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S. Zakhem: The UN and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

In 1915, as World War I was raging, Arab nationalists, led by Sharif Hussain of Mecca, started negotiations with Sir Henry MacMahon, the British Commissioner in Egypt, for a full and complete independence and British recognition for the Arabic speaking countries, in return for Arab support for the Allies against the Ottoman Turks. The British agreed to Hussain’s plan upon the successful completion of the war, with some reservations as to boundaries. In deference to French influence and interest, though, the British excluded from the promised Arab state, “lands that lay west of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs,” which later on became the biggest part of modern day Lebanon. This plan was well received by the French Foreign Minister, Georges Picot.

Contrary to their promises, the British and the French, along with Russia, entered into secret negotiations concerning the area and came up with what later became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. It was a shocking masterpiece of double dealing negotiated and agreed upon without the knowledge of Sharif Hussain, or any Arab; and in direct conflict with promises made.

The Sykes-Picot agreement divided the holdings of the Ottoman Empire into three zones. What is now Syria and Lebanon were to make up the French Zone, Iraq and Transjordan were put under the British. Due to Russia’s influence during the war and its interest in the Orthodox Church, Palestine was to become an internationally administered zone all by itself.

Hussain did not know about the agreement until 1917, when he was given the Bolsheviks’ version. Hussain considered the collaboration of the British in the Sykes-Picot Agreement a departure in spirit, even more than in letter, from the MacMahon commitments. In 1918, upon his request for an explanation, Hussain received word from Lord Balfour, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, virtually denying the existence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and adding a cryptic remark about the consent of the populations concerned.

While the Arabs were trying to secure promises from the Allies for an independent Arab State, or Caliphate, the Zionists were working diligently to pressure the British to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Despite the fact that the Sykes-Picot agreement specifically called for a Palestine under international administration and that the MacMahon promises included Palestine in an Arab state, the British promised the Zionists that their desires would be fulfilled. In what became known as the Balfour Declaration, the British Cabinet voted in favor of the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non- Jewish communities....” Again, Sharif Hussain was baffled by the Balfour Declaration, only to be assured by the British of their good intentions and the harmlessness of the proposed Jewish homeland.

Out of the turmoil created by claims and counter claims by Arabs, Zionists, the British, and the French, a commission known as the King-Crain Commission was formed to find out how the people of the area felt, so a program of self determination would be implemented. The United States of America, which had avoided meddling in the affairs of the Middle East, leaving it for the French and the British to oversee the politics of the region, became involved because US President Woodrow Wilson was very much in favor of the idea of the rights of the people in the region to select their own governments.

When the King-Crane report was given, England and France did not subscribe to it, because it ran contrary to their Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. Because of their privileged position in the region, they prevailed against the King-Crane Commission’s recommendations and President Wilson’s Fourteen Points program emphasizing the rights of people for self determination. This resulted in the British and the French dividing the Arab world between themselves in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The League of Nations approved the mandatory status of Britain and France in 1922, with Britain entrusted with the administration of the territory of Palestine, with the following provision:

The mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.

Following World War II and the establishment of the United Nations, the British position in Palestine was made increasingly difficult, because of attacks by both Arab and Jewish groups. Jewish groups like the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi were organized military gangs that terrorized both the British and the Arab population. The Haganah and the Palmach, a special unit formed by it, organized numerous attempts at illegal Jewish immigration in defiance of the British. The British, who were in any event in the process of parting from an empire they could no longer afford, notified the United Nations that they would be departing Palestine no later than August 1948.

United Nations Resolution 181

Meeting in Lake Success, New York, November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly started the debate on United Nations Resolution 181, better known as the Partition Resolution. Representatives of the Arab delegations were incensed that such a resolution would be considered because they felt that Palestine was Arab and it was not the business of the international organization to give one people’s country to another. The most articulate speaker against the resolution was Camille Shamoun, the Foreign Minister of Lebanon, who later on became President of Lebanon. On the evening of the voting, Mr. Shamoun, representing the Arab side, appealed to the conscience of the delegates, whom he felt were being pressured by the Soviet and other Eastern Bloc delegations and also by the United States delegation. Shamoun said:

I can well imagine to what pressure, to what maneuvers your sense of justice, equity and democracy has been exposed during the last 36 hours... my friends, think about these democratic methods, of the freedom in voting which is sacred to each of our delegations. If we too abandon this to the tyrannical system of tackling in hotel rooms, in bed, in corridors and anterooms, to threaten then with economic sanctions, or to bribe them with promises in order to compel them to vote one way or another, think of what our organization would become in the future.

