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U.S. Middle East Policy

U.S. Vetoes of U.N. Resolutions on Behalf of Israel

By Donald Neff
Former Time Magazine Bureau Chief, Israel
This updated version was published in Fifty Years of Israel
Originally printed in Washington Report, September ⁄ October 1993

Donald Neff has been a journalist for forty years. He spent 16 years in service for Time Magazine and is a regular contributor to Middle East International and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He has written five excellent books on the Middle East.

On March 17, 1970, the United States cast its first veto in the United Nations Security Council during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when Henry Kissinger was the national security adviser. It was a historic moment, since up to that time Washington had been able to score heavy propaganda points because of the Soviet Union’s profligate use of its veto. The first U.S. veto in history was a gesture of support for Britain, which was under Security Council pressure to end the white minority government in southern Rhodesia.

Two years later, however, on Sept. 10, 1972, the United States employed its veto for the second time—to shield Israel.1 That veto, as it turned out, signalled the start of a cynical policy to use the U.S. veto repeatedly to shield Israel from international criticism, censure and sanctions.

Washington used its veto 32 times to shield Israel from critical draft resolutions between 1972 and 1997. This constituted nearly half of the total of 69 U.S. vetoes cast since the founding of the U.N. The Soviet Union cast 115 vetoes during the same period.2

The initial 1972 veto to protect Israel was cast by George Bush [Sr.] in his capacity as U.S. ambassador to the world body. Ironically, it was Bush as president who temporarily stopped the use of the veto to shield Israel 18 years later. The last such veto was cast on May 31, 1990, it was thought, killing a resolution approved by all 14 other council members to send a U.N. mission to study Israeli abuses of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Then President Bill Clinton came along and cast three more.

The rationale for casting the first veto to protect Israel was explained by Bush at the time as a new policy to combat terrorists. The draft resolution had condemned Israel’s heavy air attacks against Lebanon and Syria, starting Sept. 6, the day after 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in an abortive Palestinian attempt to seize them as hostages to trade for Palestinians in Israeli prisons.3 Between 200 and 500 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in the Israeli raids.4

Nonetheless, Bush complained that the resolution had failed to condemn terrorist attacks against Israel, adding: “We are implementing a new policy that is much broader than that of the question of Israel and the Jews. What is involved is the problem of terrorism, a matter that goes right to the heart of our civilized life.”5

Unfortunately, this “policy” proved to be only a rationale for protecting Israel from censure for violating a broad range of international laws. This became very clear when the next U.S. veto was cast a year later, on July 26, 1973. It had nothing to do with terrorism. The draft resolution affirmed the rights of the Palestinians and established provisions for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories as embodied in previous General Assembly resolutions.6 Nonetheless, Washington killed this international effort to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

Washington used the veto four more times in 1975-76 while Henry Kissinger was secretary of state. One of these vetoes arguably may have involved terrorism, since the draft condemned Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians in response to attacks on Israel. But the three other vetoes had nothing at all to do with terrorism.

One, in fact, struck down a draft resolution that reflected U.S. policy against Israel’s alteration of the status of Jerusalem and establishment of Jewish settlements in occupied territory. Only two days earlier, U.S. Ambassador William W. Scranton had given a speech in the United Nations calling Israeli settlements illegal and rejecting Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem.7 Yet on March 25, 1976, the U.S. vetoed a resolution reflecting Scranton’s positions which had been passed unanimously by the other 14 members of the council.8

The two other vetoes during Kissinger’s reign also were cast in 1976. One, on Jan. 26, killed a draft resolution calling for recognition of the right of self-determination for Palestinians. The other, on June 29, called for affirmation of the “inalienable rights” of the Palestinians.9

The Carter administration cast only one veto. But it had nothing to do with terrorism. It came on April 30, 1980, killing a draft that endorsed self-determination for the Palestinian people.10

The all-time abuser of the veto was the administration of Ronald Reagan, the most pro-Israel presidency in U.S. history, with the most pro-Israel secretary of state, George Shultz, since Kissinger. The Reagan team cynically invoked the veto 18 times to protect Israel. A record six of these vetoes were cast in 1982 alone. Nine of the Reagan vetoes resulted directly from Security Council attempts to condemn Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and Israel’s refusal to surrender the territory in southern Lebanon which it still occupies today. The other nine vetoes shielded Israel from council criticism for such illicit acts as the Feb. 4, 1986, skyjacking of a Libyan plane.11

Israeli warplanes forced the executive jet to land in Israel, allegedly in an effort to capture Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. He was not aboard and, after interrogation, the passengers were allowed to leave.12 The U.S. delegate explained that this act of piracy was excusable “because we believe that the ability to take such action in carefully defined and limited circumstances is an aspect of the inherent right of self-defense recognized in the U.N. Charter.”13

Other vetoes employed on Israel’s exclusive behalf included the Jan. 20, 1982 killing of a demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights it had occupied in 196714; the April 20, 1982 condemnation of an Israeli soldier who shot 11 Muslim worshippers at the Haram Al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem15; the Feb. 1, 1988 call for Israel to stop violating Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories, abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention and formalize a leading role for the United Nations in future peace negotiations16; the April 15, 1988 resolution requesting that Israel permit the return of expelled Palestinians, condemning Israel’s shooting of civilians, calling on Israel to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention and calling for a peace settlement under U.N. auspices.17

The Bush [Sr.] administration used the veto four times to protect Israel: on Feb. 17, 1989, to kill a draft strongly deploring Israel’s repression of the Palestinian uprising and calling on Israel to respect the human rights of the Palestinians18; on June 9, 1989, deploring Israel’s violation of the human rights of the Palestinians19; on Nov. 7, 1989, demanding Israel return property confiscated from Palestinians during a tax protest and calling on Israel to allow a fact-finding mission to observe Israel’s suppression tactics against the Palestinian uprising20; and, finally, on May 31, 1990, calling for a fact-finding mission on abuses against Palestinians in Israeli-occupied lands.21

The May 31, 1990 veto was the last, presumably, as the result of a secret understanding, if not an official agreement, with Russia and the three other Security Council members with veto power. By then it had become obvious that the council could not be effective in a post-Cold War world if Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States recklessly invoked their vetoes.

