Clinton's Dubious Shift on the Middle East

By calling UN's Mideast resolutions outmoded, US is eroding the legal framework for peace process

THE Forty-Ninth session of the United Nations General Assembly may go down as the most important in the history of Palestine - more significant than the second session in 1947 when the partition plan was approved, more momentous than the third session when Resolution 194 offered Palestinian refugees the right of return to their homes or compensation.

If the Clinton administration has its way, the Palestine Liberation Organization, already operating without the safety net of Arab solidarity, also will lose the support of the UN in its efforts to confront Israel with an international consensus opposed to its actions in the occupied territories.

The UN resolutions marked the beginning of international concern about the future of Palestine, and they established the UN as responsible for establishing the norms of international law against which all developments in the Arab-Israeli arena would be judged. They also symbolized the internationalization of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

These norms have evolved since 1947. The partition resolution, together with resolutions concerning Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, form the foundation for the Palestinian right to sovereignty as well as for Arab claims against Israeli efforts to ``create facts'' in the territories occupied in June 1967.

Global consensus

With some notable exceptions, UN actions on the Palestine question reflect the sober consensus of the international community on the requirements for a just resolution of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab antagonisms.

The UN General Assembly has rejected Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; has called upon Israel to respect the Geneva Convention; and has reaffirmed that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

This consensus, indeed the very principle of UN involvement in the central issues that have long defined Arab-Israeli affairs, is now being rejected by the Clinton administration as passe.

Now the US has added its voice to Israel's in suggesting that since the Oslo accords were signed a year ago by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the UN no longer has any role to play on central problems such as the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian sovereignty.

These concerns, Washington argues, will be resolved in ``final status'' negotiations to commence in two years, and are therefore, according to Washington's reasoning, no longer of interest to the international community.

But the Oslo Accord does not materially change Israel's international standing as an occupying power nor lessen its legal obligations to Palestinians in the territories.

The decision to create the Palestinian National Authority and to devolve certain security functions to a Palestinian police force, for example, have not ended Israel's continuing responsibilities as an occupying power.

By agreeing to resolve such issues as Jerusalem and settlements in the future, Israel is not absolved of its international legal responsibilities as defined by the UN, the Geneva Convention, and other expressions of international consensus.

Washington's shift

Or so one would think. The first suggestions that Washington viewed the Oslo agreement as an opportunity to end UN ``interference'' occurred almost a year ago, when a US delegate to the UN argued that Jerusalem, as a final status issue, should not be addressed by UN bodies.

After the Hebron massacre last February, this new US position appeared in Security Council deliberations.

Today, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright argues that the historical UN interest in these issues is a relic of a previous era. Forget establishing principles for the resolution of the conflicts over Jerusalem, refugees, the Golan Heights, she advises. These are now the bilateral concern of Israel and the PLO.

The UN, she argues, should limit its involvement to resolutions supporting reconciliation and economic development.

The PLO, in a letter now circulating at the UN, responds that, ``illegal actions remain illegal, and the illegal settlements in the occupied territories, for instance, do not become less illegal with the beginning of negotiations.''

The PLO has logic and fairness on its side. But these qualities may not be enough to turn the tide against the administration's desire to liquidate the core of international legitimacy that UN resolutions afford to the basic elements of genuine reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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