The Final Vote and the Aftermath

Shamoun’s plea and that of other Arab delegates were ignored by the majority of the delegates. And after considerable debate, the United Nations General Assembly decided on portioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab States, with Jerusalem to be a separate body, to be run under a UN Administration, including Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, to encompass the Christian holy sites. The vote was 33 in favor, 13 opposed, 10 abstentions, and one absent. The plan enjoyed the warm support of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Andre Gromyko, the architect of Resolution 181, was reported to have been elated with the passage of the resolution, and Joseph Stalin hoped that the new Jewish state would be a bulwark against British imperialism. Likewise, the United States of America, owing to President Truman’s support, and despite State Department opposition and Defense Department pressure, was happy with the partition plan.

The Palestinians and Arab countries, as expected, felt that it was a total injustice to ignore the rights of the majority of the population of Palestine. But there was celebration and jubilation in the streets of Jewish cities in Palestine. Within a few days, full scale Arab-Jewish fighting broke out in Palestine. Anti-Jewish violence was widespread in numerous Arab countries leading to a Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. The Arab League and Palestinian institutions formed volunteer armies that infiltrated into Palestine beginning in December 1947. This was the start of the numerous wars and conflicts that have plagued the Middle East and the rest of the world, with far-reaching consequences and no end to the conflict in sight.

On May 14, 1948, on the day that the British Mandate over Palestine expired, the Jewish People’s Council gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum and approved a proclamation declaring the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the state of Israel. This was Nabka Day for Palestinians. The same day five Arab states invaded and rapidly occupied much of the Arab portion of the partition plan.

Instead of two states existing side by side, one Jewish and one Arab, the creation of Israel turned the region into a war between the newly declared Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. The Arab refusal to accept partition and their invasion of the newly created Jewish state created a huge refugee problem for the Palestinians, who were encouraged to leave by the promises of a quick victory by their fellow Arabs and by the ferocity of the attacks by Jewish armed groups.

The Dair Yaseen massacre was a famous example of the savagery committed by armed Jewish groups led by Irgun, Haganah, and Stern, sometimes without Palestinian provocation. It is believed that the Zionist groups that committed these atrocities felt that it was imperative to kick the Palestinians out to make a place for the growing Jewish population. Dov Joseph, former Minister of Justice in Israel, and the famous British historian, Arnold Toynbee, among other Jews and non-Jews, were very critical of the attacks on the Palestinian civilian population.

The exodus of almost half a million Palestinians into neighboring Arab countries became, in itself, a huge problem, economically, politically as well as militarily, not to speak about the suffering and deprivation the refugees and their offspring met and still endure to this day.

Big Powers’ Involvement

The fact that Resolution 181 passed with the two-thirds majority required to partition Palestine was due to the support of the two super powers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. US President Harry Truman supported the homeland for the Jews for humanitarian and cultural reasons. But some say that he went contrary to the recommendation of the State Department and the Defense Department because of personal and political reasons. They claimed that he was concerned about losing the Jewish vote in the 1948 election and that he was influenced by Jewish friends and former business associates.

As to Stalin and the Soviet Union, their every move was to create chaos and unrest in the Middle East, where they had no presence to speak of, in hope of supplanting British and Western influence in this critical region of the world. Unlike Truman, Stalin’s goal was not as much to help the Jewish people as it was an attempt to give Russia a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea.

Regardless of whose intentions were what, the passage of the partition resolution is a testimony to the fact that when the super powers agree, the United Nations could be very successful in anything it tries; but when those powers disagree, as we shall prove in the next paragraphs, the United Nations is helpless and most ineffective.

How Effective Has the United Nations Been?

On May 11, 1949 Israel was admitted into membership by the United Nations as a “peace-loving country”, according to Resolution 273, which also reiterated the demand for UN control over Jerusalem and for the return of Palestinian refugees. The vote on Resolution 273 was held during the Lausanne Conference, which was sponsored by the UN to reconcile the parties. The conference was a failure, as well as other attempts by UN envoys such as Folke Bernadotte, who was killed by the Zionist group, Lehi.

