When President Trump announced on Dec. 6 that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israelis cheered; support for the move in Israel was almost universal. When the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly repudiated Trump’s announcement last week, Israelis just shrugged.
Israelis have long seen the UN as unremittingly hostile to the Jewish state and no longer pay it much attention. A consistent pattern of recent UN votes on matters involving Israel drives home that point. In 2012, when the UN decided to give Palestinians nonmember observer status over Israeli objections, 138 countries voted yes. Then in 2015, when the UN allowed the Palestinians to fly their flag there, again over Israeli protests, 119 nations approved. This year, 129 states voted against Israel. Abstentions followed a similar pattern. In 2012, 42 nations abstained; in 2015, 45 did so. On the Trump announcement, 38 countries abstained. The uniformity of the voting contradicts a theory preferred by some on the Israeli left that this month’s UN move should be regarded more as a referendum on Trump than as a condemnation of Israel.
Even the 1947 vote to create the Jewish state was a nail-biter. In the days before the vote, the pro-Israel side feared that it was shy of the two-thirds majority it needed. The vote was scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 26; when Uruguay launched a filibuster, the Zionists worked around the clock over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Resolution 181 for the Partition of Palestine passed on Nov. 29, but barely, with 33 nations in favor, 13 opposed and 10 abstentions.
Israelis knew that if the UN voted again, the result might be different. A year later, when the U.S. State Department got the Security Council to discuss whether to place Palestine under international “trusteeship” amid the first of many Arab-Israeli wars, Israelis understood that the United States saw the UN as the most effective way to unmake the state that had just been created.
Over time, the Palestinian movement learned how to use the UN as a forum for Israel’s delegitimization. In 1975, the UN passed a resolution asserting that Zionism is a form of racism, meaning that the UN had formally declared that the movement that led to Jewish independence was fundamentally evil.
Though it revoked the Zionism-is-racism resolution in 1991, the culture of the UN never changed. In 2001 and 2009, UN-sponsored conferences against racism in Durban, South Africa, decreed that Zionism was colonialism, that Israel was an apartheid state and that Israel had been born in sin and established through “ethnic cleansing.” Copies of the two most notorious anti-Semitic tracts of the 20th century, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” were distributed at these conferences.
Between 2003 and 2012, the UN issued 314 resolutions concerning Israel, nearly 40 percent of all resolutions passed in that time. At the end of 2013, Israeli deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin pointed out that of the 103 resolutions about individual countries from the UN Human Rights Council, 43 condemned Israel. During the council’s 2013 March session alone, six resolutions were adopted criticizing Israel, while only four addressed all the remaining countries of the world. Israel was the subject of more emergency sessions in the council than any other country, yet the body failed to pass a single resolution condemning 200,000 deaths in Darfur or human rights violations by China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Zimbabwe.
It is in light of this history that Israeli indifference to the Jerusalem vote must be understood. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called the UN the “theater of the absurd,” and Israelis agree. They may not recall that Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent ambassador to the UN and the United States in the 1950s, once said of the UN: “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.” But they share the sentiment.
Israelis are also secure enough about their future to regard UN hostility as irrelevant to their well-being. Infinitely more important than any UN vote is the developing Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli alliance, which — despite those countries predictably joining rhetorical forces with Israel’s enemies — strengthens Israel’s position in the Middle East and which, some people surmise, the United States might use to pressure or even attack Iran.
But it’s not just because former enemies have become allies that Israelis are feeling optimistic and confident. When Israel joined the UN in 1950, it became the 60th member. Today, there are 193 member states; Israel is thus older than two-thirds of the world’s countries and is infinitely more successful and stable than virtually all the countries created since its founding. Israelis have no expectation that the UN will change. They simply respond by continuing to build what, by any measure, is a state wildly more successful than anyone could have imagined when the UN barely passed a vote to create it in November of 1947.