The current scrap between the United Nations and Israel over efforts to send a high-level fact-finding mission to the West Bank to pin down what actually happened at the Jenin Palestinian refugee camp underlines both the essential role of the United Nations and the difficult tasks it performs for its member countries.
A close look at the events in Jenin is necessary before they move into the category of myth. Only a U.N. mission will serve, because no single country or any other organization has the neutrality and credibility to do the job.
Despite continuing American reservations about the United Nations and its missions - sometimes reflected in difficulties over providing continued, reliable funding - the United Nations performs important functions for the United States.
One of these is providing a place where American officials can meet in a crisis with representatives of countries in which we do not maintain embassies. These include “axis of evil” states Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and others such as Cuba and Libya.
Missions at the United Nations in New York also provide means for other antagonistic countries to talk quietly, including in situations where embassies have been withdrawn from opposing capitals because of possible or impending war.
Arguably the most important task of the United Nations is to apply itself to problems that no one else wants to tackle - gritty, complex problems that risk becoming disasters if no one sees to them. Examples of these tasks for the United Nations have included East Timor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, and now Jenin.
The United Nations and regional military forces have led East Timor from violence in 1999 to successful presidential elections this month that will lead to independence in May. It has coordinated the effort in Kosovo, which has led from NATO bombing and warfare in 1999 to elections, relative peace, and reduced peacekeeping forces now. In Congo it has had less success - three armed movements continue to contest power there - but it knows it can't give up and labors on.
The Jenin mission is a real challenge, vintage United Nations. The Palestinians say a massacre took place. The Israelis say they were carrying out a normal terrorist hunt. Israel said it welcomed a U.N. fact-finding mission. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan put together a blue ribbon one, including the former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the former U.N. high commissioner for refugees. The Israelis said they don't trust them and don't like the mandate Mr. Annan has given them.
It's a typical U.N. bear-of-a-problem: host country kicking and screaming, saying it doesn't trust the United Nations, but an inquiry has to be carried out and who else is going to do it? That's why the United Nations and Mr. Annan received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.