U.S. veto keeps U.N. peacekeepers out of territories

NEW YORK — With the help of a U.S. veto, Israel this week fended off Palestinian attempts to convince the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and "internationalize" the Middle East conflict.

Together with their Arab and Third World partners, the Palestinians had hoped the U.N. Security Council would express support for such a force — at least in principle — and send a strong message during the Arab League summit in Jordan.

After five days of Security Council debate on the issue, the Palestinians had secured the necessary nine votes — including Russia, which had abstained from a similar Palestinian effort in December — to pass the measure on the 15-member council.

But the United States vetoed the resolution late Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council said Wednesday that the resolution insufficiently addressed the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians needed protection, and that the resolution was unclear about the necessity for Palestinian leaders to take steps to end the violence.

The veto was the United States' first since 1997, when it vetoed a resolution that called on Israel to stop building in disputed areas of Jerusalem.

The five Security Council members with veto power — Russia, China, France and Britain, in addition to the United States — are reluctant to use it for fear of angering smaller nations.

The issue is unlikely to go away, however.

Some U.N. members are increasingly frustrated both with their perceived fecklessness in the face of continuing Mideast violence and the United States' ability to undermine U.N. efforts to get more involved in the conflict.

These countries hint of more drastic measures such as bypassing the Security Council in favor of the General Assembly, where the vast Arab and Muslim bloc holds sway among the 189 members.

Unlike Security Council resolutions, however, those passed in the General Assembly are not legally binding.

The United States maintains that an international force — ostensibly intended to protect Palestinian civilians — must have the consent of both Israel and the Palestinians. In practice, no country would agree to provide soldiers or other personnel for a mission likely to be greeted with hostility.

Israel opposes the force as unnecessary, and says it is likely to be ineffective.

Meanwhile, this week's Arab summit in Amman included surprisingly harsh criticism of Israel from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who in the past has been praised by Israeli leaders for his moderation.

"The international community and the Arab world have every right to criticize Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and for its excessively harsh response to the intifada,"Annan said.

Colombia's U.N. ambassador, Alfonso ValdiviesoValdivieso, who served as ambassador to Israel in 1992, said an international mission would act as a catalyzing force, whose presence would bring a halt to the violence, paving the way for a resumption of peace talks.

But Israeli officials say the effect would be just the opposite.

"It would just be a prize for Palestinian cynicism," one Israeli diplomat said. "They started the violence, then they ask for protection from violence."