Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hope for the U.N., Possibly

Like most Americans—60% according to a recent Gallup poll—I think the United Nations is doing a poor job living up to its self-assigned task to serve as the one international forum in which all the nations of the world are welcome peacefully to work out their disputes. I suppose different Americans must come to this negative impression from different directions, but, at least for me, the determinative factor will always be the incredible bias the body has shown towards Israel for the last half century— a kind of almost visceral prejudice that has on many occasions crossed the line from “mere” hostility to the policies of this or that Israeli government to overt anti-Semitism.

Nor am I alone in my sentiments. In a remarkable show of non-partisan unity, the entire Senate—including all one hundred U.S. senators—signed a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Gutteres last week in which they asked him formally to address what they called the United Nations’ “entrenched bias” against Israel. Nor was the letter particularly subtle: by pausing to remind the Secretary General that the United States is, and by far, the largest single contributor to the U.N. budget—in 2016, the U.S. paid out an almost unbelievable $3.024 billion to keep the U.N. running, a sum that exceeds the contributions of 185 of its member states combined—the senators sent a clear message that that kind of almost unimaginable largesse cannot be expected to continue if the U.N. fails to treat all its member states, Israel most definitely included, fairly and equitably.  They didn’t need to issue an actual threat either—just mentioning the budget was, I’m sure, more than enough.

The letter, written by Senators Marco Rubio and Christopher A. Coons (a Republican from Florida and a Democrat from Delaware, respectively), also mentioned with great enthusiasm and approval the work of Nikki Haley as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.  And she deserved her shout-out too: it’s hard to remember the last time Israel had a defender as unwilling to mince words as Ambassador Haley. The Trump administration has had trouble, and continues to have apparently serious trouble, filling any number of crucial diplomatic posts. But the President chose well when he selected Nikki Haley to represent us in Turtle Bay. Americans should all be proud to have a person of her eloquence and candor in place in what must be one of the world’s most trying diplomatic postings.

Ambassador Haley, for example, made it crystal clear just last Tuesday that the U.N. Human Rights Council—a council of buffoons whose sole interest in the world appears to lie in decrying Israel’s every perceived misstep while blithely looking the other way when other states trample on even their citizens’ most basic rights—when she, speaking with her usual forthright directness, specified that the U.S. might simply withdraw from the council unless it abolishes its infamous Agenda Item 7, which guarantees that there will never be a meeting of the council in which Israel is not singled out for censure. Such a move would hardly immunize Israel against legitimate criticism. But it would, at the very least, put Israel on the same footing as other member states—the basic definition of being treated impartially and objectively in any legitimate forum. And it would also mean that the Middle East’s one true democracy will no longer endlessly be condemned with knee-jerk resolutions full of fury but signifying nothing, while states like Iran, Syria, and North Korea—all states in which the basic human rights of the citizenry count for nothing or almost for nothing—are ignored. (Resolutions condemning Israel at the Human Rights Council outnumber similar resolutions regarding all other countries combined.) Such a disparity would be almost funny if it weren’t tragic, but it’s part and parcel of what the U.N. does and, by extension, is. Therefore, Ambassador Halley was in my opinion entirely correct to indicate that continued hostility toward Israel on that level could conceivably trigger a U.S. withdrawal. She was certainly speaking for me personally when she said clear that “[The Human Rights Council’s] relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”

Yet there may be subtle signs that things are changing. Last month, Secretary General Gutteres took the extraordinary step of personally rejecting a U.N. report that used the language of South African apartheid to describe the plight of the Palestinians on the West Bank by saying clearly that it had been published without his approval. Nor does the Secretary General appear to be afraid to speak out in public. Just last April, for example, he appeared personally at a plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress and addressed world-wide anti-Semitism and his own organization’s systemic anti-Israel bias in the same speech. (He was, for the record, the first U.N. Secretary General ever to visit an international forum of Jewish leaders.) Addressing the first issue, he pledged personally to be “on the front lines in the fight against anti-Semitism,” which specific kind of racist hatred he condemned unequivocally as “absolutely unacceptable.” And he also pledged that the U.N. would be in the forefront of a world-wide campaign to eradicate anti-Semitism from, in his own words, “the face of the earth.”