Moreover, the international alliances sought by Washington to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990 made it necessary for the Bush administration to retain unity in the Security Council. As a result, instead of abstaining on or vetoing resolutions critical of Israel, as it did in 1989 and the first half of 1990, the Bush administration abruptly joined other members in late 1990, 1991 and 1992 in passing six resolutions deploring or strongly condemning Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians.22

These resolutions brought the total passed by the council against Israel since its birth to 68. If the United States had not invoked its veto, the record against Israel would total 100 resolutions condemning or otherwise criticizing its behavior or supporting the rights of Palestinians.

The agreement on vetoes held until March, 1995, when President Clinton invoked the veto after all 14 other members approved a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to rescind a decision to expropriate 130 acres of land in Arab East Jerusalem.23 The Clinton administration exercised two more vetoes in 1997, both of them on resolutions otherwise unanimously supported by the 14 other Security Council members. The draft resolution was critical of Israel’s plans to establish a new settlement at Har Homa ⁄ Jabal Abu Ghneim in East Jerusalem in the midst of Palestinian housing.24

The three Clinton vetoes brought to 32 the number Washington has cast to protect Israel.

Recommended Reading:

  • Cooley, John, Green March, Black September: The Story of the Palestinian Arabs, London, Frank Cass, 1973.
  • Hart, Alan, Arafat. Terrorist or Peacemaker? London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.
  • Hirst, David, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Khouri, Fred, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3rd ed., Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985.
  • Livingstone, Neil C. and David Halevy, Inside the PLO Secret Units, Secret Funds, and the War Against Israel and the United States, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.
  • Nakhleh, Ism, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, 2 vols., NY: Intercontinental Books, 1991.
  • Neff, Donald, Warriors Against Israel: How Israel Won the Battle to Become Israel’s Ally, Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1988.
  • Won the Battle to Become America’s Ally, Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1988.
  • U.S. State Department, America’s Foreign Policy Current Documents 1986, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987.


  1. Robert Alden, New York Times, Sept. 12, 1972; and U.S. U.N. Mission, “List of Vetoes Cast in Public Meetings of the Security Council,” Aug. 4, 1986. Also Neff, Warriors Against Israel, p. 96.
  2. A complete list of the vetoes was printed in Donald Neff, “Vetoes Cast by the United States to Shield Israel from Criticism by the U.N. Security Council,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1993.
  3. Cooley, Green March, Black September, pp. 125-28; Arafat, pp. 350-53; and Livingstone and Halevy, Inside the PLO, p. 39 and pp. 104-5.
  4. Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, p. 25 1. Also see Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, pp. 450, 790 and 824.
  5. Robert Alden, New York Times, Sept. 12, 1972. The source was identified as a key member of the American delegation but internal indications in the story strongly suggest the “key member” was Ambassador Bush.
  6. New York Times, July 27, 1973.
  7. New York Times, March 25, 1976.
  8. Text of the draft resolutions is in New York Times, Jan. 27, 1976. Also see U.S. U.N. Mission, “List of Vetoes Cast in Public Meetings of the Security Council,” and Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, p. 382.
  9. U.S. U.N. Mission, “List of Vetoes Cast in Public Meetings of the Security Council,” Aug. 4, 1986.
  10. New York Times, Feb. 7, 1986.
  11. U.S. State Department, American Foreign Policy Current Documents 1986, p. 374.
  12. U.S. U.N. Mission, “List of Vetoes Cast in Public Meetings of the Security Council,” Aug. 4, 1986.
  13. New York Times, April 21,,1982.
  14. Michael J. Berlin, Washington Post, Feb. 2, 1988.
  15. New York Times, April 16, 1988.
  16. Paul Lewis, New York Times, Feb. 18, 1989.
  17. New York Times, June 10, 1989.
  18. Associated Press, #VO51 1, Nov. 7, 1989, and Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, p. 778. Nakhleh has the text of the resolution draft as well as excerpts from the discussion by several delegates and opinions by lawyers and columnist Anthony Lewis.
  19. Associated Press, #VO498, 09:50 EDT, June 1, 1990.
  20. The resolutions are #672 of Oct. 12, 1990; #673 of Oct. 24, 1990; #681 of Dec. 20, 1990; #694 of May 24, 1991; #726 of Jan. 6, 1992; and #799 of Dec. 18, 1992.
  21. The resolutions are #672 of Oct. 12, 1990; #673 of Oct. 24, 1990; #681 of Dec. 20, 1990; #694 of May 24, 1991; #726 of Jan. 6, 1992; and #799 of Dec. 18, 1992.
  22. Barbara Crossette, New York Times, 5/18/95. Text of U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s remarks is in Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1995, pp.160-62.
  23. Ian Williams, “For Second Time, General Assembly Votes to Condemn Israeli Settlements,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June ⁄ July, 1997.

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