Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the May 18 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
The deadly ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the kind of challenge you might think the United Nations could address. After all, it played a major role in establishing Israel as a state more than 70 years ago, what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba or “catastrophe.” But it’s not doing much on this one.
The UN’s powerful 15-nation Security Council is charged with preserving international peace and security. But continuing a decade-long deadlock, that credo has not been upheld. The council has held one public meeting for speeches and at least three private sessions since heavy violence broke out in Israel and the Palestinian territories last week. Humanitarian agencies and NGOs have pleaded for the council to do something. A statement submitted by Norway and backed by other countries appeals for a de-escalation in fighting.
But the United States keeps using its veto power to block any formal reaction by the council, saying it prefers to use its own diplomatic powers to calm things down. “The United States has been working tirelessly through diplomatic channels to try to bring an end to this conflict,” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has told the council, echoing what other US diplomats are telling ministers around the world.
The US is one of just five countries that have veto power over any action they don’t like in the council. Those powers exercise control over spheres of influence on a regular basis: Today, it’s the US backing Israel. Another day, it’s China supporting military rulers in Myanmar. Or Russia stopping council action on troops near Ukraine.
Countries big and small know the game. That’s why you don’t see diplomats throwing themselves atop the historic horseshoe table and demanding the US get with it. Some of the nonpermanent council nations are also fearful of publicly attacking such a powerful country. But frustrations are evident; as one UN diplomat told CNN, “We are also disappointed, like many other countries in the council.”
In a somewhat rare public criticism, even China’s foreign minister told the council Sunday that the US should join the others to speak up on the Middle East. “The Security Council has not been able to speak in one voice till today because of the obstruction by one single country. We call upon the United States to shoulder its due responsibilities, take a just position,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
China has joined a geographic troika trying to get around the US block by issuing their own statement. “Norway, Tunisia and China expressed deep concern about the situation in Gaza and the rising number of civilian casualties, and called for an immediate end of hostilities, full respect for international law, including international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, especially children,” Norway’s UN Ambassador Mona Juul said.
The overall 193-country membership of the UN is largely disposed to line up against Israel. Non-council member Pakistan summed up the mood, with Ambassador Munir Akram telling CNN, “It is most regrettable that the Security Council has remained paralyzed in this crisis. The world expects that at the very least the council will call for an immediate halt to the hostilities and prevent the killing of more innocent children, women and men.”
The US, through emails and phone calls, passed the word Monday that it would hamstring yet another attempt to pass a statement condemning the violence, though it did agree to another private discussion on Tuesday. But don’t get your hopes up. The Security Council has issued many statements on the Middle East over the years, and they rarely stop the so-called parties on the ground from starting trouble or persuade them to end it.
These days, even if a Security Council statement were approved, without strong diplomatic backing and a willingness on both sides to lower tensions, the impact will be minimal.