NEW YORK - A new era has dawned at the United Nations with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From this point on, new, different rules will characterize discussions of the conflict in the Security Council.
The most important and, from Israel's standpoint, alarming change is this: In the one UN body that has the authority to forcibly enforce resolutions, a new alignment of forces is rapidly taking shape, and a new distribution of influence is emerging between the United States and the other four members of the exclusive club of states with permanent membership and veto power.
The first result of the new era was the Palestinians' proposed resolution to denounce Israeli settlements. Though the resolution was vetoed by America in the Security Council vote, it remains inscribed in the council's annals as a fascinating case and a model to be followed in the future. Granted, it bore no diplomatic fruit. But it is laden with important policy implications that will soon be felt in UN decision-making on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly in the Security Council.
One diplomat who immediately grasped the meaning of the veto of the Palestinian initiative was Brazil's ambassador to the UN, Maria Viotti, who holds the Security Council's rotating presidency. She explained to The New York Times that the council views the settlements as an obstacle to peace, and adopting the resolution would have "sent some key urgent messages." These messages, the Times said, were that "further settlement construction threatens peace in the region, and that halting construction has been misrepresented as an Israeli concession while in fact international law requires it."
What set the stage for the sea change in approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the UN was the lack of progress in talks between the sides. The awareness among leading UN members of the complete breakdown in communications between the White House and Israel's prime minister created a new mood in which Palestinian concerns are at the top of the international community's agenda. The UN has become fertile ground for advancing the Palestinian cause.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's disappearance from the stage strengthened the Palestinians' resolve to oppose America's entreaties to remove their resolution from the agenda. UN sources say the absence of Mubarak - a moderating influence who helped ease tensions when crises arose between Israel and the Palestinian Authority - has seriously complicated American diplomacy and undermined America's status as the decisive power in dealing with the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"In cases of friction with the PA, the U.S. usually turned to Mubarak, who was always quick to try to help," explained a diplomat close to the U.S. delegation. "This time, when the Palestinians obstinately refused to withdraw their proposed resolution denouncing the settlements, the U.S. government had nobody to turn to." In the headline of an article posted on Time magazine's website, one veteran commentator summed up the situation as follows: "Without Mubarak, U.S. struggles to shield Israel from diplomatic pressure."
It is clear - and behind-the-scenes statements from UN ambassadors bolster this conclusion - that the British and French support for the Palestinian resolution reflected a significant hardening of European Union attitudes toward Israel. The fact that the two European powers voted against the U.S. was seen in New York as a clear statement of the EU's intentions, and of its desire to boost its diplomatic involvement and become a leading force in advancing the Middle East peace process.
From Israel's standpoint, the most dramatic result of the drama that occurred behind the scenes at the Security Council is that the settlements have been irreversibly and categorically defined as the number-one problem impeding peace between Israel and the Palestinians. No Israeli attempt to blame the stalemate on the Palestinians will be accepted at the UN.
And the fact that 130 member states affixed their signatures in support of the pro-Palestinian draft resolution was seen in New York as a dress rehearsal for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the next General Assembly session in September.