Uriel Heilman - Israel at the UN
Israel's uphill battle at the UN

Israel's uphill battle at the UN

When the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva voted in January 2009 to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel's "grave violations of human rights" against the Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Israel and its supporters at the United Nations were faced with a dilemma.

Should they cooperate with the fact-finding mission in a bid to engender the least damaging report possible for Israel, or boycott the mission as inherently biased and campaign to discredit it?

In the minds of many, the choice was simple.

In its brief three-year history, the U.N. Human Rights Council had assembled an abysmal record on Israel - even worse than its discredited predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission. More than 80 percent of the Council's resolutions had focused on Israel. The Council had voted in its first-ever session to make a review of Israeli human rights abuses a permanent feature of every session. Things had gotten so lopsided just six months after its opening session that then-U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, criticized the Council for establishing a record of "disproportionate" focus on Israeli violations while ignoring human rights abuses in other parts of the world.

When it came to the fact-finding mission on the Gaza war, the mandate of the inquiry was itself biased, critics noted. It called for probing "all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law" committed by Israel against the Palestinians, but it made no mention of Palestinian attacks against Israel. And with its declaration that Israel had caused "massive violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people and systematic destruction of Palestinian infrastructure," the Council mandate effectively prejudged Israel as guilty.

Though the inquiry eventually expanded to include a review of Hamas' actions during the war - the man appointed to lead the commission, former South African judge Richard Goldstone, a Jew, insisted upon it -- Israel opted not to cooperate.

In Israel's absence, the task of making the case for Israel fell to non-governmental organizations like B'nai B'rith, the first Jewish group accredited by the United Nations more than six decades ago.

"We engaged to try to present Israel's perspective," said David Michaels, director of U.N. and intercommunal affairs for B'nai B'rith. "The Goldstone mission," he said, is an example of an occasion on which "B'nai B'rith as an independent NGO can stand up for Israel and our principles at a time when an official government delegation understandably feels unable to do so."

B'nai B'rith submitted written documentation to the U.N. fact-finding mission, provided oral testimony by telephone from Sderot, the Israeli city that has been battered by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza for more than eight years, and offered to facilitate testimony to the U.N. commission by a 15-year-old Israeli who had lost her father in Sderot to a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza.

When Goldstone finally issued his 574-page report in September, the South African jurist said he found evidence of Israeli war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. The report faulted Israel for having created an "emergency situation" in Gaza, slammed the Israel Defense Forces for excessive use of white phosphorous, a chemical irritant used as an obscurant during the war, and chronicled several cases of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians without provocation. Goldstone demanded that Israel commence an internal investigation into the report's allegations, and that the U.N. Security Council turn the matter over to the International Criminal Court if Israel did not initiate its own probes.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups immediately launched a public relations blitz against the report. They said Goldstone ignored Israeli efforts to minimize civilian casualties and completely failed to account for the actions that precipitated the war: eight years of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

Israeli President Shimon Peres called the report a "mockery of history" because it did not "distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self-defense."

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B'nai B'rith, called it a case of "There you go again."

The speaker of Israel's Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, said, "The same U.N. that allows the president of a country to announce on a podium its aspiration to destroy the State of Israel" - a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- "has no right to teach us about morality."

Writ small, the controversy surrounding the Goldstone report mirrored the criticism Israel supporters long have leveled against the United Nations generally: that it's biased against the Jewish state.

At the world body, critics charge, Israel is constantly singled out for opprobrium, used to distract nations around the world from more pressing international concerns, such as Iran's march toward nuclear weapons, genocidal violence in Darfur, human rights violations in places like Myanmar and Zimbabwe, and global challenges like disease, climate change and terrorism.

Israel is the subject of more condemnatory resolutions than any other country in the United Nations - by far. It is the only U.N. member state that is not a permanent member of a regional group. It is the predominant preoccupation of the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. And it is the subject of three anachronistic committees that are, by definition, antagonistic toward Israel: the U.N. 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.

After the Goldstone commission report was issued, some Israel backers compared it to the darkest days at the United Nations - when the infamous U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism was passed in 1975.

"The whole atmosphere, especially in the venomous speeches we hear at the General Assembly, brings us back to very dark days," Gabriela Shalev, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, told B'nai B'rith Magazine in September, during the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

Does the U.N. Matter?

Nearly 65 years ago, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco 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.

