June 24, 2005

A Place Among the Nations

60 years after its founding in the shadow of the Holocaust, the UN's credibility may hinge on its treatment of Israel


Sixty years ago this weekend, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 to sign the founding charter of the United Nations. Fresh from the horrors of World War II, they envisioned a collective of nations that would block the path to tyranny and war, safeguard fundamental human rights, and spread freedom and tolerance around the world.

When representatives of some of those countries return to San Francisco this weekend to mark the anniversary, the gathering will serve not so much as a celebration of the UN at 60 but as a forum for discussing how to salvage the reputation and effectiveness of a bloated bureaucracy that has been plagued by corruption, been sidelined by the world's only superpower and lost much of its credibility on human rights.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, instead of going to the event, is concentrating on preparing for the opening of the 60th UN General Assembly in New York this September, when 175 world leaders are expected to come to UN headquarters to debate broad-ranging reforms proposed for the world body.

Perhaps more so than at any other time since its founding, the UN is facing fundamental challenges to its survival. Its credibility and perhaps its future are on the line. And with talk of sweeping changes a sign of the seriousness of the UN's problems, one of the key tests of UN reform will be the extent to which these reforms end the special treatment by the world body of a single country: Israel.

"The litmus test for true UN reform is whether the egregious anti-Israel bias remains as is or not," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Jewish-sponsored non-governmental organization based in Geneva that monitors the UN.

"Everyone knows that this is one of the issues for the eroding credibility and professionalism of the UN," Neuer said. "Israel-bashing at the UN is not a small issue for the United Nations. It's a material issue. It's the elephant in the room in the whole debate on UN reform."

Others have described it as the canary in the mineshaft, a symptom of the ills of the organization as a whole.

Not everybody agrees with that assessment. The US says so many reforms are needed that they can't be boiled down to the way they affect the case of a single country. Many others point to the UN's inaction on the genocide in Sudan as the biggest symbol of its present-day failures.

One thing, however, is clear: Change must come.

The United States, which provides approximately 22 percent of the budget of the global organization, is threatening to withhold its funding if fundamental reforms are not implemented. Meanwhile, nobody has forgotten the American end run around the UN in the lead-up to the Iraq war, essentially rendering the UN's decision on the matter irrelevant and underscoring the organization's peripheral role.

The secretary-general has been criticized for poor oversight of the organization, from the involvement of UN peacekeeping forces in teenage prostitution and rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the bilking of billions of dollars from the oil-for-food program by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva is widely perceived as a sham, with such human-rights violators as Libya serving as commission chair and countries like Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe getting elected while the United States gets the boot.

Most glaring of all, the UN again is failing to stop a genocidal campaign, this time by government-sponsored Sudanese militiamen against black Africans in Sudan's Darfur region.

And then there's Israel, the UN's favorite whipping boy.

Israel is the subject of more condemnatory resolutions than any other country, it is the only UN member state that is not a permanent member of a regional group, it is alone in being ineligible for election to the UN Human Rights Commission, it is the subject of three anachronistic committees focused on Palestinian rights-and the list goes on and on.

The UN, under criticism that it is a bureaucratic behemoth, poorly managed and not reflective of today's world, has acknowledged that it is in dire need of reform. The secretary-general has proposed a wide-ranging plan for change, including expanding the UN Security Council, restructuring the Human Rights Commission and redefining terrorism as an illegitimate means toward nationalistic goals.

And along with shifting winds in the Middle East that have brought the demise of Yasser Arafat, Israel's plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and the beginnings of democratic change in the Arab world, there have been some subtle adjustments recently regarding Israel's position in the UN.

Following last year's nadir for Israel at the world body-when the UN's International Court of Justice at The Hague issued an advisory opinion calling on Israel to dismantle its West Bank security fence, a ruling later adopted by the UN General Assembly-the UN has made several positive gestures toward Israel and the Jews.

Over the last 12 months, the UN has sponsored conferences and issued resolutions on anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust in a special session of the General Assembly, hosted receptions for Jewish leaders and even saw Annan go to Jerusalem for the opening of the new wing of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

Meanwhile, the usual tide of anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly lost some of its vigor, with clauses condemning suicide bombings creeping into Arab-backed resolutions against Israel and more abstentions or 'no' votes against the 20 or so annual anti-Israel resolutions. This month, Israel's UN ambassador was elected as one of 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly-the first time an Israeli has held such a post since Abba Eban in the early 1950s.

"There's no doubt that the last year has been a year of achievements and significant changes, mainly for the better, for Israel at the UN," said Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. "But there still is a long way to go."