That much was impressive enough.  But then, almost unexpectedly, he went on to commit himself to working towards a reform of U.N. policies regarding Israel because, again to quote him precisely, “Israel needs to be treated as any other state.” And then he went even further, stating that he believes that Israel has an unequivocal right to exist, that Israel has an equally non-negotiable right to live in peace and security with its neighbors, and that “the modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the existence of the State of Israel.” (He presumably meant to reference the right of Israel to exist, not its actual existence—even its most implacable foes concede that there is such a place even if they wish things were otherwise.)

So there’s that. And then there was the almost unbelievable news last May that Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., was elected by 109 nations to became the first Israeli to chair a permanent U.N. committee, the General Assembly’s Sixth (Legal) Committee. And now, on the heels of that unprecedented achievement, Danon has been elected vice president of the U.N. General Assembly, his term to begin in September and to last for one year. It is true that he is not the first Israeli to serve as vice-president. (That honor goes to former Ambassador Ron Prosor in 2012.) But even so…given the level of vituperative animus against Israel that characterizes so much of what the United Nations does, it was remarkable to learn that an Israeli was elected to any position of authority at all. It isn’t much—there are, for the record, 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly—but it’s surely something to celebrate for those of us who, despite everything, continue to harbor some hope that the U.N. could yet live up to its founders’ vision and become a force for good in the world.

And that sense of faint hope inspired me to return to an essay by Ambassador Danon himself that was published on the Politico website earlier this year in which he argued that the time has come for Israel to be granted a seat on the Security Council. (To see the Politico article, click here.) It’s an important article, one I earmarked to return to and then somehow never quite did…but now that I have reread it, I would like to suggest it to you as something very worth your time and consideration.

The ambassador begins by pointing out how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel was poised to compete for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council was overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by the vote by that same body last December to question the historicity of the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. Ignoring not centuries but millennia of history, and mocking the work of a world of disinterested historians and archeologists, the Security Council voted on December 23 to recognize the Western Wall not as a Jewish holy site inextricably bound up both with the history and the destiny of the Jewish people, but as a Muslim shrine illegally occupied by Zionist usurpers intent on imposing their fantasy-based worldview on a world that should know better. (To reread my response to a similar UNESCO-based resolution earlier last fall, one so one-sided and biased against Israel that UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova herself felt the need to distance herself from it, click here.)

Nonetheless, Danon argues, the time has clearly come for the U.N., if it truly wishes to shed some of its shameful reputation, to welcome Israel onto the Security Council.  To be so elected, Israel will need the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly. But if it surely won’t be easy, it also shouldn’t be considered an impossibility. Israel has paid more into the U.N. budget over the years than the other 65 countries invited to sit on the Security Council as non-permanent members combined. And Israel has a clear role to play in encouraging the Security Council to enforce its own resolution 1701, which forbids the entry into Lebanon of any foreign armies or arms but which has mostly been ignored as Iran has poured arms into Lebanon to arm Hezbollah, now considered to have upwards of 150,000 rockets aimed at Israeli civilian centers.  Most of all, inviting Israel onto the Security Council would signal in a meaningful way that the decades of discrimination against Israel during which the U.N. has squandered the considerable moral capital it once had and sullied its reputation among all fair-minded people would finally be over.

As all my readers know, I could hardly think less of the United Nations. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I was a child, the U.N. was often held up as an example of the way that the world had turned a corner away from violence and bloodshed as the primary means of settling disputes and embraced the cause of mutual respect among nations and the peaceful resolution of conflict. One of my mother’s prized possessions, which I still have somewhere, was a letter bearing the first United Nations stamp issued and postmarked in New York on October 24, 1951. She, and so many of her and my dad’s generation, felt that the U.N. was the best hope for a world in which the horrors of the Second World War would never be replicated.  That sounds almost laughable now…but, who knows, maybe the U.N. could somehow regain its moral stature and thus also its potential. Electing Israel to the Security Council would be an unmistakable signal that the organization has turned a corner.

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