More than six decades later, the United Nations is criticized as a bloated bureaucracy plagued by corruption, largely ineffective at resolving international conflicts and lacking credibility when it comes to issues like human rights. In perhaps its greatest failures to date, the United Nations failed to take action to stop the genocidal violence in Sudan, Rwanda and Bosnia.

But the change in administration in Washington has given a much-needed boost to the world body.

The United States is paying all the dues it owes the organization, which amount to approximately 22 percent of the U.N. budget. The position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, held by Susan E. Rice, has been elevated to a Cabinet-level position by the Obama White House. And the United States has joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in an effort, administration officials said, to reform it through engagement.

"It's part of a broader world view which says that active engagement can produce results," Mariaschin said. "We've not seen it put to a test yet in the United Nations. We're going to know more in the coming months."

U.S. officials acknowledge that the jury is still out on whether the United Nations can be an effective world body.

In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, President Barack Obama said the United Nations can be "a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority."

To a large extent, which path it chooses will hinge on whether its fixation with Israel changes.

"The litmus test for true U.N. reform is whether the egregious anti-Israel bias remains as is or not," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the United Nations. "Everyone knows that this is one of the issues for the eroding credibility and professionalism of the U.N."

Some say U.N. bias against Israel is merely a function of the way member states -- essentially, the nations of the world - feel about Israel. For good or ill, this view holds, the United Nations is a reflection of the world.

A high-ranking official from one Arab country said the reason U.N. member states consistently vote against Israel is because it the aggressor and an occupying power. Change this - end the occupation - and Israel will be treated more fairly, the official suggested.

"At the core of the problem for Israel at the U.N. is still a situation where one people are dominating another against their will," the official said.

Others call that assessment nonsense. They note that the world has changed greatly in the last decade or two. Israel has signed a peace treaty with Jordan and multiple interim treaties with the Palestinian Authority, with whom Israel has been negotiating on and off since 1993. Israel has pulled out of Gaza and southern Lebanon. And the old Arab-Israeli fault line in the Middle East has given way to a new alignment that pits moderate Muslim states together with Israel against extremist regimes, including the one in Tehran.

The United Nations, however, has remained an anachronism.

"The mentality remains as it was, in a time warp from 40 years ago," Mariaschin said.

He and others say the structure of the United Nations is to blame; in particular, bloc voting. In the General Assembly, where the rule is one nation one vote, Arab and Muslim states have 56 votes versus Israel's one. Members of the Non-Aligned Movement -- which includes African and Latin American states -- vote with the Arabs as a matter of course. Usually, so does the European Union, which also votes as a bloc. This means that Israel gets the short end of the stick practically every time.

"Whatever we do at the General Assembly, we have this automatic bloc against us," Shalev said of Israel's efforts at the United Nations.

Fortunately for Israel, resolutions in the General Assembly do not carry the force of international law. That power is reserved for the U.N. Security Council, where the United States usually exercises its veto option when it comes to resolutions that are deemed unreasonably tilted against Israel. This is the so-called Negroponte doctrine - a practice established by a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte. The United States is one of five permanent, veto-wielding countries on the Security Council; there are also 10 rotating members who do not have veto power.

That doesn't mean that what happens in the General Assembly is irrelevant. On the contrary: Even though it cannot make international law, the General Assembly remains a powerful opinion-making force, shaping the way the world sees and thinks about Israel - and, perhaps, reflecting it.

In that sense, it is a political body, and an important one.

"The United Nations is an imperfect institution, but it is indispensable," Shalev said.

If that's the case, can Israel and its supporters do anything about anti-Israel bias at the United Nations?

Problems of Structure and Substance

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

First, there is the U.N.'s structural bias against Israel. Israel is excluded from a U.N. regional group (its membership in WEOG, the Western Europe and Others Group, is temporary and limited to U.N. headquarters in New York), which keeps it off a whole host of U.N. bodies that require election through a regional group. The United Nations has institutionalized special sessions devoted to singling out Israel for human-rights censure. There are three special U.N. committees hostile to Israel. The Secretariat's Division for Palestinian Rights is a one-of-a-kind office that employs more than a dozen people and 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.

For the moment, there's no real momentum for change when it comes to these structural problems, and even if some of them were resolved it would do little to alter the problem Israel faces in the votes of the member states. The bloc against Israel is virtually impenetrable. Countries vote with the copious and therefore powerful Arab-Muslim bloc against Israel in order to ensure Arab support for their own issues, or to avoid confrontations that could lead to problems with the oil-rich Arab League.

