Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The International Context of the U.S. Veto at the UN Security Council

Filed under: International Law, Palestinians, Peace Process, U.S. Policy
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Makor Rishon (Hebrew)

Will the UN Back a Palestinian State on the ’67 Lines?

Israel needs to prepare for the possibility that the UN Security Council will be asked to decide on the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, warns Dr. Dore Gold, who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN at the end of the ‘90s. These preparations, according to Gold, have to include a specific clarification on Israel’s part that if the Palestinians do this in a one-sided manner, Israel will act to impose Israeli law on areas of the West Bank that are essential to it. In non-diplomatic language – Israel will annex these areas.

“It’s necessary to say this in advance,” said Gold. “Perhaps the world will become alarmed by the Israeli threat and pressure the Palestinian side to avoid such one-sided moves. This needs to be as clear as day. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare the ground right now in Washington, London, and other European capitals in order to clarify what are Israel’s essential interests. Israel’s National Security Council has already prepared such position papers. Now is the time to take them out of the safe and present them to the world.”

Previous Palestinian Attempts at UN Recognition

Palestinian attempts to achieve international decisions at the UN on the establishment of a Palestinian state are not new. Twelve years ago, PA representatives worked to gain recognition of a Palestinian state. Today, with a new Palestinian campaign and a few days after a U.S. veto at the Security Council of a resolution condemning Israel for building in the settlements, Gold feels a sense of deja vu. At the time, he was forced to marshal all his wisdom and creativity in order to block these attempts in an environment that was totally supportive of the Palestinians. The problem is that the Palestinians are also becoming wiser.

“They proposed a new initiative to deny the acceptance of Israel’s credentials at the UN,” Gold recalls. “Until that time, all of the attempts by the Arab bloc to prevent Israel from participating in the General Assembly and to block its membership in the organization had failed. Then the PLO’s UN representative, Nassar al -Kidwa, proposed that Israel’s credentials apply just to Israel proper and not to the disputed territories such as the West Bank. How were we to deal with this? I asked my staff to investigate other border disputes in the world. My first address was the Ambassador from India. I met with him and told him of the Palestinian initiative and then asked him: ‘It seems to me that you have a similar problem in Kashmir. If they succeed for the first time in the history of the UN to deny the credentials of a state that holds disputed territory, what will prevent the Islamic nations from joining together to do the same to you over Kashmir?’ He understood the message, ran to al-Kidwa, and within 24 hours the effort had failed.”

Turning Defeats into Victories

“It’s true that we will lose in every vote in the General Assembly, but we need to realize that we must not run away from the fight, even after defeats. We need to know how to go out to the television cameras after the vote and turn the defeat into a victory. Your words are broadcast to the American and perhaps even the British press.”

“The Clinton administration was very disappointed by the non-implementation of the Oslo Accords. They still believed in Yasser Arafat even though we provided them with intelligence information proving that Arafat was involved in terror. So you are working under difficult conditions involving the U.S. I’ll give you an example. After the Hebron [withdrawal] agreement, the Prime Minister asked me to meet in Washington with Dennis Ross. I went to see him together with the Israeli ambassador at the time, Eliyahu Ben-Elassar, and we said that now, after we had fulfilled our part in Hebron, we want something for the Jewish population. ‘What do you want,” Ross asked. We answered: “Har Homa.’ This is a new Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem across the ‘green line.’ His reaction was: That would be difficult to digest. It’s too big. But he didn’t reject it. And within a few months construction began. The Arab bloc initiated a motion of censure of Israel at the Security Council, but as a result of the understanding that this was compensation for the Hebron agreement, the Clinton government ordered its representative at the UN, Bill Richardson, to cast a veto twice. If you compare this to the problems of today with the Obama administration on construction within existing neighborhoods – the difference is startling.”

The Traditional U.S. Position: Settlements Are Not Illegal

Q: How do you explain the American veto while at the same time they say the settlements are illegal?

