Tuesday was emblematic of the United Nations as a whole. Accusations of a failure of moral clarity by leadership. An inability by the world’s powers to accomplish anything meaningful. Political gamesmanship while the world burns. And no discernible path out of the morass.
It’s clear the Israel-Hamas war will take up all of the U.N.’s oxygen this week, especially after startling comments made by Secretary-General António Guterres, which set off a firestorm in Jerusalem.
Leading off Tuesday’s ministerial-level Security Council debate on the Israeli-Palestinian file, Guterres told council members in New York that there was no justification for Hamas’s cross-border massacre of Israelis and foreign nationals that began on Oct. 7.
He then proceeded to justify it, saying, “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”
Guterres then claimed that “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, attending the meeting with Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, was aghast.
“Mr. Secretary General, in what world do you live?” asked Cohen in the council chambers. “Definitely this is not our world.”
Cohen, who traveled to New York with a delegation of family members of hostages being held by Hamas, canceled his scheduled meeting with Guterres on Tuesday afternoon, though the family members sat down with the U.N. chief.
Stands by his comments
JNS asked Guterres’s spokesperson’s office if the chief wished to clarify his remarks. Told that he stands by his comments and that he “clearly” condemned Hamas’s massacre, JNS asked why Guterres immediately followed that condemnation with a list of Palestinian grievances.
“You can’t solve the problem unless you identify the causes,” said Farhan Haq, Guterres’s deputy spokesman.
Presented with those comments by JNS at an afternoon meeting with the press, Cohen lashed out.
“There is no cause for such a massacre. To behead babies. To rape women. To burn them alive. To kidnap more than 200 people,” he said, pointing to the abductees’ families standing next to him at the podium.
“Right now there are small children and babies being kept captive. There is any cause for this? There is no cause for this. Shame on him,” Cohen said of Guterres.
Erdan, who has had a testy relationship with Guterres, wrote that “the U.N. secretary-general, who shows understanding for the campaign of mass murder of children, women and the elderly, is not fit to lead the U.N. I call on him to resign immediately.”
He added that the secretary-general’s remarks were “completely disconnected from the reality in our region.”
The harsh reaction came from across the political spectrum. Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz, a former member of the opposition who joined Israel’s unity government, labeled Guterres a “terror apologist.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote that Guterres “brought shame upon the United Nations today. His speech provided excuses and rationalization for barbaric terrorism. There is never any excuse for the murder of children, the abduction of babies and the rape of women.”
JNS confirmed a report by Israel’s Channel 12 that Erdan subsequently canceled a visa for U.N. humanitarian coordinator Martin Griffiths, who was due to arrive in Israel this week. The Israeli Mission to the U.N. told JNS that Erdan was looking into the possibility of expelling U.N. officials from Israel, as well, though the mission spokesperson said it was too early to identify such officials.
Guterres’s comments overshadowed a high-level meeting attended by the foreign ministers of the U.S., France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, among other U.N. members. Nearly 90 countries sent a representative to speak at Tuesday’s marathon meeting, including around 30 foreign ministers and deputy ministers.
On the same day it was reported that 24 U.S. personnel had been injured in the past week in at least 13 rocket and drone attacks on coalition bases in Iraq and Syria, Washington’s chief diplomat issued a seemingly empty warning to the council.
“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran. We do not want this war to widen,” said Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state. “But if Iran or its proxies attack U.S. personnel anywhere, make no mistake: We will defend our people, we will defend our security—swiftly and decisively.”
Blinken asked the council to back a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution that calls for “humanitarian pauses” to allow for aid distribution, but not a full ceasefire. The draft, coming after last week’s failed Russian resolution and a U.S. veto of a Brazilian resolution, was intended by Washington to be put up for a vote on Tuesday morning, but it became clear it didn’t have the support to move forward.
Washington has asked for a vote on Wednesday afternoon. Moscow, utilizing the council as a proxy battlefield with the U.S., has submitted a second resolution of its own, calling for an immediate, durable, fully-respected ceasefire. It also urges an immediate rescission of Israel’s evacuation order for northern Gaza, among other things.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, said he sees no point in the U.S. resolution, signaling, though not confirming, that he intends to veto it. Moscow’s text will almost surely be rejected by the council as well, which, outside of China, has taken a largely anti-Russian stance since the invasion of Ukraine.
With no clear path forward in the Security Council, Russia and several Arab states requested and were granted an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly, beginning on Thursday morning. The session is likely to stretch into Friday.
While General Assembly resolutions—unlike those of the Security Council issued under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter—are non-binding, they can carry large symbolic significance.
The Arab Group is floating a draft resolution for U.N. member states to consider and potentially co-sponsor. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, the rescission of the northern Gaza evacuation order, demands the provision of essential goods through the Gaza Strip and emphasizes the “importance of preventing further destabilization and escalation of violence in the region.”
Unlike in the Security Council, no country has a veto in the General Assembly, which has passed many anti-Israel resolutions in the past.
At some point over the next week, the U.S. will separately have to explain to the General Assembly its veto of Brazil’s Security Council resolution, under recently-established procedures intended to limit the use of the veto by the five permanent members of the Security Council (the U.S., U.K., France, China and Russia).
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