America’s ceasefire veto ignores expertise on how to end wars

Washington should be leading efforts to restrain Israel, not undermining them

US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield casts her veto vote at the UN Security Council in New York. EPA
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As the number of Palestinians killed in Israel’s ongoing war in the Gaza Strip approaches 30,000, proponents of an immediate ceasefire and an earnest commitment to peace find themselves heartbroken and exasperated in equal measure. That much was clear in the testimony of the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh, before judges of the International Court of Justice on Wednesday.

“The level of human suffering faced by civilians in Gaza – primarily women and children – is on a scale seldom seen in the modern era,” Ms Nusseibeh said.

The ICJ is halfway through a six-day hearing on the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of Palestinian territory. The court is expected eventually to issue an advisory opinion, which will be non-binding, but nonetheless influential in shaping the discourse around Palestine and Israel and could affect future efforts to bring about a sovereign Palestinian state.

The UAE is one of more than 50 countries – an unprecedented number – providing statements to the court this week. The hearing itself is unrelated to the current war in Gaza, having arisen from a request from the UN General Assembly in 2022, but the timing renders Israel’s actions in the Strip relevant; critics say Israel’s campaign in Gaza is part of a pattern of long-standing disregard for Palestinian life and dignity. An ICJ opinion confirming the occupation’s illegality would increase the pressure on the international community to push Israel into compliance with international law and to take long-term peace seriously.

At the moment, that effort is agonisingly slow and muddled. In her forceful comments before the court, Ms Nusseibeh referenced Tuesday’s session of the UN Security Council, which saw the US veto, for the third time since the Gaza war broke out in October, a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Washington introduced its own alternative draft resolution calling for a “temporary” ceasefire “as soon as practicable”.

For months, the US has backed Israel’s invasion of Gaza unconditionally. In recent days, the mood has shifted, but only slightly. Washington has voiced – in mumbles rather than shouts – growing concern for Gaza’s civilians, and its draft resolution warns Israel not to expand its campaign to the southern city of Rafah, where most displaced Gazans are sheltering.

But all its previous warnings to Israel to minimise Palestinian civilian casualties have gone unheeded, and an invasion of Rafah still looms. Israel’s intransigence may be what has finally pushed the word “ceasefire” into America’s lexicon, albeit in a manner entirely beholden to Israel’s preferred timeline. Nonetheless, without stronger language the US-backed resolution is unlikely to pass a vote.

America’s case against an immediate ceasefire is that it might interfere with talks to release Israeli hostages from Gaza, and even drive Israel away from the negotiating table. But hostage talks have been ongoing for months, with little progress. The reasons a ceasefire would interfere with hostages’ release, moreover, are mysterious; the fighting has killed too many hostages already, and the only ones released thus far were let go during a cessation of hostilities. And the negotiating table America fears Israel might be driven away from remains, at this point, largely theoretical.

Conversely, there is plenty of evidence in academic literature on war termination to suggest that ceasefires are always worth trying. Ironically, much of the leading scholarship comes from the US. The consensus is that even if individual ceasefires fail – and they often do – they make a lasting peace agreement later on much more likely. And history shows they are most effective when they are backed and enforced strongly, fairly and consistently by a powerful mediator.

In the case of Gaza, due to its strong ties to Israel, that is America. If only it could rise to the occasion.

Published: February 22, 2024, 3:00 AM