This holiday season, the United States was condemned by 128 member states at the United Nations for choosing where to place its own embassy in Israel.
Like spoiled children, ungrateful for everything but free in the knowledge that they may act with impunity, America’s allies, notably France, Britain, and Japan, demanded that the United States rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital. Thirty-five countries abstained from voting, while nine supported President Trump’s December 6 declaration.
Carried away by the holiday spirit of peace and goodwill, spokespersons for various despotic and failed regimes took to the United Nations (UN) stage to set the agenda. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the vote was a reprimand to the “Trump regime’s thuggish intimidation at the UN.”
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari marveled at “the arrogance of this country [the U.S.] . . . that treats this organization like school children that have to be scolded when they don’t yield to their authority.”
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained “We were all asked to vote “no”, or face consequences, some even threatened to cut development aid. This is bullying, it is unethical to think that the votes and dignity of member states are for sale.”
Because Trump’s warning was disregarded, almost one hundred nations, including Turkey, Iran and Syria, will potentially be cut off from US foreign aid this year.
Why did the 15-member Security Council even choose to bring this vote to the General Assembly, after it was unilaterally introduced by Egypt? And why did so many European nations – American allies – vote this way?
By moving forward with an Egyptian complaint on an international platform, UN nations overstepped their boundaries. As a sovereign nation, the US doesn’t need permission to choose where to place its embassy. Experts are free to decry Trump’s declaration as harmful to the Israel-Palestine peace process, as if peace was somehow more attainable a week before. They can even point out how the decision would anger the Muslim world, as if many in the Middle East don’t already have a deep-rooted dislike of the United States and Europe along with it. Individual governments could have easily criticized Trump’s decision from their respective national platform, and left it at that. They could have continued pushing a two-state solution, just like the US continues to.
This doesn’t change what Trump correctly referred to as the “reality” of the matter as concerns Jerusalem. Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. It has, for 4000 years, been of tremendous historical and religious significance to Jews. If the Palestinian Authority were to come to the negotiating table, Israel would not relinquish Jerusalem and Palestine would refuse to walk away without a part of Jerusalem.
Because the UN decision is non-binding, the votes are symbolic and thus not legitimately connected to any defense concerns. The reasoning for the resolution is thus more subtle; the UN’s position against Israel is apparent from its voting record. CNN’s Jake Tapper provides a bit of context:
“According to U.N. Watch, which monitors the United Nations, the United Nations General Assembly, from 2012 through 2015, has adopted 97 resolutions specifically criticizing an individual country, and of those 97, 83 of them have focused on Israel. That is 86%.
Now certainly Israel is not above criticism, but considering the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the lack of basic human rights in North Korea, the children starving in the streets of Venezuela, the citizens of Syria targeted for murder by their own leader using the most grotesque and painful of weapons, you have to ask: Is Israel truly deserving of 86% of the world’s condemnation? Or possibly, is something else afoot at the United Nations, something that allows the representative of the Assad government to lecture the United States for moving its embassy?”
European officials chose to condemn the US, and along with it Israel – arguably the only democratic nation in the Middle East – instead standing by nations who have a track record of human rights abuses and torture. This prompts an examination of what purpose the UN serves at this point. Does it add to world peace, or stand with aggressors?
America is justified in withdrawing foreign aid. Though Trump is personally friendly with Middle Eastern leaders – for example, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – it has not stopped him from withdrawing $95 million dollars in funding and withholding another $195 million until Egypt addresses human rights and democratization.
Some countries are wise to Trump’s art of the deal. Bosnia, which is currently run by a collection of individuals with secretive ties to Saudi Arabia and Iran, still chose to abstain from the vote. While Arab nations provide spiritual sustenance, the US has rebuilt and continues to sustain the country, from basic needs to infrastructure projects. Diplomacy has not healed America or Europe’s broken relationship with most Middle Eastern states, but taking away the carrot may impel nations to be a bit more agreeable.
European bureaucrats, including those comfortably housed near the UN headquarters in one of America’s most beautiful and pricey cities, may do well to remember something as they toast to 2018: The U.S. doesn’t need to finance approximately one quarter of the UN. It doesn’t need to provide billions in foreign aid. And finally, it doesn’t need a vote from the UN to stop it from recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Lucy Filipac is a Master’s student in International Relations at Leiden University.
Image by Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv – DSC_3714OSD, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59214883