate it. As Andrew said, we’re operating on a shoestring and we want to be able to continue to provide you with these interesting events and initiatives. So, Andrew, thank you very much and thank you all for attending. We’ll sign off now. Bye.
Andrew Whitley is founder and executive director of Geo-Political Advisory Services (GPAS), a UK-based consultancy that works on the alleviation of armed conflict in the Middle East and Asia. He was previously Policy Director and interim Chief Executive of The Elders, the organisation of global figures founded by Nelson Mandela. Before joining The Elders in London, in January 2011, Andrew worked for four decades around the world, first as a journalist with the BBC and Financial Times and later, from 1995 to 2010, with the United Nations. From 1990 to 1994 he was the founding director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, then known as Middle East Watch. At the UN, Andrew successively held senior posts at UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development), the Department of Peace-Keeping Operations – in UN-administered East Timor and Kosovo – and at UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. A specialist in the Middle East, he has lived twice in Iran and twice in Israel and Palestine. The current work of GPAS is focused on Yemen as well as relations between Iran and its western neighbours. Andrew holds Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees in History from St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.