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What is the role of the UN in the Middle East these days? Why isn't the UN in charge of the overall peace process?

In 1991, in issuing invitations for participation in the Madrid peace conference, the U.S. accepted Israel's demand that the United Nations be excluded from participation in the conference, allowing instead only the symbolic presence of a single representative of the secretary-general, who was not allowed to speak. With the beginning of the Oslo peace process, the U.S. moved further, forcing the United Nations to pull back from longstanding positions, and sidelining the role of the global organization.

Since the Oslo process took hold, the U.S. has largely kept the United Nations out of the loop on Israel-Palestine diplomacy. In August 1994, then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, introduced a letter outlining Washington's goals for the General Assembly. The overall thrust was essentially to remove the issues of Arab-Israeli relations, and especially the question of Palestine, from the UN's political agenda, by claiming that the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the Madrid/Oslo processes had rendered UN involvement irrelevant except for economic and development assistance. Almost all past resolutions were identified as needing to be "consolidated_, improved_or eliminated." The U.S. campaign also demanded that any UN references to the fundamental questions of refugees, settlements, territorial sovereignty and the status of Jerusalem "should be dropped, since these issues are now under negotiations by the parties themselves. (Emphasis added.) The sad irony, of course, was that under the terms of Oslo those were the precise questions not under negotiation, because they were designated "final status" issues that would not come up for five or seven years.

That pattern continued. In October 2000, when 14 out of 15 members of the UN Security Council voted to condemn Israel's excessive force against civilians, it was the U.S. alone that abstained. Then-U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke threatened to veto any further resolution.

At the time of Israel's reoccupation of Jenin in March, 2002, the Security Council was able to convince U.S. diplomats to accept a resolution calling for a United Nations investigation of the catastrophic crisis that had laid waste the city and killed 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers. Israel initially agreed, but when Israel withdrew its approval for the fact-finding team, the U.S. backed their rejection and refused to allow the Council or the secretary-general to enforce the resolution. The fact-finding team was disbanded. The General Assembly, however, responded to the developments by reconvening in Emergency Session to pass its own resolution calling for the secretary-general to prepare a report based on other sources, primarily international human rights organizations.

In July 2002, at the height of Israel's reoccupation of Palestinian cities, the new U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told a closed Security Council meeting that a proposed resolution condemning Israel was unhelpful and that the US would oppose it if it came to a vote. But he then went much further, telling the Council that in the future the U.S. would only consider Middle East resolutions that explicitly condemned Palestinian terrorism with explicit denunciations of several named Palestinian organizations. There was no such demand that all future resolutions equally condemn Israeli military or settler violence.

But the General Assembly's response to the Council's deadlock raises the possibility of a broader role for the UN's most democratic component. Under longstanding UN precedent, if the Council (which is the most powerful, but the least democratic part of the UN because of the veto held by the five permanent members) is deemed deadlocked, the General Assembly may take up issues that would ordinarily be limited to Council jurisdiction. That may make possible Assembly initiatives on issues such as international protection for Palestinians living under occupation (something repeatedly vetoed by the U.S.), or ultimately for an entirely new diplomatic process.