UNITED NATIONS — If there is one thing you can count on at the United Nations, it’s that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never goes away.
The struggle for land between Arabs and Jews has been the lone constant in the United Nations’ 66-year history, outlasting other major political crises of the 20th century, from the ending of the colonial era and the Cold War to the eruption of modern genocides in Europe, Asia and Africa.
This week the dispute will again take center stage as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally embarks on his long-anticipated bid to have the United Nations recognize a state of Palestine, a process that has already ignited a new round of recrimination and confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The drama will cast a spotlight on the failure of the United Nations to resolve a conflict that has weighed heavily on the organization since its birth, and often split U.N. members into two fractious camps: those who demand sovereignty for Palestinians and those whose paramount interest is Israel’s security.
“This is the wound that continues to get ripped open,” said Michael Doyle, a Columbia University professor and former senior U.N. adviser.
At the same time, Abbas’s bid highlights the continuing relevance of the United Nations as a source of international legitimacy — no other organization can confer the recognition the Palestinians are seeking.
The very idea of partitioning Jewish and Arab states was enshrined in a 1947 U.N. General Assembly Resolution, No. 181, which set the stage for Israel’s declaration of independence the following year. A U.N.-brokered armistice defined the boundary lines established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the borders that Abbas will seek to have recognized were based on a November 1967 Security Council resolution, No. 242, that required Israel to withdraw its forces from territories occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Palestinians have rallied the overwhelming majority of governments behind their cause, but failed to win over one country, the United States, that stands in the way of its hopes of securing a vital Security Council vote inviting the Palestinians to join the United Nations as a full-fledged member state.
Because of the expectation that the United States will veto that bid, the Palestinians say they will then seek approval from the General Assembly for recognition as a U.N. observer state, albeit one without full-fledged status of a U.N. member state.
The Palestinians say that becoming a non-member state will still allow them to join various U.N. agencies and treaty bodies, including the International Criminal Court, which will raise the threat of possible international prosecution of Israeli forces.
“This is not just theatrics, it is real,” said Ryad Mansour, the Palestinians’ U.N. envoy. “We will not be anymore orphans” in many international bodies.
The Palestinians contend that years of negotiations with Israel have failed to achieve peace. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have grown.
Abbas “is not doing this out of wish or intention; he’s doing it because he does not see any other options at this stage,” said Terje Roed Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat who advises U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Middle East issues.
But even some of the Palestinians’ supporters fear that the move will make no tangible difference on the ground, while damaging the Palestinians’ relations with the United States.
“The fact is that the most that can be achieved is a symbolic victory, because U.N. membership is not available,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, said the problem is Israel has been too conciliatory. He said the gradual hardening of Israeli public opinion has grown out of the failure to secure peace through concessions — including its withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
In response, “we get missiles from the north from Hezbollah, missiles from the south from Hamas,” he said. “Give the Israeli public some credit in looking at this and saying, ‘Just a second: what’s going on here?’ At least we have the right to look at things in a bit more skeptical way.”
Israelis have often felt unfairly treated by the United Nations. The Jewish state had been the lone member denied entry into a U.N. regional group, making it impossible to join key U.N. bodies such as the Security Council. The U.N. Human Rights Council has devoted far more time and energy to criticizing Israel’s human rights record than that of any other country. Next week, the United States, Germany, Italy and Canada will boycott a U.N. conference on racism and discrimination, saying it unfairly singles out Israel for censure.