Edging Back Toward the UN

Reading the United Nations resolutions on the Middle East is a difficult experience for Israel. It is not pleasant to discover that your country is an occupier, an oppressor, a breaker of international law, a violator of human rights, a killer of innocents, a destroyer of infrastructures and historical sites, and that it imprisons and tortures thousands of people and carries out "colonization." It is even less pleasant to know that a vast majority of the countries of the world votes time after time in favor of these resolutions, against the isolated opposition of Israel, the United States and Micronesia, and this year with the addition of Australia.

David Ben-Gurion dismissed the UN - oum in Hebrew - as oum schmoum, and his successors followed in his footsteps. For years the governments of Israel have tried to ignore the resolutions of the General Assembly on the grounds that they reflect the "automatic majority" that supports the Palestinians and that the majority is not necessarily right. Jurists and diplomats have explained that these resolutions have only declarative validity. Only the Security Council has executive authority, and there Israel enjoys the American veto.

But it turns out that this year it isn't all just talk, and that empty words also have power. The Palestinians exploited their preferred status at the UN in order to take the Israeli security fence to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where the judges relied on the UN resolutions in order to convict Israel as a law-breaker.

Their ruling caused Israel a diplomatic defeat that forced it to change the route of the fence and delay the construction of the problematic segments around the blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom understands the importance of the United Nations, and he is aiming at changing its attitude toward Israel. Under his instructions, the Foreign Ministry is fighting to amend the resolutions and to add "positive" clauses, and to enlist international legitimacy against Syria, Iran and the terror organizations.

In the existing circumstances, this is the best possible achievement: A change in the traditional voting patterns and the breaking of the huge majority that condemns Israel seems today like an impossible mission. At most it is possible to persuade the Europeans, whose vote has crucial weight, to extract a few concessions from the Palestinians.

Israel has chalked up a few points at the General Assembly this year. For the first time the resolutions state that they are "gravely concerned" about "suicide terror attacks against Israelis," without mentioning their Palestinian perpetrators, and condemn anti-Semitism. At the Foreign Ministry they are proud of the achievement. But in diplomacy there are no free lunches, and in return for a certain softening of the criticism of Israel's behavior in the territories - the "military actions" instead of the "military attacks," for example - the condemnation of the Jewish settlements in the territories has become more severe.

Now Israel is trying to initiate a special winter session of the Genera Assembly to mark 60 years since the liberation of the death camps. In January there will be an exhibit on display in the United Nations building in remembrance of the liberation of Auschwitz, a counterweight to the annual exhibit on Palestinian suffering, which is shown every November 29, the date of the UN General Assembly vote in favor of the partition of Palestine in 1947.

The problem with this approach is in its attempt to have it both ways - both to applaud the condemnation of anti-Semitism and to scorn the condemnation of the settlements. There is an implicit admission of guilt here: If the support of the members of the UN is so important to Israel - for example, their criticism of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon - perhaps they are also right in what they are saying about the Israeli occupation of the territories.

Thus a tactic of dealing with clauses and formulations is not enough. Israel needs a strategic change in its attitude toward the UN. Is it perhaps worth accepting the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the territories, instead of opposing this and being subjected to repeated condemnations? Is it perhaps worth throwing yesterday's legal opinions and information papers into the trash and evincing a more open and creative approach to the Green Line (pre-Six-Day War borders), instead of claiming that the territories are not "occupied" but rather "disputed?"

A government that has dared to initiate an evacuation of settlements is able also to reexamine its attitude toward the international community. And just as the disengagement plan has improved Israel's international standing, it can also enjoy the fruit of a bolder diplomacy.