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The preoccupation of the United Nations with Israel: Evidence and theory


We compiled data on all United Nations General Assembly resolutions on which voting took place between January 1990 and June 2013 and find a preoccupation with one country: in 65 % of instances in which a country is criticized in a resolution, the country is Israel, with no other country criticized in more than 10 % of resolutions. We use comparative quantitative criteria to confirm that Israel is subject to discrimination. To explain the motives for discrimination, we present a model of behavioral political economy that includes decoy voting, vanity of autocrats, and a Schelling focal point for deflection of criticism. The model includes a role for traditional prejudice. Our conclusions more generally concern political culture in the United Nations.

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  1. The sessions of the United Nations General Assembly begin annually in September. Votes up to June 2013 were thus during the 67th session that began in September 2012. Many resolutions pass by acclamation (Hug 2012). Such resolutions often set out visions for a better future, as for example described in “We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century” (Annan 2000) and “Building a Better Future for All” (Ban 2013). Included in this category are resolutions such as those setting out the Millennium Development Goals, which announced targets for improvements in development indicators in low-income countries (United Nations General Assembly 2000; United Nations Millennium Project 2005). Resolutions on which no vote was taken also relate to procedural matters such as financial and budgetary aspects of the United Nations, rules of procedure concerning languages, and appointment of temporary staff.

  2. The numbers in Table 1 add to more than the total number of resolutions because some resolutions relate to more than one country.

  3. The number of 422 resolutions in Table 1 in which Israel is criticized is based on a narrow criterion of criticism. The number of resolutions that can be counted as criticizing Israel increases substantially when broader criteria of criticism are applied. The following is a list of ten categories of resolutions that do not explicitly name but implicitly criticize Israel: Financing for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (6 resolutions); Rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination (10 resolutions); Inalienable rights of the Palestinian people (43 resolutions); Support for peace process (4 resolutions); Palestinian refugees (13 resolutions); Dissemination of information about Palestine (1 resolution); Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people (20 resolutions); Recognition of Palestine (1 resolution). Adding these ten categories increases the number of resolutions criticizing Israel by 98. If mentioning of “Palestine” is regarded as criticizing Israel, the number of resolutions criticizing Israel increases by 115. The number of resolutions involving criticism of Israel increases by 13 when we consider as criticism being a non-ratifying state in Annex 2 of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (see, accessed 17 September 2014). Inclusion as a non-ratifying Annex 2 country together with mentioning of Palestine results in an addition of 128 resolutions in which Israel is criticized. We include in our categorization “Nuclear Weapon States,” which is a source of criticism for China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States.

  4. Discrimination against the state of Israel has been described as the “new antisemitism.” See, for example, Forster and Epstein (1974) and Judaken (2008).

  5. Expressive utility resolves the “paradox of voting” that, for non-decisive voters, the time and other costs of voting exceed the material benefits (see Brennan and Hamlin 2000; Engelen 2006; Hillman 2010; Hamlin and Jennings 2011, and Brennan and Brooks 2013). The identity-based theory of expressive behavior (Hillman 2010) proposes that, through the low-cost activities of voting and rhetoric, individuals express an identity to themselves or to others. See also Glazer (2008) on “voting to anger and to please others.” For other perspectives on identity, see Akerlof and Kranton (2010).

  6. Tullock (1971), for example, described individuals who vote contrary to their true identity of being uncharitable in expressively supporting income redistribution with the knowledge that their single vote will not be decisive.

  7. Voting blocs in the United Nations are long-established. See Hovet (1960), Iida (1988), and Kim and Russett (1996). On bloc-voting in the United Nations Human Rights Council, see Hug and Lukács (2014).

  8. See also Herne (1997) for another perspective on decoy voting.

  9. The appendix (available on-line) shows voting by countries on representative resolutions of the category of resolutions in which there are large supermajorities in votes against Israel.

  10. On “weak democracies,” see Carothers (2002), who refers to a “Gray Zone” from which few true functioning democracies emerged.

  11. On democracy and Arab or Muslim countries, see for example Fish (2002); Borooah and Paldam (2007), and Potrafke (2012, 2013).

  12. All Arab and Muslim member countries opposed the UN General Assembly resolution of November 29 1947 that gave formal recognition to a recreated state of Israel (13 governments voted against: Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen; there were 10 abstentions: Argentina, Chile, China (Taiwan), Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia; all other UN member states of the time voted in favor: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian S.S.R., Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Ukrainian S.S.R., Union of South Africa, U.S.A., U.S.S.R., Uruguay, Venezuela). The UN plan called for partition between a Jewish and Arab state. The government of Israel accepted the UN partition plan, Palestinians and surrounding Arab states did not. Arab forces invaded and lost an ensuing war (with the exception of Transjordan, the army of which had British officers). Until the “six-day-war” of 1967, Jordan (renamed from Transjordan) occupied the “west bank” (of the Jordan River). Before and after 1967, Arab and Muslim states have voted in the United Nations against Israel.

