Fiasco on the Golan: UN Lays Bare Its Peacekeeping Irrelevance for Israel

Rather than scrounging for replacement troops, the UN should ask why Israel should have any faith in the peacekeeping that has failed to protect it so many times in the past.

James Kirchick
James Kirchick
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James Kirchick
James Kirchick

Last Wednesday, the government of Austria began withdrawing its 377 soldiers serving in the Golan Heights as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF. Since 1974, UNDOF has policed the disputed boundary between Syria and Israel, which captured the Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. For nearly four decades, these international peacekeepers – deployed by their respective countries yet serving under the auspices of the UN flag – have patrolled the frontier between two states still technically at war.

But over two years into Syria’s own civil war, a conflict that has seen intense fighting erupt near the Golan, the situation has become too hot for some. Citing danger to its forces, Austria abruptly ordered their exit. Vienna’s decision to abscond follows the brief kidnapping of 21 Filipino peacekeepers (whose government, unlike that of Austria, remains committed to the UN mission).

In response to the Austrian pullout, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has reverted to form, panhandling the “international community” for handouts in the form of replacement forces. One might ask what is the purpose of a “peacekeeping” mission that flees the scene at the slightest indication of peacebreaking, but then, such an observation misses the larger point about the role the UN has played, or not played, in the maintenance of peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Contrary to what the Secretary General and other UN enthusiasts believe, it is not UNDOF that has kept the Golan quiet for most of the past four decades. The maintenance of peace and security is due almost entirely to Israel’s unquestioned military supremacy.

For 25 years after Israel’s founding in 1948, its neighbors genuinely believed they could destroy it, which is why they repeatedly expended so much blood and treasure trying to do just that.

But the era of Arab state-level warfare against the Jewish State came to an end with Israel’s stunning 1973 victory. Hafez al-Assad soon realized that even the slightest provocation would be met with a punishing Israeli response, a lesson he passed along to his son, Bashar (who did absolutely nothing when Israel destroyed an illegal nuclear reactor he was secretly constructing in 2007, nor when Israeli jets struck a Syrian arms shipment bound for Hezbollah last month). And Syria, despite its endless bellicose rhetoric about ending the “Zionist occupation” of the Golan, has never attempted to retake the territory.

This model characterizes the Jewish State’s relations with its neighbors. When Israel is strong and the Arab states fear its awesome power, they either sign peace treaties (Egypt and Jordan) or limit their hostility to bombast and support for subnational terrorist organizations (Syria).

It is the rise of the latter – in particular Hamas and Hezbollah – which frustrates whatever constructive role the UN might play in alleviating the Arab-Israeli conflict. The UN is a compact of nation states. But for decades, Syria has provided money, shelter and arms to non-state actors that attack Israel. These groups are not UN member states, much less the sort of entity that signs and respects the terms of armistices and treaties. They “have the power to destroy without the responsibility of enforcing quiet,” as Amir Oren wrote  in Haaretz last week.

With the rise of these sub-state actors, whatever ability the UN once had to maintain peace in a volatile region has become obsolete. But the ineffectiveness of international peacekeeping forces was evident long before the advent of terrorism. Preparing to attack Israel in May 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser simply ordered UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai Peninsula, which had been demilitarized since the 1956 Suez conflict. Rather than put up any resistance to this illegal and unwarranted aggression, the UN simply did as the Egyptian strongman instructed it to do. War followed two weeks later.

Or take the more recent example of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established in 1978 and whose latest mandate, UN Security Council Resolution 1701, calls for the disarmament of all militias. In the years since the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, the Shi’ite terrorist group has drastically increased its armed presence in southern Lebanon, all under the eye of the UN, which is obligated to stop such transgressions. Yet, as former Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold told me, “The chances of UNIFIL doing that are like the chances of snow falling in the Sinai in summertime.”

This record of UN fecklessness demonstrates why Israel is so wary of international intervention in its affairs, and why insisting upon Israeli concessions in exchange for vague promises of outside protection is a fool’s errand. For whether it was in the Sinai in 1967, Lebanon in 2006, or the Golan today, the “international community” has repeatedly backed down in the face of belligerence. This derisory record has implications for any future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, bolstering the Israeli demand for an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley.

It is not surprising that Austrians, of all people, would balk at the prospect of protecting Jews. For the tragedy of Jewish history has provided Israelis with an important lesson: they cannot depend upon anyone other than themselves for security. Rather than scrounge the world in search of replacements for a fig leaf force, the mandarins of Turtle Bay would do better to ask why Israel should be expected to hang its future security on the empty promises of those who have failed it so many times in the past.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @jkirchick

Austrian UN peacekeepers withdrawing from the Golan Heights carry their equipment as they cross border between Israel and Syria at Quneitra, June 12, 2013.Credit: AP

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