"What the UN has done over the last year has been mainly a change in style, in symbolism. We want to see a real change in substance," he said.

With the UN's reputation and future on the line, the question is whether this 60th year will be remembered as a watershed that will right the UN's course and put Israel in its rightful place among the nations at the UN.

The problems for Israel are twofold, and not all of them can be addressed by UN reform.

First, there is the UN's structural bias against Israel, evident in Israel's exclusion from a regional group (its membership in WEOG, the Western Europe and Others Group, is temporary and limited to UN headquarters in New York), which keep it off a whole host of UN bodies that require election through a regional group; the devotion of institutionalized special sessions singling out Israel for human-rights censure; the dearth of Israelis hired as senior advisers or assistants in the UN Secretariat; and the existence of three special UN committees that are, by definition, antagonistic toward Israel: the UN Secretariat's Division for Palestinian Rights, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinians, and the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices.

Second, there is Israel's isolation in the General Assembly, which is a function of the way member states-essentially, the nations of the world-vote on Israel.

"There are two essential problems with the UN: structural problems and substantive problems. Israel has suffered from both," said Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the UN and author of "Tower of Babble: How the United Nations has Fueled Global Chaos."

If UN reform addresses many of the institutional biases against Israel, that would represent a sea change for Israel at the UN and a remarkable departure from more than three decades of explicit UN antagonism toward Israel.

That antagonism stretches from New York to Geneva to Durban, South Africa, host of the infamous 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which turned into a UN-sponsored, NGO-funded anti-Israel extravaganza. Much of the singling out of Israel happens under the aegis of UN agencies where Israel lacks full representation because it is not a member of any UN regional grouping.

At a recent meeting in Nairobi of the UN's Western Europe and Others Group, a European representative actually kicked out the Israeli in attendance, according to UN Watch. The justification: Israel's temporary membership in WEOG does not extend beyond New York.

In Geneva, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights' Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices is but one example of the blatant anti-Israel bent of a Human Rights Commission whose members include the most cruelly authoritarian regimes on earth.

Israel is ineligible to sit on the commission in Geneva, and it is the only country for which a special, separate discussion of its human-rights violations is mandated in a stand-alone annual agenda item. During the commission's recent debate on self-determination, 16 out of 18 speeches dealt with the Palestinians, according to UN Watch, and the only resolution that passed was one affirming the Palestinians' right to a state. There were no resolutions about Tibet, the Kurds or any other national struggles.

In New York, the UN operates two committees whose primary mission is to find fault with Israel, to the exclusion of any other countries. The Secretariat's Division for Palestinian Rights, a one-of-a-kind office that employs more than a dozen people, spends millions of dollars every year on conferences, informational material and fact-finding trips that comprise little more than a propaganda campaign against Israel and in support of all things Palestinian. Similarly, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinians promotes international support for and assistance to the Palestinians-all on the UN's dime.

"Every UN body-no matter how small or how technical or how weird sounding-has been held hostage to resolutions and special bodies and special actions referring to Israel," said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. "It's happened because of a combination of the willful acts of those who want to see it demonized and delegitimized, and the complacency of other member states who want to get on to other business."

"There's no question that [Israel] has been the subject of grossly disproportionate attention and resources and resolutions, and that Israel's been singled out in ways that I'm sure the founding fathers of the UN never could have dreamed of," she said. "So if you talk about reform, it's impossible, it seems to me, to talk about overarching and fundamental reforms without taking about reform in the treatment of Israel."

While the second-class treatment of Israel at the UN could be addressed to some extent by Annan's reform proposals, which would streamline the UN's bureaucracy and possibly eliminate the committees on the Palestinians, dramatically alter the Human Rights Commission and give Israel permanent representation in a regional group, all this would do little to change the second major problem area Israel faces: the votes of the member states.

On this issue, the prospects for an end to discrimination of Israel are limited. The crux of the problem, of course, is that there is only one Israel but there are 56 Arab or Muslim countries in the world. That means that whenever a resolution hostile to Israel is proposed, it has virtual automatic support from 56 member states. Add to that members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which includes many African and Latin American states that vote with the Arabs as a matter of course, and anti-Israel resolutions have a path of near automatic passage.

"There is no natural group of countries that is able to come to Israel's rescue," Gold said. "The Arab group has historically exploited that vulnerability."

"The UN is going to stay a problematic arena for Israel simply because of the numbers game," said Tal Becker, who just finished a four-year stint as legal adviser at Israel's UN mission. "What dictates the outcome is a certain group dynamic."

The United States, along with a few Pacific island nations like Micronesia and Palau, are virtually alone in their consistent alignment with Israel.

