Who governs the world—the United States or the United Nations? Will the bombing and killing of Palestinians end? Can there be a solution that recognizes Palestinian citizens and their nation in peace with Israel?
The crisis in Israel and Gaza is a likely turning point in global affairs. U.S. global dominance may have to give way to a consensus at the United Nations, backed by global public opinion. That is, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) may bypass the big-power vetoes in the Security Council (granted to the Security Council’s five permanent members—the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and call firmly for an end to mass atrocities and to coordinate seeking a postwar settlement.
Why might the UNGA need to take matters into its own hands? As the UN came to represent all world nations rather than big powers, the U.S. became a frequent user of its veto power, halting UN action to expand its own unilateral military and political actions. This included vetoes to limit Palestinian rights and to arm Israel.
Details of the Current Crisis
Hamas attack, Israeli retaliation. After years of war, the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas killed 1,200 people. Hamas militants also took around 200 hostages. Israel’s response began immediately and continues today. The U.S. continues to provide arms and political support to Israel’s war. Nearly four months of bombing and shooting have killed over 25,000 Palestinians, especially women and children, and displaced two million.
Global popular opinion. Current worldwide demonstrations for peace in Gaza exceed all previous such calls. They are not unanimous, but they are unprecedented and, as they continue, will influence governments.
Hypocrisy in U.S. policy. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken speak about Israel scaling back its war, yet Biden fails to consult Congress in sending more offensive arms to Israel or in bombing Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. The hypocrisy is apparent: the U.S. claims to support peace but continues to support the war. U.S. leaders expect that they will determine the postwar settlement in Israel and Palestine, but Washington appears to be losing the initiative. Meanwhile, most American allies in the European Union want the fighting to stop: 17 of 27 EU member states voted for a cease-fire during the UNGA’s emergency session in December. The EU Parliament subsequently voted for a cease-fire and hostage release.
U.S. vetoes. In the Security Council, a December 8 vote on a cease-fire resolution had near unanimous support, but the U.S. vetoed it. Although vetoes at the UN have been overcome in at least 11 cases since 1950, a U.S. veto has never been overcome. The UN can act only if it develops new procedures.
South Africa’s accusation of genocide against Israel. On December 29, 2023, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), South Africa accused Israel of genocide, “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” South Africa requested a rapid ruling on “provisional measures,” ordering Israel to halt any incitement to commit genocide, halt military operations, and other orders. The hearings were held on January 11–12. President Biden and his officials have crudely disparaged the South African case against Israel as “meritless.”
The ICJ, with its 17 judges, responded on January 26. The court issued the strongest possible order to Israel, based closely on the 1948 Genocide Convention. The court ordered an immediate end to killing, military action, and more. This was the equivalent to a “cease-fire” order but did not use those words. Further, Israel was required to provide humanitarian aid, punish incitement to commit genocide, and report on its compliance in one month. The court also expressed its concern for the release of hostages.
Origins of the Crisis
United Nations governance. The United Nations and its Security Council, created in 1945 after a horrendous war and two atomic bombs, were to lead in world governance. The UN Charter then gave veto power to five big powers—permanent members of the UNSC (U.S., China, France, Russia, UK). As the UN came to represent all world nations rather than big powers, the U.S. (and others) began to halt UN action by vetoing UNSC resolutions. Since 1970, prominent vetoes have included U.S. defense of Israeli military actions, Russia’s veto of a 2022 resolution to end war in Ukraine, and previous Russian vetoes related to ending the war in Syria.
Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was recognized as a nation in 1948, but Palestinians have been denied that status. There are now 6 million Palestinians and 7 million Israelis living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Conflicts over the last seven decades (1947–48, 1956, 1967, 1982, 2009, and 2023–24) have killed some 13,000 Israelis and 60,000 Palestinians. The current Israeli government seeks conquest—to expel all Palestinians and incorporate Palestine into Israel.
Worldwide public opinion. Historically, huge global demonstrations in response to social and humanitarian crises (e.g., Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, apartheid in South Africa in 1989, U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003) have influenced and reinforced social change. These public expressions rose from decolonization around the world (the independence of 100 new nations) and the spread of multiculturalism (from worldwide migration and cultural exchanges). As ever, worldwide public opinion will remain a factor in global decisions related to the Israel-Hamas war and the ultimate trajectory of the conflict.
What Might Happen Next?
This current slaughter will end one way or another. But who will govern the settlement?
Scenario one: The United Nations dominates. Based on the January 26 ICJ order, instructing Israel to avoid or end genocide, the UNSC and UNGA will seek Israel’s compliance and a settlement of the crisis. With a UN-led coalition of nations, the Palestinians will have the upper hand. The UN will likely press for rapid recognition of a Palestinian state, perhaps with its pre-1967 borders, as well as rights for its citizens. What would then be the role of the U.S. in the UN? Hopefully the U.S. will change policy, joining the international effort to reach a settlement and perhaps encouraging Israel to reach agreement.
Scenario two: The U.S. insists on dominating. If the U.S. continues to wield its influence as a big power—overpowering UN consensus—then Israel will have the upper hand. In fact, U.S. officials are already trying to arrange a settlement without consulting the UN. There will be no rapid formation of a viable national state of Palestine because only selected countries will be involved in U.S.-led decisions. The conflict will likely continue.
Beyond these scenarios, if the U.S. continues or increases its attacks on Yemen, Syria, and other countries and continues to support Israel’s attacks in Gaza, war could expand further in the Middle East—or even wider into a global conflict. The U.S. appears to be risking such chaos, which would also bring a disastrous change in world affairs.
The ICJ’s recent order may force Israel to halt its war but it will not lead directly to a settlement. One can imagine that the UNSC will propose a resolution to instruct Israel and the U.S. to stop the war and comply with the orders of the ICJ. If the U.S. casts a veto in this case, the General Assembly will attempt to pass an equally strong set of restrictions.
If the United Nations and its members can resolve this crisis, public and political figures in the U.S. will likely learn to pay more attention to the UN, its significance, and its structures. In Palestine and Israel, an equitable settlement will be welcomed by many—although significant future challenges will remain on the path toward peace. However, for nations large and small around the world, a stronger UN is a positive development. Added strength might bring the organization closer to its original vision: maintaining international peace and security.