Everyone should be relieved that Peter Beinart is not in charge of the world. In his latest criticism of the Israeli government, he warns about the catastrophic consequences of a UN General Assembly vote recognizing a Palestinian state. He writes:
In a few months, the U.N. General Assembly will vote, probably overwhelmingly, to recognize a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders. No one knows exactly what will happen after that, but from the Israeli government’s point of view, it won’t be good. According to international law, Israel will be occupying a sovereign nation. The result will likely be a bonanza of lawsuits, divestment campaigns and cancelled business deals. Israelis will feel more and more besieged. More and more of the country’s educated, tech-savvy young will realize you can get pretty good falafel in Menlo Park.
Of course, Beinart is right that a resolution by the UN General Assembly recognizing a Palestininan state will be bad for Israel. It will begin a process in which a great many states feel pressure to recognize the new Palestine, leading Israel to retaliate through unilateral annexation. Depending on what the PA does after that, it could well lead to war.
But in his understanding of international law, Beinart is flat-out wrong. The General Assembly does not have the authority to create binding law by a simple vote. It is not a global legislature, just as the UN is not a world government. Its resolutions are symbolic. Never mind the fact that the UN charter never gives the General Assembly such authority. Just think about it: Does anybody believe that in creating the UN, sovereign states like the U.S. and the Soviet Union handed over their own sovereign authority to a body in which tyrannical regimes and democratic ones, friends and allies, get an equal vote? That if, one day, the General Assembly decides to grant independence to Quebec, or Minnesota, or the Confederacy, that suddenly it will be binding on all member states, including Canada and the U.S.?
The UN was created for the purpose of fostering international dialogue and giving international imprimatur to a whole web of international agreements and conventions that are binding inasmuch as a sovereign state enters them of its own volition. But when the UN General Assembly voted in 1975 to declare that “Zionism is Racism,” it didn’t make regimes that supported the Zionist entity into criminal states. From Israel’s perspective, agreeing to that kind of authority for the General Assembly would have been absurd. It would mean, for example, that the actual legally recognized borders of Israel are not those of 1967 or 2011, but rather 1947—the borders set by UN resolution 181 (also known as the UN partition plan), the borders that did not include Western Jerusalem or the corridor leading to it, or large chunks of the Galilee. This was, after all, the only time the General Assembly has voted on Israel’s borders. By Beinart’s logic, Israel has been illegally occupying sovereign land since 1948. Which lines him up nicely with the most extreme Palestinian claims.
For proof that I’m right and Beinart is wrong, we need look no further than President Obama’s speech at AIPAC earlier this week. What, exactly, did the president mean when he declared that “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state”? That the President is so confident in his ability to prevent a General Assembly vote from passing that he was promising to do so? Hardly. A much more reasonable interpretation is that even if such a vote passes, it will not create an independent state. The UN just doesn’t have the power to do that.
None of which makes a UN General Assembly vote into a picnic for Israel. Symbolism is not toothless, and many of Israel’s greatest allies around the world will be put in a tight spot to recognize such a state—regardless of its endorsement of terrorism, its oppression of its own citizens, or its permanent war footing. It will be a diplomatic blow to Israel—and by implication, to the U.S. as well. Which is why President Obama committed himself to doing everything in his power to prevent it.
Beinart, of course, isn’t the only person who wants to believe that GA resolutions create international law. He quotes another Daily Beast article by Leslie Gelb, which makes the same assertion. And the user-created Wikipedia entry on “Sources of International Law” asserts that “it may be argued” that the UN’s resolutions are indeed one of many such sources. The question is an old one, dividing those who adopt an expansive, wishful-thinking, global-governance stance on international law and those, like the Founding Fathers, who preferred national sovereignty and the principle that law be conferred only by the consent of the governed.
Good to know which side Beinart’s on—and that his views are not shared by the American people, or the President of the United States.