"The US has always felt that we have to stand up and do what's right whether it's popular or whether it's not popular," said Rick Grenell, spokesman for the US mission to the UN. "We stand firm and we'll continue to fight against these frivolous resolutions. There's much to be gained when we stand up for Israel. We think that's the right thing to do."

The members of the European Union, by contrast, usually vote with the Arab bloc.

Countries tend to vote with the copious and therefore powerful Arab-Muslim bloc to ensure Arab support on other issues, or to avoid confrontations that could lead to problems with the oil-rich Arab League.

This is why one-sided Arab resolutions condemning Israel generally win European support but not support from the United States, according to Jeff Helmreich, an expert on international law and a former staffer at Israel's UN mission.

"The Europeans are in the thrall and the fear of the Arab bloc," Helmreich said. "The US has decided that they don't care about diplomacy so it hasn't mattered to them. But the Europeans value being diplomatic leaders of the world, and when they do want to pass a diplomatically inspiring resolution they have much more clout with the Arab countries."

Indeed, when the EU chooses to, it can check the power of the Arab bloc, such as when it pushed for a special session of the UN General Assembly last January to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Originally opposed by many Arab ambassadors, the EU's lobbying for the special session dissolved Arab opposition, and Arab members were even among those who made floor speeches on the day of the commemoration about the Holocaust.

The EU holds sway not only because it constitutes a bloc of votes-EU members almost always vote together on Middle East-related resolutions, according to EU spokesman Christopher Matthews-but because the Europeans are looked to as a moral authority of sorts by many UN member states.

That puts the Europeans in a unique position to challenge the way Israel is treated at the UN-or to affirm Israel's vilification by the international organization with complicit silence.

Officials at the UN mission of Luxembourg, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and officials at the UN mission of the Netherlands, which until recently held the presidency, did not return several calls seeking comment.

A high-ranking official from one Arab country said the reason UN member states consistently vote against Israel is because it is an occupying power, which automatically places it on the side of injustice in the dispute with the Palestinians.

"At the core of the problem for Israel at the UN is still a situation where one people are dominating another against their will," the official said. "There is a natural sympathetic constituency for the Palestinians."

Gillerman and Gold called that assessment baloney. "Occupation is a great excuse for anybody who does not want to realize the true reality," Gillerman said.

But the perception of occupation has dogged Israel at the UN (whether or not Israel actually is an occupier, given its transfer to the Palestinian Authority of cities in the West Bank and Gaza, is purely an academic argument). Indeed, the last major turning point for the Jewish state in the world body occurred not long after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War, when its reputation shifted from underdog to occupier just as mass decolonization, primarily in Africa, resulted in the addition of dozens of member states to the UN. Those former colonies joined the Arab bloc in voting against Israel.

"Israel is a symbol of the colonial West, and that is the key problem," Helmreich observed. "The Third World has taken the Palestinian conflict to symbolize the East/West, Third World/First World divide."

Whereas outside the UN a small number of Western countries control the lion's share of the world's military and economic clout, inside the UN General Assembly the power belongs to an alliance of the many and the weak.

"The UN is the opposite of reality," Helmreich explained. "A lot of what goes on at the UN is about evening the score between the developing world and the developed world, and that puts Israel in a very difficult spot."

The simple explanation for the surfeit of anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly is Palestinian initiative and persistence. Weak in the real world, the Palestinians use the diplomatic arena of the UN as best they can.

"If Danny Gillerman was the Palestinian representative, he'd be doing the same thing," said the Arab official. "On the accusation that the Arabs come with their torrent of resolutions, they're simply making use of what they have at their disposal."

The reason, therefore, that the UN does not reflect the reality of what's going on in the world today is because the political will does not exist to call attention to that reality. Sudan, Rwanda in 1994 and Zimbabwe today escape condemnation simply because the coalition of countries necessary to pass resolutions against them does not exist. Terrible massacres, conflicts and human-rights violations are given a pass because not enough members are interested-the same reasons, incidentally, why such circumstances do not garner the media attention given to the Middle East, where world attention is focused.

The UN, instead, has been subverted into a tool against Israel, intensifying the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors rather than moving the parties closer to a resolution, according to AJCommittee's Gaer.

"It's not only harmed Israel, it's harmed the United Nations," Gaer noted. "It's harmed the countries that have gone along with it. It has harmed the capacity to address and resolve a conflict."

Gold believes UN reform should remedy this by protecting minorities like Israel from the tyranny of the majority.

"There is nothing in all of UN reform [proposals] to protect minority rights," he said. "Nobody has put forth a model thus far to protect Israel."

