June 24, 2005

A good year for Israel at the UN?


The election last week of Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, to the vice presidency of the General Assembly capped a year of a surprisingly large number of positive developments for Israel at the United Nations.

Though those developments pale in comparison to the litany of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Commission and a host of other UN agencies ranging from the World Health Organization to the International Labor Organization, they nevertheless represent an important benchmark for Israel's place in the UN.

"There's no doubt that there are changes and they're mainly for the better. This of course does not mean that the UN has become a subsidiary of B'nai B'rith or a member of ADL," Gillerman said. But it "is starting to at least in part treat Israel as a normal country and as an equal member of the UN."

Whether or not that momentum can be sustained and lead to real reform of the UN's treatment of Israel remains to be seen.

The stage was set 12 months ago with an unprecedented UN conference on anti-Semitism in June 2004. In his opening statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "Let us acknowledge that the United Nations' record on anti-Semitism has at times fallen short of our ideals." He also called on UN agencies and member states to "actively explore ways of combating anti-Semitism more effectively."

After a mostly quiet summer, Israel went at loggerheads with UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, last October. At around the same time a UN official disclosed that Hamas officials were on the UN's payroll, Israeli officials released video footage they said showed UNRWA employees allowing Palestinian terrorists to use an agency ambulance to transport a Qassam rocket. The video was used to bolster Israel's oft-repeated claims that UNRWA abets Palestinian terrorists.

But Israel was forced to swallow its words when closer inspection of the video-following vigorous UN denials of the charges-revealed that the item was not a rocket at all but in fact a stretcher.

Israel's sparring with the UN notwithstanding, the Jewish state won a historic victory last November when it was able to get a condemnation of anti-Semitism included in an annual resolution against religious intolerance. In years past, Arab members had successfully blocked any references to anti-Jewish bigotry amid mentions of Islamophobia and Christianophobia, forcing Israel to abstain from supporting the resolution.

The following month, a UN panel on reform recommended that terrorism, even in cases of national resistance, be deemed unacceptable. That reform, among others, will be debated when the General Assembly reconvenes this September. If the assembly adopts the secretary-general's definition of terrorism, it will eliminate the justification the Palestinians traditionally have used to validate violence against Israelis as a legitimate method of "national resistance." This is one of the most important items for Israel on the agenda of UN reform.

In January of this year, the UN General Assembly held a special session to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The monumental session, the first of its kind, was part of a week filled with Holocaust commemorations, including the official opening of an exhibit on Auschwitz at UN headquarters in New York.

"It is not too late to recommit ourselves to the purposes for which the United Nations was founded," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in his speech at the special session. "The brutal extermination of a people began not with guns or tanks, but with words systematically portraying the Jews and others as not legitimate, less than human."

In March, Annan was among several world leaders to attend the opening of the new wing of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. "It was a very symbolic development," said Annan spokesman Stephane Dujarric. "The fact that President Katsav and Prime Minister Sharon wanted the secretary-general to be the only foreign dignitary to speak at this opening I think is a telling sign of the rapprochement between the secretary-general and Israel."

That same month, Annan announced a package of reform recommendations that included expanding the UN Security Council and restructuring the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The shuffle would keep such human-rights violators as Syria and Zimbabwe from becoming members of the rights body. Israel applauded the move.

In a sign of further thaw in the Arab bloc's hostility to Israel, Qatar's UN ambassador approached Israel's UN mission in April to ask for Israel's support for Qatar's bid for temporary membership in the Security Council. Israel promised Qatar its support.

In May, the UN Foundation invited 50 or so Jewish delegates from around the world to a conference at UN headquarters and a closed-door session with the secretary-general. Several weeks later, the president of the UN General Assembly, Gabon's Jean Ping, hosted a reception in his New York home for Jewish leaders. And about two weeks ago Annan met with Jewish organizational leaders in New York, where he reiterated his wish that "Jews everywhere [will] feel that the United Nations is their home."

Acknowledging that the UN still has "some distance to travel" when it comes to its relationship with Israel and the Jews, Annan said at the UN Foundation meeting, "I hope you will leave here emboldened by the knowledge that the United Nations strives hard to be your friend and ally in the struggle for peace, human dignity and justice for all."