At the end of this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to bring a request for full United Nations membership before the Security Council. Even in the unlikely event that this succeeds, little will change on the ground: Israel will still occupy Palestinian territory, and Israelis and Palestinians will still have to negotiate an end to their conflict. U.S. and Israeli officials have chastised Abbas for what they call a “unilateral action” that will endanger prospects for peace. This is difficult to swallow for Palestinians, who feel that they are entitled to achieve statehood in the same way that Israel achieved it. And with Israel pursuing its unilateral effort to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the bilateral peace process at a dead end, they see little choice but to go to the United Nations -- the quintessentially multilateral route.
If anything, resorting to the UN is taking the conflict back to its original arena. In 1947, just two years after the UN’s founding, the General Assembly provided legitimacy for Israel’s statehood by approving the partition plan for Palestine, which called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. For Israel’s founders, this vote was the culmination of a generations-long campaign for statehood that had been made even more urgent by the near destruction of European Jewry during World War II. Israel’s subsequent declaration of independence established its authority on “the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly,” and today the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Web site prominently features a scratchy recording of the roll-call vote on the partition plan. It was a UN undersecretary general, Ralph Bunche, who mediated the armistice that officially ended the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, which continues to be the reference point for border negotiations.
Since then, the UN’s role in the Middle East has seen its fair share of controversy. Israel was deeply estranged from the international body when, in 1975, the