"There still is out there a general fear -- an intimidation of the international community -- by the Palestinians and some of their friends in the Arab world, and by others," Mariaschin said. "I believe that Israel does have many more friends than meets the eye, but that once you're in this system where the mob rules -- basically, where consensus rules -- it's just the expedient way to vote against Israel."

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

If Israel actually has many more friends and allies than those who vote with it in the General Assembly, then the assembly is not so much a reflection of the world but a distortion of it.

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

"The U.N. is the opposite of reality," observed Jeff Helmreich, an expert on international law and a former staffer at Israel's U.N. mission. "A lot of what goes on at the U.N. 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 United Nations as best they can.

The reason, therefore, that the United Nations 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, Myanmar and North Korea usually escape condemnation simply because not enough members are interested in forcing a confrontation with powerful blocs over terrible massacres, conflicts and human-rights violations.

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 United Nations - even in the Security Council. 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," said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights.

As a consequence, U.N. bodies have 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, many say.

"Every U.N. 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," Gaer said. "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."

Sometimes, representatives from countries not directly involved in Middle East war-making or peace-making express astonishment or annoyance with the degree to which non-Israel-related discussions can devolve into Israel-bashing sessions that distract from the set agenda. It's hard to get anything done, they say.

When the story of the follow-up conference in Geneva last April to the U.N. World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance became a battleground between anti-Israel forces and Israel supporters, "Many African countries felt that a potentially remarkable U.N. framework dedicated to fighting discrimination and bigotry was being derailed by those with a political axe to grind," B'nai B'rith's Michaels said.

An Era of Change?

Despite numerous setbacks, Israel has made some noteworthy gains at the United Nations in recent years. Israel's previous U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, was elected during his tenure as one of the 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly - the first time an Israeli had held the post since the 1950s, when Abba Eban occupied one such position.

Over the last few years, more than a dozen Israelis have been elected to different U.N. 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.

In the last five or six years, the usual tide of anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly has lost some of its vigor. Clauses condemning suicide bombings have crept into Arab-backed resolutions against Israel. Israel has seen more abstentions or 'no' votes against the 20 or so annual anti-Israel resolutions passed at the General Assembly. The assembly even passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

Officials at Israel's U.N. mission and Jewish organizations that work with the United Nations say these gains are the fruit of patient, mostly nonpolitical, behind-the-scenes lobbying. Israeli and Jewish officials are constantly meeting with delegates from U.N. missions and countries around the world to cultivate relationships, press for Jewish interests at the United Nations and build coalitions wherever possible.

Every September, when leaders from around the world converge on Turtle Bay for the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, Jewish groups use the opportunity to meet with delegations from dozens of countries around the world, including many heads of state.

"We've met with dozens of prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers and other government officials," Michaels said in September of B'nai B'rith's delegation at the United Nations. "Each one of these meetings is characterized by a different tone. Occasionally these discussions can be candid, occasionally they can be difficult.

"One goal we as an organization need to do is to expand the circle of countries that we've engaged with," he said. "We think there's a great deal of potential for building bridges."

At formal meetings, cocktail receptions and even on sponsored trips to Israel, Jewish groups press U.N. diplomats on the issues the organizations consider important for the Jewish people.

It's important for the sake of credibility that Jewish groups not become single-issue advocacy organizations, said Aaron Etra, an attorney who is the vice chairman of B'nai B'rith's Council on U.N. Affairs.

"I try to interact with the mission people and the Secretariat and other NGOs to show the full range of B'nai B'rith's concerns; we're not just concerned about Israel," Etra said.

"The minute we're only the party line no matter what, that credibility will not be high," he said. "I think the best hope for B'nai B'rith and any other thoughtful organization is to present itself as a thoughtful, independent, group -- to avoid the risk of being looked upon as an extension of Israel's information mechanism."

Jewish groups are perhaps most successful when they are able to get U.N. member states to break out of their habitual anti-Israel stands.

Five years ago, the European Union was instrumental in pushing for a special session of the General Assembly 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 of the Holocaust, in January 2005.

Likewise, the adoption two years ago of the first-ever Israeli-introduced resolution in the General Assembly - on agricultural technology for development - marked a symbolic gain for Israel in a body that for decades had been reflexively hostile to anything Israeli-initiated.