Of course, Israel's principle ally, the United States, regularly uses its veto power to protect the Jewish state from anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council, where, unlike in the General Assembly, resolutions carry the force of international law. Gold says there needs to be a check to majority power in the General Assembly, particularly in cases where resolutions contravene the UN charter's mandate of promoting international peace and security. He suggested a model like that of the United States, where Congress' power is checked by the Supreme Court.

But no such reforms exist in Annan's proposals.

Given the constellation of forces operating against Israel at the UN, has Israel any hope of ending its isolation in the General Assembly and stemming the tide of resolutions against it?

"The real question is whether the difference between losing and losing horribly is significant," Helmreich said. "Can Israel move from taking a humiliating, horrible beating in the UN to losing with some grace and some dignity? The answer is it probably could."

"It's an uphill battle for Israel," acknowledged Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. "Israel's standing in the world is reflected in the General Assembly. It's a direct reflection of how Israel is viewed in the world at large."

Gaer called that assessment "absolute nonsense."

"They want to claim and give the appearance that Israel is isolated and ostracized and treif and beyond the pale," she said. "But if you look at Israeli relationships with the very same countries that are in the UN, you will often find some deep and bilateral relationships with many of those same countries. If Israel was such a pariah, that wouldn't happen."

Indeed, there are many countries with which Israel has established extensive diplomatic, trade or military ties in recent years but which nevertheless continue to cast votes against Israel in the UN. Israeli and Jewish analysts say many of them vote that way out of habit, because their foreign ministries are steeped in anti-Israel culture, because they face pressure from the Arab bloc, because they trade their votes for support on other issues, or because they seek to take the path of least resistance.

"There's no benefit to be gained by being a defender of Israel in a debate which is so dominated by a well-organized and very focused group on one side and a complacent, quiescent group on the other side," Gaer said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, "They don't get instructions on many of these issues from their home governments. So the ambassadors have a lot of latitude and usually automatically vote with the EU or the Non-Aligned Movement."

This suggests an opportunity for change.

Along with Israeli officials and key conference members like the Anti-Defamation League and the AJCommittee, US Jewish groups hold meetings with UN ambassadors, invite them to special receptions and sometimes take them to Israel in lobbying efforts to affect their votes in the General Assembly on Israel.

But the efforts pale in comparison to those exercised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on the US Congress, where consistent lobbying by a single-minded, well-funded group has helped ensure overwhelming support for Israel in Congress. Assembling a like-minded organization to lobby UN members on Israel-which could replace the Conference of Presidents' UN task force-could help.

"Many of them complain that they don't hear enough" from Israel, Hoenlein said of UN member states.

Israeli officials say the current political climate represents a unique opportunity for Israel to change its image at the UN. Arafat is dead, Israel is pulling out of Gaza and the tenure of the argumentative Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, has ended (The Palestinian mission to the UN declined to comment for this story).

More fundamentally, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Madrid bombings of 2004 and the fear of more attacks have changed the way the world looks at terrorism, giving greater currency to Israel's arguments about the need to condemn terrorism in all its forms.

Coupled with the Bush administration's focus on democratization and brighter prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians compared with anytime in the last five years, it makes it harder to push through resolutions that focus on Israeli obligations and violations without also noting Palestinian terrorism and commitments.

This, then, is exactly the time for Israel to promote an image at odds with-or at least different from-the portrait of an occupier bent on defeating the Palestinians, Israeli officials say.

That is one of the major efforts currently under way at the UN mission. Over the last three years, at least 11 Israelis have been elected to different UN forums and committees, most of which have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. They include committees on poverty, the disabled, women's rights, medicine, health and agriculture.

"We're trying very hard not to be a one-issue mission," Gillerman said. "You can bring dividends to your country in ways that are not counted in the number of hands raised at the UN. This can help change the whole perception of Israel."

But the Israelis still are outsiders at the UN. There are no Israelis servings as assistant secretaries-general in the UN Secretariat, and Israeli officials say their countrymen have not been able to penetrate the upper levels of that sanctum. In total, there are 23 Israelis among some 2,000 employees in the Secretariat.

"We could use an improvement in making sure that Israelis feel they're welcome within the Secretariat," acknowledged Dujarric. "But we do very much want everyone, including Israelis, to feel welcome."

More than anything, that will hinge on how the debate on UN reform goes this September. Then, it will turn on Israel's reputation in the community of nations.

"I don't think the reforms will be a cure; I don't think they'll solve all the problems," Gillerman observed. "At the end of the day, the UN is only as good as its member states, and the member states are the world we live in."

Sidebar: A good year for the Jews at the UN?