  13. At the end of our data period, there were 192 member countries of the United Nations besides Israel, of which 160 (83 %) had diplomatic relations with Israel. Development assistance by Israel to low-income countries is provided through MASHAV, the aid agency of the government of Israel. See (accessed 26 June 2014).

  14. (accessed 25 April 2014).

  15. (accessed 25 April 2014).

  16. Autocracy is in general inconsistent with benevolent government (Easterly 2011) and with political compromise (Dixit et al. 2000). Threats to security of autocratic rulers and governments arise when the ruling elites – often clan or tribe-based – face internal opposition. See Alesina et al. (2003) on domestic divisions or “fractionalization.” Horowitz (1985) describes the impediments to democracy in clan or tribal-based societies. In describing procurement bribery and rent extraction, Gupta et al. (2001) provide evidence on military spending by autocratic governments that confront no external threat.

  17. Jeane Kirkpatrick (1983), former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

  18. In exposition, we do not now distinguish between autocracy and “weak democracy”. The objectives with regard to regime security and criticism are the same whether or not institutions are formally democratic.

  19. Gupta et al. (2004) provide evidence on the economic costs of internal conflict through the government budget and economic growth.

  20. See Hillman (2010) for the utility function. Additivity is assumed in (1). We do not state evident concavity and convexity assumptions.

  21. The identity of a government that votes to censure – or not – also usually matters. A generalization assigns weights to utility or disutility according to the country voting for or against.

  22. Participation in logrolling requires that the expressive disutility when criticized by the other (n-1) governments in the logrolling coalition be greater than the expressive utility from voting to criticize the (n-1) governments.

  23. The personal benefits include invitations to social events such as countries’ independence-day and national-day celebrations.

  24. For example, in February 2011, the French foreign minister resigned from office amid revelations that she had offered French anti-riot police to the autocratic ruler of Tunisia to repress demonstrators seeking democracy. She had spent her year-end vacation in Tunisia, traveling in a private plane belonging to a businessman with links to the Tunisian ruler. Some short time before demonstrations ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the French Prime Minister had flown to Egypt in a private plane together with his family as a guest of the ruler of Egypt for an end-of-year vacation. See (accessed 2 May 2014).

  25. Jeane Kirkpatrick

  26. We use the number of all deaths caused by hostilities in which an individual government is involved as a primary warring party.

  27. See Cingranelli and Richards (2010). We accessed the data online on 15 January 2014.

  28. On famine in North Korea in which it is estimated that between 600,000 and 2.5 million people starved to death, see Demick (2009). The ruler of North Korea decreed markets in food illegal. Resort to the market would show lack of faith in the ability of the ruler to fulfil the responsibility of feeding the people.

  29. “The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.”

  30. The Appendix to this paper, available online, shows how individual countries voted on the resolutions in Tables 810 in a representative year 2009. There is little variation in how countries voted on the resolutions over time.

  31. A comparison can be made with Morocco and Mauritania, which occupy without international recognition the territory previously known as the Western Sahara and have been in conflict during our data period with the Polisario Front composed of indigenous inhabitants of the region. Neither Morocco nor Mauritania appears in Table 1. In various other regions in the world, borders are unresolved and territory is contested without ongoing criticism in UN resolutions of countries involved. In the case of Israel, the issue of “occupied territories” is controversial. Under international law, “occupied” territory is land of a country occupied by the armed forces of another country. The annexation of the “west bank” by Jordan in 1950 was recognized de jure only by Britain and Pakistan. In 1967 control of the “west bank” passed to Israel and in 1988 the Kingdom of Jordan renounced claim to the “west bank.” UN resolutions take the position that the “west bank” is occupied territory although there has been no recognized country whose land is occupied. Although Egypt, which controlled Gaza up until 1967, never annexed Gaza, the claim of occupation is made in UN resolutions with respect to Gaza.

  32. For example, it is estimated that some 14 million refugees were created in the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Large numbers of refugees were created in Europe in 1945 when Germans had to leave Sudetenland and former eastern territories. Jewish refugees were created when Jews had to leave Arab countries.

  33. Reports of NGO bias are compiled and available at For criticism of the principal human-rights NGO, Human Rights Watch, which is a major source of data for UN reports, by its founder for bias against Israel, see (accessed 23 July 2014)

    After publicity and complaints, Human Rights Watch was obliged to dismiss a staff member with a Nazi fetish involved in compiling data on Israel. See: (accessed 23 July 2014), (accessed 23 July 2014), and (accessed 23 July 2014).

  34. See for example the Goldstone Report (United Nations Human Rights United Nations Human Rights Council 2009), which accused the government of Israel of wantonly firing on civilians. The accusations were, in this case, retracted by the principal author of the Report, although not by the United Nations. See (accessed 23 July 2014).

    On the UN Goldstone resolutions and the Goldstone retraction, see Hillman and Potrafke (2014).

  35. The U.S. State Department Human-Rights Report (2010) for 2009 is representative. Under Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life, the report states: “The government (of Israel) or its agents did not commit politically motivated killings;” for Disappearance: “There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances during the year.” Under Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Report notes that: “A 1999 High Court of Justice ruling held that, although torture and the application of physical or psychological pain are illegal, ISA (Security Service) interrogators may be exempt from criminal prosecution if they use such methods in extraordinary “ticking bomb” cases.” Under Denial of Fair Public Trial, the Report states that: “The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government respected this provision in practice. The judiciary has ruled against the executive, including in security cases.” See (accessed 23 July 2014).