In October, pressure from Western countries prompted the Palestinians to delay their resolution in the Human Rights Council calling on the U.N. Security Council to take up the Goldstone report.

"Whatever lobbying efforts one does can have an effect," Etra said.

The Public Fight

While Israel and its supporters campaign painstakingly for nonpolitical achievements at the United Nations, Israeli officials and advocates often find themselves locked in public, strident and often vitriolic fights for Israel's rights and reputation at the world body.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to New York in September, he used his address at the General Assembly to chastise the organization.

"The jury's still out on the United Nations, and recent signs are not encouraging," he declared. Railing against the Goldstone commission report on the Gaza war, Netanyahu said, "Rather than condemning the terrorists and their Iranian patrons, some here in the United Nations have condemned their victims. This is exactly what a recent U.N. report on Gaza did, falsely equating terrorists with those they targeted."

Shalev, like her predecessors in the post of Israel's U.N. ambassador, spends much of her criticizing the institution of the U.N. itself. One recent U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, famously said that if U.N. headquarters lost 10 floors it wouldn't make a bit of difference. Bolton, an unabashed supporter of Israel, has become a favorite of the pro-Israel speaker circuit.

In a body whose main impact is in the realm of public relations - since little the United Nations does has the force of law or results in concrete action vis-à-vis Israel or the Middle East - these public, drama-filled campaigns sometimes result in good publicity.

Perhaps the most salient recent example of this was the April 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva - the follow-up to the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

In 2001, Jewish groups were caught off-guard when pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic groups hijacked the anti-racism conference to brand Israel a racist state and turn the streets of Durban into an anti-Semitic carnival.

Ahead of the review conference last April, Jewish groups and Israel were determined to avoid a repeat. Thanks to an early, consistent and concerted effort, they were able to turn the Durban Review Conference in Geneva into a triumph for Israel.

Ten countries boycotted the conference out of concern that it would single out Israel, including one nation that walked out in the middle, the Czech Republic. When Iran's president used his speech at the conference to issue a diatribe against the Jewish state, delegates from participating European countries walked out mid-speech, creating a dramatic moment that was replayed on TV news programs all over the world.

While Israel and many of its allies were officially absent in Geneva - part of their campaign to discredit the conference, similar to the approach Israel took to the Goldstone inquiry on the Gaza war - plenty of pro-Israel activists converged on the Swiss city.

Outside the U.N. plenum, in the streets, Jewish and pro-Israel groups staged large demonstrations in support of Israel and Jewish causes. Whereas at Durban the few Jewish activists who attended in 2001 were overwhelmed by pro-Palestinian activists, in Geneva the Jews were in the plurality. More than 350 Jewish students were accredited for the conference, representing about one-third of all accredited activists.

Rallies outside U.N. grounds and anti-discrimination panels inside the United Nations drew some of the heaviest hitters in pro-Israel advocacy, including attorney Alan Dershowitz, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and even actor Jon Voight. Some 4,000 people attended a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event one day. Another event celebrated Israel 's right to exist. Jewish groups, including B'nai B'rith, also worked behind the scenes to win positive media coverage for Israel's defenders.

"We wanted to be sure that if something happened here like in Durban, we'd be ready to respond," Jonas Karpantschof, the Danish chairman of the European Union of Jewish Students, told JTA.

When the central document of the conference was voted upon halfway through the week-long gathering, it adopted no new language singling out Israel - an accomplishment hailed by UN Watch's Neuer as the "least toxic ever from such a conference."

"It was the complete opposite of 2001," Neuer said. "It will stand out in history as one of the only times when a major U.N. conference was an unequivocal victory for groups fighting anti-Semitism and true human rights. Activists who care for human rights need to learn from what happened there and replicate those results elsewhere."

The battle in Geneva -- like the battle over the Goldstone report and the battle for Israel generally in the United Nations - is really all about narrative and public image.

The United Nations is a place where Israel is almost constantly painted as the bad guy. For those fighting for Israel's reputation, it's an uphill battle.

Ultimately, however, Israel and its supporters cannot afford to stay on the sidelines. And for Jewish NGOs that have U.N. accreditation, like B'nai B'rith, defending Israel at the United Nations is a responsibility.

"It's the right thing to do," Mariaschin said. "As NGOs we have the opportunity from the inside to speak up. We're given that opportunity; we should take it. Do we succeed most of the time? Unfortunately not. But if we have the opportunity to have our say, we must take it."