Following the Lausanne conference failure, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was created by UN Resolution 302, to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian refugees in camps scattered throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Israel voted in favor, even though no aid was provided to the Jewish refugees fleeing Arab countries.

UNRWA turned out to be one of the few successful steps taken by the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another successful action by the UN was ending the 1956 war, when Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt after the latter closed the Suez Canal. The Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion agreed to withdraw Israel’s troops from the Sinai after Nasser agreed to allow Israel access to the port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba and safe passage for Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Gunnar Jarring was appointed as the UN Special Envoy to the Middle East peace process. The Jarring mission was unsuccessful. In that year, UN Resolution 242, better known as the land for peace resolution, was passed. Israel agreed to abide by the resolution. Unfortunately, the Arabs did not, but this resolution became the principle upon which the Camp David Accord between President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin was based. President Carter, not the United Nations, in my view, gets the credit for the peace between Egypt and Israel.

A rash of resolutions in the 1970s and 1980s condemning Israeli aggression against Lebanon and asking Israel to stop building settlements in the occupied territories and condemning Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories failed because of the use of the veto by the United States.

In the decade of the 1990s into 2012, another rash of resolutions criticizing Israeli human rights record in the occupied territories and Israeli encroachment on Lebanon’s territorial integrity failed because of the American veto. In using the veto, the American delegates on the UN Security Council used what became known as the Negroponte Doctrine, named after John Negroponte, who served as US Ambassador to the United Nations. In essence, Ambassador Negroponte stated that the United States will veto any resolution that condemns Israel without also condemning terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and Hamas.

The last resolution on record that was unanimously passed by the United Nations Security Council and was cosponsored by 120 member nations of the General Assembly; it failed to be implemented, again, because of the US veto. This resolution condemned all Israeli settlements established since 1967 as illegal and called for an immediate halt to all new settlements in the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem. The American Ambassador vetoing the resolution said that while she agreed that the settlements were illegal, the resolution would harm the chances for negotiation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis. The Palestinians, however, have refused to resume direct talks until Israel ceases all settlement activity.

Conclusion and Parting Shots

The Arab-Israeli imbroglio has defied solution for over 64 years. Despite numerous UN-sponsored commissions, special envoys, and conferences, and upward of a hundred UN resolutions, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the main impediment to world peace. Almost daily there are clashes between Israel and its neighbors, and there is no end in sight. Moreover, the United States, acting on its own and sometimes with other powers like Jordan, Norway, Spain, the European Union, Egypt, and other intermediaries, has sponsored many international conferences, sent special envoys, and hosted high-level meetings between the two parties with very meager positive results, the Camp David Accords being the exception.

The road map sponsored by US President George W. Bush advocating a two-state solution was the most promising proposal to the crisis, but the stubbornness and non-compromising leadership on both sides have not allowed it to succeed. It is painful, sad, and depressing for people like me who love the Jewish people and the Palestinians alike to have witnessed this conflict going on for so long between people so close to each other in so many, many ways.

It is hard to understand or to accept that Israeli children living in Northern Israel have to sleep, day in and day out, in underground bunkers out of fear of incoming missiles fired by Hezbollah from neighboring Lebanon. It is equally depressing to witness Palestinian refugees living in deprivation, poverty, oppression, and occupation. One year in this situation is unbearable, let alone 64 years.

Both sides could use a chapter from Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s book about loving thine enemy, living for the sake of others, and respecting the dignity of our fellow man. Jews and Arabs are both Semites. They have one earthly father and the same Heavenly Father. They belong to one global family under God. It is about time they sit and talk and agree to live in peace and in brotherhood. Palestinians should forgive the past and seek peace with their cousins the Jews; and the Jews should end their occupation of the Palestinian territories and treat the Palestinians with the dignity that every human being deserves.

Sam Zakhem is former US Ambassador to Bahrain. Currently, he is Vice-President of Middle East Operations of MedLink International, Inc. He served on the Peace Corps Presidential Advisory Council and the American Bicentennial Ethnic Committee. He also served as Honorary Chaplain in the US Navy. Dr. Zakhem served in the Colorado State Senate on the Business Affairs and Labor Committee; the House of Representatives on the House Finance Committee; and the Small Business Administration in Colorado. Amb. Zakhem earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado and did additional studies at Wayne State University, the University of Detroit, and American University in Cairo, Egypt.