  36. Speech to the UN Security Council, December 12 2006, selected phrases. See (accessed July 23 2014).

  37. Ibid.

  38. It is noteworthy, given the suggestions of intimidation, that Kofi Annan made his remarks at the end of his term as secretary-general of the United Nations. The evidence that the discrimination against Israel is known extends from the secretary general to lower echelons of the United Nations. See:

    This link also offers the opportunity to witness a real-time vote taken on a resolution against Israel.

  39. The literature on antisemitism in Europe includes Wistrich (1991) and Carmichael (1992). For an overview from a behavioral perspective, see Hillman (2013). Voigtlander and Voth (2012) report evidence of remarkable historical regional persistence in Europe of antisemitism. Gerstenfeld (2013) reports survey evidence that some 60 % of the population of Europe harbored “extreme anti-Israeli and/or anti-Jewish attitudes.” For religiously conservative elites and populations in European countries, the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 contradicted the doctrine of supersession. The reborn Jewish state has also been contrary to the ideology of socialism; following on from Karl Marx’s condemnation of the Jews (Marx 1844) as the harbingers of capitalism (with Marx himself having been descended from Jews), socialist parties in Europe have often adopted prejudicial views of the Jewish state. In Latin America, the origins of antisemitism began with European settlement through transfer from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (Kohut 1895).

  40. For studies of vote buying in the General Assembly, see Wittkopf (1973), Dreher et al. (2008), and Dreher and Sturm (2012). General Assembly voting with regard to human rights has been studied by Boockmann and Dreher (2011). Voeten found that countries could be distinguished according to whether they voted consistently with or against the United States. Dreher and Jensen (2013) concluded that changes in leadership of UN members’ governments tend to be associated with a change to voting with the United States. Among OECD countries, left-wing governments have been less likely to vote in the General Assembly in line with the United States (Potrafke 2009). The Security Council has also been studied. On vote buying in the Security Council, see Kuziemko and Werker (2006) and Dreher et al. (2009).

  41. In more detail, the accusations were, by the representative of Iran, of “violations of human rights by the Canadian government, particularly with regard to child sexual exploitation and trafficking, the right to food, discriminatory law and regulation against indigenous people and minority groups including Muslim and African communities.” The representative of Cuba accused Canada of “racism and xenophobia.” The criticisms of Canada by the representative of North Korea were: “We have serious concerns about continued violation of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, torture and other ill-treatment, racism and xenophobia.” The representative of China stated: “We are concerned by the wide-spread racial discrimination in Canada.” The representative of Egypt stated: “We are alarmed by several instances of racial profiling in law-enforcement action and racial discrimination in employment.” The representative of Pakistan stated: “The increased poverty and unemployment rate among immigrant communities is a manifestation of racial discrimination.” The accusations against Canada by the representative of Russia claimed human-rights violations in demonstrations: “Human rights defenders are alarmed by police actions of torture and cruelty against peaceful demonstrators.” Source: the debate on the UN quadrennial review of Canada’s human rights record (April 26, 2013). See (accessed 21 June 2013).


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We thank Carl Maier and Jakob Müller for their dedication in assisting in compiling data from the many UN resolutions. For comments, we thank Michael Beenstock, Paula Castro, Dror Goldberg, Francesco Forte, Arthur Fishman, Raphael Franck, Carsten Hefeker, Simon Hug, Jean-Dominique Lafay, Pierre Kopp, Ngo Van Long, Mickaël Melki, Yew-Kwang Ng, David Schmeidler, George Tridimas, Heinrich Ursprung, and Avi Weiss. We have also benefitted from the advice of anonymous referees and the editor. Earlier results from this research project were presented in Israel at Bar-Ilan University, the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, and Ben-Gurion University; in Europe, at the 2011 conference on The Political Economy of International Organizations in Zurich, the 2011 Meetings of the European Public Choice Society in Rennes, the 2011 Meetings of the European Association of Law and Economics in Hamburg, and in seminars at the University of Tübingen, the University of Rome La Sapienza, and the University of Paris I (Sorbonne-Panthéon); in the U.S. at the 2011 Meetings of the Public Choice Society in San Antonio and in seminars at the University of Miami, the University of Florida, and the University of West Virginia; and in Australia at the 2012 conference of the Australasian Public Choice Society in Hobart and in seminars at the University of Wollongong and Monash University. We thank participants for their views and observations.

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Becker, R.N., Hillman, A.L., Potrafke, N. et al. The preoccupation of the United Nations with Israel: Evidence and theory. Rev Int Organ 10, 413–437 (2015).

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  • United Nations General Assembly voting
  • Expressive voting
  • Decoy voting
  • Focal point
  • Logrolling
  • Discrimination
  • Prejudice
  • Political culture

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  • F53
  • D72
  • D78