Nazi Regime Bounces Dead Cats at U.N.

Israel Bounces Dead Cats at U.N.


Ambassador Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, speaks during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, on Jan. 5, 2023, regarding the controversial visit by extreme-right Israeli Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2023, pp. 18-19

United Nations Report

By Ian Williams

BINYAMIN NETANYAHU celebrated the inauguration of the most reactionary government in Israel by re-endorsing Israel’s U.N. envoy Gilad Erdan in the position he himself had once held. Netanyahu’s first big step into the limelight was to lie aggressively from the General Assembly podium. Erdan began his career by opposing the Oslo Accords, so it is perhaps fitting that he remain at the U.N. for the final dismemberment of the charade.

In the early 1990s, Palestinian leaders began their long march through the international institutions. They had learned that AK-47s were no match for the modern weaponry of Israel and hit upon what former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in another context, called the unique legitimizing power of the United Nations. In effect, while the U.N. could not force Israel to leave the occupied territories, the occupiers could never enjoy secure title without the world body’s approval. This soft power has been shown in other contexts. Apartheid South Africa and Indonesia had to give up their ill-gotten gains in Namibia and East Timor, respectively, and European Court and international court rulings still challenge Morocco’s occupation of the Sahara and Israel’s in Palestine.

Like its scofflaw patron, the U.S., Israel is not (to put it mildly) the most law-abiding U.N. member, but, like Washington, it is quick to invoke international law and order when expedient. The most recent example of this behavior is Israel’s intemperate—and counterproductive—over-reaction to the latest Palestinian success in invoking the International Court of Justice against the continuing occupation. But in a world where the West calls upon the Palestinians to abjure violence and pursue peaceful means, how could the occupier and perpetrator of so many breaches of international law persuade Europeans, who are publicly committed to support democracy and civil rights, to abstain on a resolution that invokes international law? After all, the Palestinians are only asking the General Assembly to act as a global grand jury, determining whether Israel had a legal case to answer. 

If the tacit European accomplices were so confident that their protégé, Israel, was not practicing apartheid or riding roughshod over international law to maintain an illegal occupation, then why shouldn’t the world’s highest legal authority in the world rule on the issue? No rational country or diplomat could argue that there was no case, although Israel has consistently claimed so. Those pandering to Israeli wishes could argue that they were uncomfortable seeing Israel in the dock, and they did argue that it might interfere with negotiations. 

But which negotiations? As torrents of Palestinian blood flow in the West Bank and as successive Israeli ministers announce expropriations while daily TV reports showed racist Israeli settler brownshirts on a rampage with explicit state backing, we have to give hasbara its due for its success in conscripting shameless defenders to Israel’s cause.

Twenty-six delegations abandoned all principles and voted with Israel against the referral; 53 others abstained, apparently unwilling to assert their lack of principles through a clear vote in favor. In the geoarithmetic of the U.N., the 87 who voted for the resolution were a comfortable majority if against, say Russia, but questionable against Israel, which was quite pleased with the result. While procedurally those abstentions have no effect, politically they are corrosive. Supporters of East Timor stopped putting forth resolutions when the Indonesians succeeded in getting as many abstentions as the Timorese got supporters.

Even the allegedly Nazi Ukrainians had enough principles to support the referral, perhaps because the constant Russian mantra of “Azov Brigade” had inured them against the similarly devalued overdeployment of “anti-Semitism!” And last March, Ukraine had won its own case against Russia at the International Court of Justice, which found that Russia’s allegations of genocide against Ukraine to be without foundation and that Moscow’s military intervention was illegal. The only dissenters in the decisions were, unsurprisingly, the Russian and Chinese judges. In the General Assembly, 141 countries voted to condemn Putin’s invasion and only five voted against. Ukraine was hardly in a position to question the authority of the U.N. Israel voted with the majority then but abstained in the vote in November to assess reparations against Russia. Some Israeli commentators suggested that apart from general groveling to its chum Putin, Israel worried that the precedent was a tool that could be brought against it—and indeed, it could.


The heart of the Israeli dilemma is this: How can a state that owes its legal existence to a 1948 U.N. General Assembly resolution deny the applicability of U.N. decisions and international law and order? As always Israeli diplomats distract attention with a perennial replay of the “dead cat maneuver,” in which someone throws a ripe, maggoty feline corpse into the middle of the table to distract people from the real, underlying issues on the agenda. In this case the dead cat—the accusation of anti-Semitism—has been rotten for some time, but Israeli hasbara can be forgiven for repetition, since even if totally mendacious it has proven to be effective. 

The latest General Assembly resolution up for a vote had merely asked for the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of Israel’s actions. But what proved a step too far, even for the most groveling pro-Israeli delegations, is Israel’s application of sanctions against the Palestinians for their temerity in pursuing the case. As Palestine representative to the U.N. Riyad Mansour said, “We face the absurd situation where impunity is enjoyed by those who violate the law and collective punishment is endured by those entitled to its protection.” 

One of American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s founders wisely said, “a lobby is a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” Discrete lobbies can  pressure office holders into dubious behavior that they would rather not see exposed domestically or globally. But Israel went too far for its squeamish friends, so countries like Germany had stretched their elastic principles beyond breaking point. It is one thing to vote one way or the other on a procedural resolution, it is another thing entirely to countenance beating up a litigant. Over a hundred delegations, including many of the previously spineless Europeans, condemned Israel’s intimidatory measures not least because it was busy giving evidence of its rumored lawlessness. Perhaps if more voters saw what their governments were condoning in the U.N., the daylight would turn the vampire lobbies to dust. 


That lobbies work best in the dark was epitomized by Dean Douglas Elmendorf’s veto of Harvard Kennedy School’s appointment of Ken Roth to a fellowship after his retirement as head of Human Rights Watch. Elmendorf would not or could not explain why, although the echoes around the Ivory Tower resounded with lobbyists’ unsubstantiated allegations that Roth had supported “anti-Semitic” slanders by allowing Human Rights Watch to report on Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians. This particular story had a happy ending: academics, human rights experts and the media created such a storm that the dean had to eat crow in public and allow Roth to take the position. His statement explained neither the veto nor its withdrawal in a coherent way. 

One welcome outcome of this episode was the tattered reputation of hasbara shows like NGO Monitor and U.N. Watch, which supported firing Roth before he had even taken the job. One hopes that media will have drawn the lesson from the incident and go directly for quotes to the hasbara ventriloquists themselves in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than getting them laundered through spuriously independent dummies.


Almost five years after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people in Douma, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons finally and belatedly issued its fact-finding report on chemical weapons use in Douma and Syria and, despite years of obfuscation by Russia and denial by Bashar al-Assad, fingered the Syrian tyrant for using chemical weapons. Moscow’s behavior in Ukraine doubtless helped the office find its backbone in the institution. Many people in Syria and Ukraine might be alive now if Washington had held its line in the sand about the use of chemical weapons.

U.N. correspondent Ian Williams is the author of U.N.told: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War (available from Middle East Books and More


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