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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Analysis: The U.S. at the U.N.: Blocking Harmful Anti-Israel Resolutions

Upon the adoption of the United Nations (U.N.) Charter in June 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman told the gathered delegates, “You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world.” Little did he know that several decades later, the U.N. would become the primary forum for anti-Israel resolutions.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the U.N. was a very different organization from what it has become today. Among its 51 original members, Western countries and their supporters are a clear majority. Significantly, the Soviet Union was then a strong supporter of the Zionist enterprise. Hence, one of the U.N.’s first major actions was the adoption in 1947, by a two-thirds majority, of the U.N. Partition Resolution, which called for the establishment of a Jewish state. Less than two years later, Israel was admitted as a full member of the organization. It is difficult to imagine that today’s 193 members of the U.N., including 57 Arab and other Muslim-majority countries comprising the organization’s largest voting bloc, would adopt such resolutions to support the Jewish state.

The U.N.’s two most important bodies are the General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). The UNGA consists of all U.N. member states, whereas the UNSC comprises only fifteen states, including five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) that can veto any UNSC resolution. Only the UNSC is authorized to issue binding resolutions. Clearly, America’s role as a permanent UNSC member with veto power is of paramount importance to the Jewish state.

Security Council

Since the U.N.’s establishment more than 70 years ago, America has cast 76 UNSC vetoes, 42 of which were to block anti-Israel resolutions. Thus far, no other UNSC permanent member has ever joined America in vetoing such resolutions. The first U.S. veto of an anti-Israel resolution was cast in 1972.

Without this crucial American support—and only American support—Israel’s international position would be much more difficult. The UNSC would have adopted dozens of binding anti-Israel resolutions that would have undercut Israel’s international standing.

The United States has recognized that the UNSC is not the appropriate venue to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Accordingly, and in some ways remarkably, America has vetoed a number of Security Council resolutions that were largely in accord with U.S. policy. Most recently, President Barack Obama decided in 2011 to veto a resolution condemning settlements, even though his administration had frequently condemned them as well. But, his administration recognized that this resolution would harm the prospects for peace. As then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice explained, “This draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.” Indeed, after Israel offered to enter into direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians with no preconditions, the Palestinians responded by seeking a negotiation-bypassing UNSC resolution at the end of 2014 and are doing so again now.

General Assembly

From Israel’s perspective, the situation in the UNGA is both better and worse than in the UNSC. It is better because unlike the UNSC, the UNGA cannot adopt binding resolutions. And it is worse—far worse—because the United States cannot veto UNGA resolutions. In the UNGA, the U.S. vote carries exactly the same weight as that of Nauro (pop. 10,000), San Marino (pop. 32,000) or Liechtenstein (pop. 37,000). As a result, pushed by the massive Islamic voting bloc, the UNGA has adopted hundreds of one-sided resolutions against Israel. In all those cases, U.S. efforts to prevent their adoption were to no avail.

As a backup strategy for blocking anti-Israel resolutions, the United States has made intensive efforts to persuade like-minded nations—the “moral vote”—not to support their adoption. While Arab states pursue such votes to provide a veneer of respectability to those resolutions, Israel seeks U.S. support in enlisting “no” votes—or at least abstentions—from the Western nations to expose the moral vacuousness of the anti-Israel resolutions. This strategy has been successful in cases of particularly extreme resolutions, but in many other cases the United States has found itself alone with Israel and Micronesia in opposing harmful resolutions.

Against this dismal background, one ray of light shines through in the form of a major American success. Back in 1975, the UNGA adopted by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions) the obscene resolution equating Zionism with racism. When delegates cheered loudly to celebrate this “victory,” then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Daniel Patrick Moynihan walked over to the despondent Israeli Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, and exclaimed in his booming voice: “F--k’em!” In 1991, strenuous American efforts led to an improbable result: the resolution was revoked by 111 member states against 25 (with 13 abstentions). President George H.W. Bush personally introduced the motion to repeal the resolution, saying:

…Zionism is not a policy; it is the idea that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people, to the State of Israel. And to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and, indeed, throughout history. To equate Zionism with racism is to reject Israel itself, a member in good standing of the United Nations. This body cannot claim to seek peace and at the same time challenge Israel's right to exist. By repealing this resolution unconditionally, the United Nations will enhance its credibility and serve the cause of peace.


Unfortunately, on issues relating directly to Israel, the United Nations has served as an unalterably hostile forum. No end to this trend is in sight.

More problematic, however, is the notion of using the UNSC to impose terms on Israel. Specifically referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers once said: “In the history of the world, nobody has ever washed a rental car.” What he meant was that the conflict can only be resolved if both parties take ownership; they will never implement a solution devised and imposed by outsiders because it will not be their solution. That’s why successive American presidents, most recently President Obama, have opposed one-sided, anti-Israel UNSC resolutions. As a number of presidents have stated, direct negotiations are the only way to achieve peace. The role of outsiders is to facilitate such negotiations, not bypass them through UNSC resolutions or other forms of direct pressure.

Today, the Palestinian Authority has reportedly put forth a draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. Were such a UNSC resolution adopted, Dr. Rice’s 2011 assessment would likely come to pass: The positions of both sides would harden. The resolution would “encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.”

Instead, the United States should continue to veto unfair and anti-Israel UNSC resolutions and maintain its standing policy that direct bilateral negotiations without preconditions is the best path to ultimately reach a peace accord.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report