Theater of the Absurd

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November 1, 2011
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Harry Reicher

In his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the U.N. as “the theater of the absurd.” In that theater, the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority has now entered its third act. It is a play in which reality takes a backseat to theatrical make-believe.

The first act consisted of the conversion by the General Assembly of the nature of the Palestinian question. As recently as 1967, when the U.N.’s Security Council passed Resolution 242, it was completely silent with respect to any notion of Palestinian statehood; rather, it referred merely, and as a secondary consideration, to “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Resolution 242 was quite pivotal in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it was carefully and sedulously crafted over a period of five months, and it had the unanimous support of the full council, including the Soviet Union; it is, arguably, the last positive contribution the U.N. made to resolving the conflict.

The influence of the great era of decolonization in Africa and Asia spilled over into the Arab-Israeli conflict (though not elsewhere in the Arab world). In a series of resolutions, beginning on December 10, 1969, the General Assembly began to convert the Palestinian question into one of independence, proclaiming the “inalienable right” of the “Palestine Arab refugees” to self-determination. This took place despite the fact that the principle of self-determination in international law (itself an extremely vexed question) certainly did not apply to the Palestinian Arabs, who were and were regarded at that time — even among Arab leaders — not as an independent group but as another component part of the pan-Arab nation. Moreover, terms such as “colonial power” and “self-determination” could not apply to Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians because Israel had taken control of the West Bank and Gaza during the Six-Day War of 1967, a quintessential war of self-defense, and was therefore entitled to retain control unless and until a comprehensive peace was negotiated.

Hand in hand with these developments, the General Assembly converted the status of the PLO, first by granting it observer status, entitled to participation in all assembly work, and culminating in the replacement of the designation “Palestine Liberation Organization” with the designation “Palestine” within the whole U.N. system — that is, treating it almost as a state.

Now, in its most recent act, the U.N. is considering Palestinian statehood, coupled with membership in the U.N. itself.

International law has long recognized conditions for statehood that may be summarized as follows: demonstrating true independence through clear control, internally, over defined population and territory, with full capacity to conduct foreign relations. On no reasonable conception of statehood is the Palestinian Authority qualified.

Article 4 of the U.N. Charter specifies that membership in the organization is open only to states, and, moreover, only such states as “peace-loving,” and are “able and willing” to carry out the obligations of the U.N. Charter. In addition to not being a state, how, it may be asked, can the Palestinian Authority claim to qualify under Article 4 when the Palestinian National Charter has made clear that it aims to destroy Israel — itself a member of the U.N.? As the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report shows, the Palestine Authority violates charter obligations in other fundamental ways, such as in the ruthless and brutal denial of human rights in territories under its present control.

In one area after another, the U.N., which began with such altruistic and noble goals, has been politicized and demeaned beyond recognition. The General Assembly includes 193 members, of whom a strong majority are non-democratic and quite cynical violators of the rule of law. In fact, if the U.N.’s own criteria for membership were applied to every member, very few countries would qualify for membership. In this environment, international law really counts for naught, and cynical realpolitik rules.

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Harry Reicher is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, specializing in international human rights and in legal issues arising out of the Holocaust. He is also a scholar-in-residence at the Touro Law Center on Long Island. From 1955 to 2004, he represented the Agudath Israel World Organization at the United Nations.

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