UN Secretary General Speaks Out on the Israel-Palestine Conflict
On January 26th, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon gave a speech on the situation in the Middle East. Speaking with more candor than usual, he focused on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The speech immediately drew intense anger from many, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In turn, the Secretary General responded with a letter to the New York Times, in which he defended his position. The UN is often seen as being too weak to carry great influence in the major issues of international politics, and this was clearly an attempt by Ban Ki-Moon, whose term as secretary general ends this year, to be firmer and to try to command greater influence.
In his speech and subsequent letter, Ban states that the current situation between Israel and Palestine is “untenable.” Already in 2016 there have been “unacceptable levels of violence.” The main point of controversy was the following quote:
Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process. Some have taken me to task for pointing out this indisputable truth. Yet, as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said these comments “give a tailwind to terrorism”, while Israel’s UN Ambassador said that “the Secretary General encourages terror” and “forgot what the UN’s role is”. The question arises then of whether or not such comments were appropriate for the chief representative of the United Nations, which proclaims to be strictly neutral between all nations. Ban responded by saying that he, of course, also “categorically condemns” terrorism, and that his speech was neutrally discussing facts. Thus, he titled his New York Times letter, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel”, clearly encouraging the idea of himself as a neutral arbiter.
The Palestinian West Bank has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel removed armed forces from the other Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip, in 2005, but the UN regards it as still under occupation considering Israel’s control of water supplies, electricity, communications, land border crossings, and air and maritime space in that region. The other highly controversial issue is the construction of Israeli settlements within the occupied territories, which Ban says are “an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community”. On the day of Ban’s speech, Israel approved plans for 150 new settler homes in the West Bank. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian homes are at risk of demolition because of what Ban calls “legal obstacles” that are “discriminatory in practice.” Together, these two issues suggest that Israel has little real interest in coming to an agreement on the long sought after two-state solution, in which Israel and Palestine would have separate, independent states side by side. This is what Palestine and the international community have been working toward but with little success. Ban writes that he is “concerned that we are reaching a point of no return for the two-state solution.” Indeed, some top Israeli officials have suggested abandoning this solution altogether.
Ban’s speech shows the difficulties of the UN trying to extend its hand deeper into political issues. Any attempt to address an issue with added strength risks condemnation and endangering the UN reputation for neutrality. Does this render them impotent? That seems too harsh, considering the immense amount of humanitarian work that the UN achieves in Israel and Palestine every year. However, aside from humanitarian efforts, the question remains of how much the UN leadership can really achieve politically.
When US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that Israel’s settlement expansion “raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions” and questioned whether Palestinians are treated equally under the rule of law, Netanyahu denounced the speech as “unacceptable and incorrect.” Therefore, clearly it is not only the UN Secretary General who must be wary when discussing these issues. Even the US, one of Israel’s closest allies, has faced condemnation for comments that were presumably not intended to be controversial.
Whatever one thinks of the words of the US Ambassador, no one would question his right to speak out on behalf of his country, an independent nation. Should the arguments of the UN Secretary General, a representative of all nations, be subject to different conditions? It is hard to say. Personally, I think that it is important that the leading voice of the UN, such an important player in all initiatives towards peace around the world, be able to speak out. At the same time, though, the power of the UN lies in its being the one major authority that can speak with neutrality.
Ban’s speech and letter show that the Israel-Palestine conflict, which remains one of the most divisive topics in the world, is very difficult to delve deeper into without drawing criticism or being seen as taking sides. On the whole, the speech is surely difficult to disagree with. Of course the occupation of Palestine does not excuse their continuous shocking acts of terrorism, but similarly it is clearly one of the main inspirations for their terrorism. Subsequently, the situation cannot be fully resolved while the occupation remains in place. At the same time, settlement programs suggest that Israel has little desire to end the occupation anytime in the near future. On February 10th at a speech given at NYU, Palestine’s Ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that no agreement with Israel can be made while settlement programs continue. If Ban Ki-Moon discussing these basic points meets such virulent attack, it gives little hope of any progress being made in the future.
- Xan Northcott