No one familiar with the sordid history of the United Nations should be surprised at the moral idiocy recently on display in Turtle Bay, when the General Assembly cheered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand for statehood despite offering Israel nothing in return. Yet those six decades of hypocrisy and failure are only the confirmation of the fatal weakness that necessarily characterizes a transnational institution presumably founded on shared beliefs, but in fact comprising sovereign nations each with its own interests and different conceptions of international morality. Indeed, the first attempt at such delusional internationalism, the League of Nations, within a few years of its founding was revealed to be what the U.N. would later become: just another tool for advancing state interests or avoiding action, all cloaked in hypocritical rhetoric.
That test of the League came in 1923, when Benito Mussolini used the murder of some Italian diplomats in Greece as a pretext for attempting to take over the island of Corfu. The Italian fleet sailed into the island’s main harbor and bombarded a fortress, killing 15 Armenian and Greek refugees. Harold Nicolson of the British Foreign office saw that this incident challenged the League’s viability: “Should the [League] Assembly fail, in such flagrant circumstances, to enforce obedience to the Covenant, it was realized that the authority of the League would be forever impaired.” Yet the League did nothing about this aggression, and in the end Greece was forced to pay reparations to Italy as the price of withdrawal. As the Secretary General of the League said at the time, “This challenge has brought into question the fundamental principles which lie at the root of the public law of the new world order established by the League.” As we all know, that failure to punish aggression was merely the first in a series that for the next two decades would pave the way for the cataclysm of World War II.
The U.N. had its own test, also just a few years after its founding. In 1947, the U.N. formally resolved to divide the British Mandate in Palestine into two states, that of Israel reduced to 20% of the territory originally promised for a Jewish homeland. Within a year the Arab nations belonging to the U.N., displeased with the will of the international community they freely joined, attacked Israel in “a war of extermination,” as the Arab League spokesman put it, “and a momentous massacre.” What people sometimes forget is that the attack also “brought into question the fundamental principles which lie at the root of the public law of the new world order established” by the U.N. The use of violence to resolve disputes already adjudicated by the collective will of the international community, and the failure of that community to defend and enforce its decision, exposed the U.N. as founded not on principle, but on national self-interest and expediency. Like the failure to punish Mussolini’s aggression, the failure to punish the Arab states for theirs left the authority of the U.N. “forever impaired.”
What followed that failure was a series of U.N. resolutions that demonized Israel and gave an institutional pass to terrorism. Resolution 2708, for example, passed in 1970 stated that the U.N. “reaffirms its recognition of the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.” That last phrase, subsequently confirmed in other resolutions, legitimized terrorism specifically directed against Israel. It was no surprise that a mere four years later––years filled with terrorist murder by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including the Munich Olympics massacre and the slaughter of school-children in Ma’alot and Qiryat Shemona–– P.L.O. leader Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly to tumultuous applause, brandishing a holster on his hip in the presumed venue of diplomatic negotiation intended to replace violence. As a further reward, the U.N. passed resolutions 3236 and 3237, which recognized the terrorist P.L.O. as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
These U.N. actions resulted from that first failure in 1948 to exercise moral clarity and to identify and punish the aggressor, and they set the stage for the following half-century of violence in the Middle East and the subsequent armed aggression against Israel through war and terror.
The sorry spectacle that took place a few days ago merely confirms what the failures of the League of Nations and the U.N. should have taught everybody decades ago–– the lack of any consistent unifying principles, morals, or values has turned the U.N. into a facilitator of aggression and an enabler of appeasement. Worse yet, its procedures and meetings provide aggressors with the opportunity to hide their violent intent behind rhetoric pleasing to the Western nations who are pursuing their own national interests, or are unwilling or unable to punish aggression. Abbas’s speech is a classic example of such rhetorical subterfuge, as in the following statement: “Settlement activities embody the core of the policy of colonial military occupation of the land of the Palestinian people and all of the brutality of aggression and racial discrimination against our people that this policy entails.” The word “colonial” and the phrase “racial discrimination” are literally meaningless in this context, mere verbal triggers for a Western guilt that conveniently rationalizes an unwillingness to exercise moral clarity or even to recognize the facts of history.
What those facts show is that a critical mass of Palestinian Arabs want to destroy Israel more than they want a state. Thus the rhetoric in Abbas’s speech about “the realization of their inalienable national rights in their independent State of Palestine” is for the consumption of Westerners, for that state could have been achieved in 1947, in 2000, or in 2008. The reality of Palestinian intentions is revealed by the maps in their schools that leave out Israel; by Abbas’s dating the “occupation” to 1947 rather than 1967; by the refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state; by the non-negotiable demand that millions of “refugees” be allowed back into Israel as a demographic WMD; and by the clear record of every Israeli concession being met with more terrorist violence. Yes, the Palestinians want their own state, but only one conditioned on the eventual disappearance of Israel.
Indeed, like speeches and resolutions in the U.N., terrorist violence has always been a Palestinian tactic in service to the strategic goal of destroying Israel, a tactic by the way that repudiates the U.N.’s goal “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as its Charter has it. And given that the U.N. itself has legitimized terrorism, we should not be surprised that Palestinians are not shy about threatening violence, as when Nabeel Shaath, a senior adviser to Abbas, said that going to the U.N. is the “only alternative to violence.” Sadder still, Western leaders have internalized this tactic. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, warned the U.S. about vetoing the Palestinian bid for statehood in the Security Council by asking, “Who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?” As Alan Dershowitz documents in his book Why Terrorism Works, Palestinian terrorism has been rewarded for decades, particularly in the U.N., so much so that today Western leaders feel no shame at basing foreign policy not on principle and morality, but on the fear of violence.
Rather than replacing force with negotiation and international law, the U.N. has enabled and legitimized violent tyrants and aggressors, and given cover to those states that cannot or will not act to uphold their own principles, let alone those of U.N. itself. It’s time to acknowledge that the Kantian dream of a “federation of free states” joined in a “pacific alliance” that would “for ever terminate all wars” has been a chimera. Moral clarity, not the cynical diplomatic rituals of the U.N., should guide U.S. foreign policy.
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