The United States made headlines two days before Christmas by abstaining on a United Nations Security Council vote for a resolution of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. The resolution, which the United States could have vetoed and subsequently passed, declared the Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law, and demanded an end to all construction on territory captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The resolution also reaffirmed Security Council Resolution 242, which in 1967 called for the withdrawal of Israel from said territory.
As expected, criticism of the Obama administration’s decision poured in from both the Israeli government and Republican Party. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution “hostile and imbalanced,” and cancelled Israeli aid to certain U.N. bodies. Donald Trump tweeted that the U.N. was, “just a club for people to talk, get together, and have a good time.” But the most consequential response came from foreign policy wonk and South Carolina senator, Lindsey Graham, who pledged to form a bipartisan movement on Capitol Hill to “suspend or significantly reduce United States assistance to the U.N.”
This is not only significant, but could change the international community forever. It may very well be a slippery slope that ends with the irrelevancy of the pinnacle of the liberal international order, namely the United Nations.
The problem stems from the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has affected global perception of the United Nations. Over the years the U.N. has adopted dozens of resolutions, both in the Security Council and the General Assembly, regarding the conflict. Despite all these resolutions, in 69 years the U.N. has failed to end this conflict and prevent the numerous wars it has spawned. Both sides acknowledge this reality and speculate that the U.N. is therefore irrelevant. Israelis and their supporters point to the numerous resolutions chastising Israel, 77 between 1955 and 2013, and the lack of resolutions targeting Palestinians, 1 in 2002, as evidence that the members states of the U.N. have simply ganged up on, and become obsessed with, Israeli occupation. The reason, such proponents say, is the straw man fallacy, ergo, simply anti-Semitism. Supporters of the Palestinians on the other hand look to the number of resolutions and the lack of tangible action and declare the United Nations to be all talk and no action.
It is worth noting that U.N. members are, as the Israelis claim, more or less unified behind the Palestinian demand for an independent state with pre-1967 borders and an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The recent U.N. resolution passed unanimously with the United States abstaining and all other 14 members of the council voting in favor of the resolution. In 2012, U.N. General Assembly 67/19 recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state was adopted with the overwhelming support of 138 states; with only 9 states (Israel, the U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Panama) opposing the measure. This has become a rather routine procedure in the General Assembly. Resolutions condemning Israel pass with widespread support with only Israel, the United States and a few small U.S.-dependent states in opposition. In the Security Council, where the United States has veto power, it usually comes to Israel’s aid and blocks any such motions, in the process putting itself in opposition with international consensus.
It is for this reason that Senator Graham’s criticism of the U.N. and subsequent threats are so ironic. Virtually nothing important happens in the U.N. without the approval of the Security Council, and nothing happens in the Security Council without the U.S.’s tacit approval. To defund the U.N. because a single resolution critical of Israeli policy got through, when numerous others have been blocked, would not just be an overreaction, it would be dangerous. One-fifth of the U.N.’s 2016-17 budget was paid by the U.S. One quarter of the crucial peacekeeping budget was paid by the U.S. If the world’s only superpower and the organizations largest funder suddenly stopped paying its dues, it would irreparably damage not just the ability of the U.N. to function but the U.N.’s reputation and ability to command respect. Even if the U.N. repealed the resolution in question and U.S. funding were to be resumed, as Graham has suggested, the damage would be irreversible. The world community would forever see the U.N. as subservient to U.S. demands, and little would be done to change international opinion on Israeli policies.
The U.N. may be imperfect, but it represents the pinnacle of the post-world war liberal order. It convinced South Africa and Kazakhstan to give up nuclear weapons, prosecuted former Serbian and Liberian dictators for war crimes, ended smallpox, saved the ozone layer, and saved the lives of 90 million children. The competing criticisms of the U.N., stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely that the U.N. is either a U.S. puppet or a bastion of anti-Semitism, are meeting at the debate over whether the United States should defund the United Nations. At a time when Britain’s exit is challenging the European Union and the incoming U.S. President has questioned the worth of NATO, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could threaten yet another pillar of the international community.