All conflicts have crucial moments that reveal the true intentions of the main protagonists and make the murky waters of war somewhat clearer. This being the case, what did we learn from the UN Security Council vote last week on a proposed resolution, tabled by the UAE, that called for an immediate ceasefire in the war in Gaza, and the subsequent similar vote in the wider UN General Assembly?
We learned that the vast majority of countries in both of these UN forums support calls for an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of humanitarian aid. Regrettably, we also learned that the US was ready to block the resolution by using its power of veto in the Security Council. This begs the question: What are Washington’s true intentions?
On the one hand, American officials express grave concerns about the way in which Israel is conducting its war against Hamas using methods that are causing unimaginable devastation and suffering to noncombatant Palestinians in Gaza and an unbearable death toll. On the other hand, the US has used one of its most powerful diplomatic tools to prevent the adoption of a binding UN resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
Is this an inherent paradox the current administration simply fails to comprehend? Or is it more likely a deliberate tactic to gain Israel more time for its war in Gaza?
There is a consensus around the world that the humanitarian conditions in Gaza are intolerable. The vote on the ceasefire resolution in the 15-member Security Council was 13-to-1 in favor, with the US voting no and the UK abstaining. The US decision to veto the resolution stood in complete contradiction to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expressed concerns about the spiraling death toll in Gaza. In his own understated way he said that Israel’s “intent” to limit civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip did not always “manifest” itself and “we see that both in terms of civilian protection and humanitarian assistance.”
In more explicit statements he has admitted that the number of casualties is unacceptable and “it remains imperative that Israel puts a premium on civilian protection.”
Until this translates into a policy that helps to bring about an end to the fighting, however, the US is becoming increasingly isolated in the international arena and complicit in Israel’s killings in Gaza. It is also creating an obvious rift with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has become the most prominent and vocal moral compass in his demands for a ceasefire.
On Oct. 7, Israel suffered its worst loss of human life in a single day since the country was founded. As a result, it not only held the moral high ground but was well within its rights to respond — but against, and only against, those responsible for the massacre that day. Most of the world understood this and many supported it. But based on past experience, they also feared that the response would be utterly disproportionate. Those fears were quickly realized.
If the conflict is not halted its consequences will only get worse, and much of the blame for this can be attributed to the fact that the Israeli government has no clear plan for the war, or for the day after. This means the current situation remains open-ended and the people of Gaza are paying a terrible price for this.
There is a consensus around the world that the humanitarian conditions in Gaza are intolerable.
In the Security Council, Robert Wood, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, took a stance that reflects the Biden administration’s confusing approach to the issue, an approach that is detrimental not only to efforts to end the war but also to US interests, by completely aligning his country with the government of Israel, a country led by an internationally discredited prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own people no longer trust him and would like to see him go.
Netanyahu argued that the US blocked the proposed resolution to give Israel a chance “to break the cycle of unceasing violence so that history does not keep repeating itself,” and that a ceasefire “would only plant the seeds for the next war because Hamas has no desire to see a durable peace. Our goal should not be to stop the war for today but to stop the war for ever.”
This is not only wishful thinking, arguably a complete fantasy, but a dangerous idea in support of yet another never-ending war — and who is more experienced with involvement in such wars than the US?
Not only does this approach prolong a war with no defined exit strategy, it also risks the lives of the remaining hostages held by Hamas, as well as the intensification of battles in an ever-smaller area of Gaza in which most of the population of the territory who were forced to leave their homes is now concentrated. This is a recipe for an even worse humanitarian disaster than we have seen so far, bringing with it yet more hatred and radicalization.
Amid the incoherence of this arguably hypocritical US approach to the war that is allowing Israel more time to complete its military objectives, Washington is at the same time signaling to the Israelis that its support has a limited time span and it is running out of patience.
Nevertheless, every additional day, let alone weeks or months, of devastating bombardment are horrendous for the local population and might lead, as was suggested by Guterres, to civil order completely breaking down, resulting in a mass exodus of refugees to Egypt.
Tacitly — and for some in Israel’s ruling coalition, rather openly — this might be precisely what Israeli authorities would like to happen. But they should be careful what they wish for, as such an outcome would inevitably jeopardize relations with Egypt and other countries in the region, not to mention the fact that it would amount to ethnic cleansing.
The tension between Guterres and the US is not helpful. The former is exasperated with the latter’s refusal to recognize the fact that the UN’s capacity to continue to provide any meaningful level of humanitarian relief in Gaza is rapidly diminishing, while Washington views the secretary general himself as an obstacle to the efforts of Israel to eliminate Hamas.
The brave, and correct, decision by Guterres last week to take the extremely rare step of invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter, which permits him to bring a perceived threat to global security directly to the attention of the Security Council, might have infuriated Washington but it made his own role, and that of the Security Council, more relevant than it has been in a very long time. In contrast, it left the US increasingly isolated and irrelevant to this conflict.
Consequently, the next step, considering what is happening on the ground in Gaza and the international fury about Washington’s veto, must be to bring this resolution back to the Security Council for another vote and this time hope that no one will block it.