“Illegitimate,” Gold corrects. “When they say ‘illegitimate,’ they mean to say unacceptable. Every American government, except for the Carter administration, determined that the settlements are legal but are an obstacle to peace. That is the traditional American  position. There are famous American spokesmen, even the person who was number two in the State Department at the time of Lyndon Johnson, Professor Eugene Rostow from Yale, who determined that Israel has the right to build in the settlements. Though there are those who dissent from this, this view exists as part of the American legal tradition.”

“When I was political advisor to Netanyahu in 1996, I opened the safe and saw with my own eyes documents that are now public, according to which, during the negotiations on the Oslo Accords, Arafat requested a building freeze in the settlements and Peres and Rabin absolutely refused. Arafat gave up and nevertheless instructed Abbas to sign the Oslo Accords. This means that we have no legal obligation from the Oslo Accords to stop construction.”

“The freeze was a mistake. It appeared in the Roadmap of 2003 due to American pressure, but the Roadmap is not a signed bilateral agreement between the parties like the Oslo Accords. The introduction of the settlements as a central issue during the Obama era was an American initiative. Since then, Abbas finds himself in a position that he cannot be less Palestinian than the White House.”

“What was the mistake? That the central issue on the mind of Saudi King Abdullah is how to stop Iran. If he weighs what is most important to him, to prevent an Iranian attack on his oil fields or to stop construction in Itamar in the West Bank, you know the answer.”

The Palestinians Don’t Want to Negotiate

“We need to ask ourselves why the Palestinians are constantly pursuing the channel of international recognition instead of focusing on negotiations with Israel. The answer is clear: this is part of a move they began to formulate in January 2009, at the height of the negotiations they held with Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. They don’t really want negotiations with Israel. They are interested in one-sided moves, such as declaring a state, despite the fact that this involves many dangers for them.”

Q: What is the significance of a unilateral Palestinian declaration?

“This has very serious implications. An independent state controls its airspace. Meaning, Israel will no longer have enough space to protect the skies of the country. We will not have defensible borders. Currently, according to UN Resolution 242, Israel may remain in the territories it conquered in 1967 until a permanent settlement is reached. But the moment there is an independent state, what will be the status of the IDF in the Jordan Valley? And what will happen in Jerusalem? The entire Old City was on the Arab side before 1967. They could claim that the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are under Palestinian sovereignty.”

The U.S. Position: The UN Is Not a Suitable Forum to Discuss Middle East Issues

“There is a difference between the debate over the question of the American position and the question of whether the UN is the suitable forum to discuss Middle East issues. The traditional American position has determined that the UN is not the place to deal with sensitive political issues.”

“The Americans employed the veto because it was in America’s interest to do so. If they didn’t do so, they would pave the way for further unilateral Palestinian activities. If the decision to condemn the settlements had passed, this would have encouraged the Palestinians to undertake additional initiatives with regard to declaring a state. If they see that the U.S. is prepared to use the veto on an issue such as the settlements, where its position is very close to that of the Palestinians, they will understand that the Americans will certainly veto any attempts to declare a Palestinian state in the Security Council.”

Mistaken Assumptions in Washington

Gold believes that Washington is operating under a number of mistaken assumptions. “First, the position according to which the Israeli Palestinian dispute is the source of disputes with the Islamic world, and that if it is solved, relations will improve between the U.S. and the entire Islamic world. Bush wanted to solve 9/11 by sending the army to Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama sought to solve the problem by forcing a solution on Israel. Second, the belief that with just one more push it would be possible to bring Israel to an agreement and it would accept the Clinton parameters, plus or minus. Third, all of the elites that are involved in foreign policy, whether in the government or in the think tanks, believe that Israel and the Palestinians were very close to an agreement at the end of the Taba talks, and that if Clinton had remained in office another two or three months, everyone would have won a Nobel prize.”

