No one familiar with the sordid history of the United Nations should be surprised at the moral idiocy recently on display in Turtle Bay, when the General Assembly cheered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand for statehood despite offering Israel nothing in return. Yet those six decades of hypocrisy and failure are only the confirmation of the fatal weakness that necessarily characterizes a transnational institution presumably founded on shared beliefs, but in fact comprising sovereign nations each with its own interests and different conceptions of international morality. Indeed, the first attempt at such delusional internationalism, the League of Nations, within a few years of its founding was revealed to be what the U.N. would later become: just another tool for advancing state interests or avoiding action, all cloaked in hypocritical rhetoric.
That test of the League came in 1923, when Benito Mussolini used the murder of some Italian diplomats in Greece as a pretext for attempting to take over the island of Corfu. The Italian fleet sailed into the island’s main harbor and bombarded a fortress, killing 15 Armenian and Greek refugees. Harold Nicolson of the British Foreign office saw that this incident challenged the League’s viability: “Should the [League] Assembly fail, in such flagrant circumstances, to enforce obedience to the Covenant, it was realized that the authority of the League would be forever impaired.” Yet the League did nothing about this aggression, and in the end Greece was forced to pay reparations to Italy as the price of withdrawal. As the Secretary General of the League said at the time, “This challenge has brought into question the fundamental principles which lie at the root of the public law of the new world order established by the League.” As we all know, that failure to punish aggression was merely the first in a series that for the next two decades would pave the way for the cataclysm of World War II.
The U.N. had its own test, also just a few years after its founding. In 1947, the U.N. formally resolved to divide the British Mandate in Palestine into two states, that of Israel reduced to 20% of the territory originally promised for a Jewish homeland. Within a year the Arab nations belonging to the U.N., displeased with the will of the international community they freely joined, attacked Israel in “a war of extermination,” as the Arab League spokesman put it, “and a momentous massacre.” What people sometimes forget is that the attack also “brought into question the fundamental principles which lie at the root of the public law of the new world order established” by the U.N. The use of violence to resolve disputes already adjudicated by the collective will of the international community, and the failure of that community to defend and enforce its decision, exposed the U.N. as founded not on principle, but on national self-interest and expediency. Like the failure to punish Mussolini’s aggression, the failure to punish the Arab states for theirs left the authority of the U.N. “forever impaired.”
What followed that failure was a series of U.N. resolutions that demonized Israel and gave an institutional pass to terrorism. Resolution 2708, for example, passed in 1970 stated that the U.N. “reaffirms its recognition of the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.” That last phrase, subsequently confirmed in other resolutions, legitimized terrorism specifically directed against Israel. It was no surprise that a mere four years later––years filled with terrorist murder by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including the Munich Olympics massacre and the slaughter of school-children in Ma’alot and Qiryat Shemona–– P.L.O. leader Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly to tumultuous applause, brandishing a holster on his hip in the presumed venue of diplomatic negotiation intended to replace violence. As a further reward, the U.N. passed resolutions 3236 and 3237, which recognized the terrorist P.L.O. as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
These U.N. actions resulted from that first failure in 1948 to exercise moral clarity and to identify and punish the aggressor, and they set the stage for the following half-century of violence in the Middle East and the subsequent armed aggression against Israel through war and terror.
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