You Were Expecting Statehood?

The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for full U.N. membership was dead on arrival in New York. So why bother even raising the subject? The answer: to drum up international sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Yet other defeated peoples have suffered far more than they. Think only of how—and at whose expense—the U.N. itself began.

Born in the gently foggy city of San Francisco, the U.N. was conceived in the Ukrainian resort of Yalta. Though nestled amid the green Crimean hills and lapped by the Black Sea’s languid waves, the city was severely battle-scarred in February 1945; Winston Churchill dubbed it “the Riviera of Hades.” Its diabolical master was the Soviet despot Joseph Stalin, who acted as host to Churchill and the ailing American President Franklin Roosevelt.

Of the Big Three, as Sergei Plokhy shows in his riveting study Yalta: The Price of Peace, Roosevelt alone truly believed in the dream of a world parliament, and even he knew the U.N. would need to give greater weight to the great powers than its ill-starred predecessor, the League of Nations. Thus it was Roosevelt who proposed a Security Council on which the war’s victors—plus France and China—would be permanently represented and armed with veto powers.

Churchill and Stalin were realists. They saw the postwar world in terms of “spheres of influence.” Though perfectly capable of such realism in practice, Roosevelt still yearned for the idealist’s world of peace based on collective security. Yet Churchill was deeply reluctant to accept that Stalin’s postwar sphere of influence would include Poland. His predecessor had acquiesced in the destruction of Czechoslovakia at Munich but had gone to war when Hitler (and Stalin) carved up Poland between them. Was Yalta to be the Poles’ Munich?

“We can’t agree,” grumbled Churchill, “that Poland shall be a mere puppet state of Russia, where the people who don’t agree with Stalin are bumped off.” But that was exactly what postwar Poland became.

A staggering 19 percent of the prewar population of Poland had been killed as a result of World War II, including a huge proportion of the country’s large Jewish population. Yalta inflicted further punishment. The country not only shrank; it was also shifted westward so that Stalin could keep his gains from the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. And it became a Soviet vassal state for the next half century. After Yalta, chess players devised a variant of their game for three players, using a six-sided board. As at the conference, in the game “Yalta” two players can join forces against the third, but all such alliances are temporary. Briefly, Churchill got Roosevelt on his side over Poland, but the American cared more about getting Stalin to agree to join the U.N.; Poland was a pawn to be sacrificed.

Having got what he wanted, Roosevelt left Yalta early. His destination? The Middle East, which he was intent on adding to … the American sphere of influence. The conflicting commitments he made on that trip—to the Arabs and the Jews—have bedeviled U.S. foreign policy ever since. Asked by Roosevelt if he was a Zionist, Stalin replied elliptically that he “was one in principle, but he recognized the difficulty.”

That “difficulty” remains that a Jewish state could be created only at the expense of non-Jews living in Palestine. The Arabs resisted Israel’s creation, but they lost. So it goes. A trip to Yalta provides a salutary reminder that throughout history those who lose at war generally lose land, too, and sometimes sovereignty with it. By comparison with what the Poles endured last century, the Palestinians have got off lightly.

They will get their own state eventually. But not until all the permanent members of the Security Council are convinced the Palestinians will not abuse the privileges of statehood.

Like it or not, that was how the U.N. was meant to work when the Big Three conceived it on Hell’s Riviera.

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