“Three months ago I was invited to a conference in Greece sponsored by UCLA, attended by hundreds of Israeli, Saudi, Jordanian and Palestinian experts. I was asked to open the conference together with Mohammed Dahlan. I knew that if I opened with an attack on him based on his terrorist activities, I would lose the audience. So I began by saying: I have great appreciation for you, Mohammed, for your honesty. He almost fell out of his chair. I continued: After the Taba talks, I heard the Israeli foreign minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, on the radio, who asserted that we had never been so close to an agreement. And then the reporter turned to you, and do you remember what your reaction was? You said two words: ‘harta barta’ [drivel, empty talk]!”

“I explained to the audience what this meant. And Dahlan said: That is correct. It was indeed harta barta. There were gaps that were impossible to bridge. Meaning, there is a problem here because the idea according to which we were close to an agreement is part of the fundamental assumption in Washington and their actions are based on this assumption.”

“Paragraph 31 of the Oslo II Accord determines that the sides may not change the status of the territory of the West Bank prior to the end of negotiations on a final status agreement. Construction in the settlements is a matter for discussion in the final status negotiations. This is part of the Oslo Accords. Certain nations have a problem, such as the U.S., Russia, the EU, Norway, Egypt and Jordan, because they are signed on to the Oslo Accords as witnesses. A nation cannot put itself in a position where, on one hand, it has signed on to an agreement that says the borders will be determined only through negotiations, and on the other, that it recognizes borders declared unilaterally. I pointed this out to one of the ambassadors and he told me, ‘you’re right,’ and ran to report on this to his government.”

The U.S. Certified in Writing: Rabin Never Formally Pledged to Withdraw from the Golan Heights

Gold discussed the myth that Prime Minister Rabin had promised Clinton that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

“I was sent to Washington together with the deputy military secretary to speak with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the so-called “deposit” by Rabin regarding the Golan Heights. I did some homework and asked Christopher three questions: The first was if Rabin had given a pledge in writing. The answer was no. It was given orally. I asked, did Israel give a pledge directly to the Syrians or indirectly via the U.S.? Christopher answered that it was indirect. The third question was if it involved a clear statement or a hypothetical case, such as, if Syria would do x, y, and z, Israel would be ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Again, the answer was that it was a hypothetical utterance. Then I asked Christopher: Please answer me as a lawyer. Can a hypothetical utterance, unwritten and made to a third party, be considered an international obligation? The answer was clear and unmistakable: No. I asked him to write this to Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

“A few months later U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk phoned me and said: ‘I have a letter for you.’ Christopher stood by his promise and wrote down what he had said. But not only that. He also repeated and ratified in writing the obligation of President Clinton to the letter of President Gerald Ford from 1975 according to which the U.S. will give great weight to Israel’s remaining on the Golan  Heights.”

Revolution in the Arab World

Dore Gold says the revolution occurring in the Arab world presents immediate dangers for the West, but in the longer range future of 10 or 15 years it is possible that the process could bring about positive democratization in these states.

“One of the reasons that the dispute between us and the Arab world has continued is that the Arab regimes, which were uncertain of their own legitimacy, used the conflict as an anchor for their legitimacy in order to stabilize their rule. If they develop a future leadership that is freely and democratically elected, they will no longer need the conflict with Israel to achieve local legitimacy. Thus, in the long run, the situation could be to Israel’s benefit. The problem is the interim and short-range period. Here there is certainly the danger of Iranian intrusion into the vacuum that has been created. The most organized groups on the scene are the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic elements.”

“Actually, Iran’s friends – Syria and Hizbullahstan in Lebanon – don’t face these problems. The principal problems are among the friends of the U.S.: Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Bahrain – the home of the American Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Via a Shiite revolution, Iran could achieve what the Japanese achieved at Pearl Harbor. They can destroy and eliminate the huge American naval base without firing a single shot. These are the greatest dangers from the changes in the balance of local forces. Egypt was the leading country in the battle of Sunni nations that sought to balance the power of Iran, and now Egypt has been weakened.”