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ConflictsMiddle East

Israel and the UN: A difficult relationship

Thomas Latschan
March 22, 2024

Tensions in the relationship between the UN and Israel predate the current conflict in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks into a UN microphone in front of flags
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres faced calls for resignation from Israel for a recent speech he gave on GazaImage: Craig Ruttle/AP/picture alliance

Tensions at the United Nations around the Gaza conflict were on display yet again during this week's Security Council meeting.

On Friday, Russia and China, permanent members of the 15-member council, vetoed a resolution, backed by the United States, calling for a cease-fire as part of a hostage deal. Algeria also voted against the resolution while Guyana abstained.

This is the fourth attempt by the Security Council to pass a resolution aimed at halting the conflict in Gaza to allow aid deliveries to the Palestinian enclave. The US had vetoed three previous resolutions in October, December and February.

A never-ending story in the Middle East

No other crisis-prone region has generated as many UN resolutions as Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Israeli-UN relations have consistently been strained as a result.

In the UN General Assembly, there is a stable majority, made up of Muslim-majority states and many countries of the Global South, that regularly place the situation of the Palestinian people on the agenda and criticize Israel. 

Germany generally sticks to a common EU position when casting its vote, while the US always votes with Israel's interests.

According to UN Watch — the Times of Israel describes the Geneva-based organization as a "pro-Israel lobbying group at the UN" — the General Assembly passed 140 resolutions criticizing Israel between 2015 and 2022 alone, condemning the construction of settlements and the annexation of the Golan Heights. In the same time period, only 68 resolutions were passed concerning the rest of the world, UN Watch said. 

Israel has long felt it is treated unjustly by the UN and has previously reacted strongly to the decisions and speeches made there .

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed building after an Israeli airstrike
Gaza has been pounded by Israeli airstrikes following the Hamas terror attacksImage: Ali Mahmoud/AP Photo/picture alliance

For example, when he was addressing the October 7 attacks by the militant Hamas group, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was "important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum."

Guterres said that the Palestinian people had been subjected to more than 50 years of "suffocating occupation" and expressed his concern over the "clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza."

It didn't take long for Israel to express its outrage. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Guterres had crossed a red line and justified Hamas' atrocities. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, called for Guterres' resignation

Not all resolutions carry same clout

The antipathy between the UN and Israel has often emerged during voting on resolutions on Gaza. 

UN General Assembly resolutions, which must garner a two-thirds majority to be adopted, are not binding under international law. Instead, they merely set out guiding principles or the positions of the international community on certain conflict issues. 

Soft teddy bears with their eyes covered and showing signs of injury are displayed to highlight the young children and babies currently missing, believed to be held hostage by Hamas
Israel, still missing hostages, was incensed by Guterres' commentsImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In the UN Security Council, on the other hand, resolutions are binding under international law and are issued against states or conflict parties that endanger international security or violate international law or human rights.

However, they can be vetoed by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Here, the US shields its close ally: Washington frequently uses its veto in matters related to Israel.

This has led to the bizarre situation that since 2015, of all the General Assembly resolutions criticizing Israel, so far only one has been matched by the Security Council: In 2016, the highest UN body called on Israeli to stop building settlements in the occupied territories. Even then, the US did not explicitly vote in favor of the resolution but chose to abstain.

UN General Assembly calls for humanitarian truce in Gaza

A relationship marked by highs and lows

Given the tense relationship, it is easy to forget that the UN was once seen as a sort of midwife for Israel. In 1947, the General Assembly, despite opposition from Arab states, voted to approve the plans to divide Palestine, paving the way for the foundation of the state of Israel half a year later.

Back then, the UN was made up of just 57 member states, but amid a wave of decolonization, that number grew quickly. Above all, developing and middle-income countries joined the UN's ranks, changing the political balance in the General Assembly.

After the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that followed, the relationship between Israel and the UN soured significantly and the number of Israel-critical resolutions passed by the General Assembly soared.

These days, the situation in the Palestinian Territories finds its way onto the agenda of every meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

At the same time, a number of smaller diplomatic steps have been taken to engage Israel more with the UN. In 2012, for example, the country provided a vice-president of the General Assembly for the first time, and in 2016 an Israeli was appointed chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs. 

What is the two-state solution?

But Israel's relationship with the UN always remained fraught, and tensions are reaching new highs.

In fact, Guterres was not always considered particularly critical of Israel. Just a few years ago in 2020, the World Jewish Congress awarded him the Theodor Herzl Award for his work, with President Ronald Lauer expressing his gratitude to the UN chief.

"Through your words and deeds over many years, you have shown that you are a true and devoted friend of the Jewish people and of the state of Israel," Lauder said in his remarks at the award gala.

Such warm words seem unlikely in the foreseeable future.

This article was originally written in German. It was updated on March 22 after the most recent UNSC resolution on Gaza.