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WINTER 2002  
Vol. 31, No. 2

by Allison Kaplan Sommer
Israeli Flag
In a tense, high-stakes game of diplomatic brinksmanship, Israel defied the United Nations last spring when it refused to allow a fact-finding team into the Jenin refugee camp to investigate Palestinian charges of an Israeli massacre.

Israel had no objection to a UN team, so long as it was composed of officials in whom it had confidence, and who possessed the proper backgrounds to assess fairly what had happened. Convinced, however, that the three individuals selected by the UN would issue findings that favor the Palestinians, Israel refused to cooperate and the mission was cancelled.

There is a widely-held belief among Israelis that the UN is irredeemably hostile to the Jewish state--and they are right.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Israelis danced in the streets when the UN recognized the fledgling state in 1948. "There is both a symbolic and symbiotic relationship between Israel and the United Nations," says Professor Irwin Cotler of McGill University, an expert in the UN-Israel relationship who currently serves in the Canadian parliament. "It is a state born of a commitment, a state essentially created and sanctioned by the UN."

Where, then, did things go wrong?

Looking back at the first decades of Israel's existence, the decline of Israel's status in the world body appears at first to have been gradual. The UN passed a handful of resolutions critical of Israel between 1948 and 1967, but scholars agree that anti-Israel sentiment rose sharply in the wake of the Six-Day War. Israel's remarkable success in defeating a combined Arab assault in '67, followed by its military control of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan hardened years of collective resentment among the Arab states and their supporters into a sustained campaign to isolate Israel as a pariah state. According to an Israeli government analysis, from 1967 to 1988 the UN Security Council passed eighty-eight resolutions against Israel, and the UN General Assembly passed more than 400. The number of resolutions and their sharp tone reflected, in large part, the powerful influence of the alliance between the Arab world and the Soviet bloc--a position so extreme that the General Assembly voted in 1979 to condemn the historic peace between Egypt and Israel.

Israel suffered another blow in 1974, when Yasir Arafat addressed the General Assembly to a standing ovation. The following year, the PLO won permanent representative status in the UN, and on November 10, 1975, the General Assembly passed, by a vote of 72 to 35 with 32 abstentions, Resolution 3379 declaring "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." This resolution, which served to legitimize acts of antisemitism throughout the world, remained in effect for sixteen years until it was finally repealed in 1991.

Now, more than a decade after the demise of the Soviet empire, Israel is still routinely subjected to condemnation for various violations, most often for its presence in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan. In contrast, no UN body has ever condemned a specific attack by Palestinians or any aggression by an Arab state against Israel. Only general condemnations have been voiced, and then only in the Security Council, where the United States has veto power. Last March, for example, the Council condemned Palestinian suicide bombings when it called for "an immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including all acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction" on both sides. Israel viewed the move as a victory because it marked the first time the Council had criticized Palestinian terrorism, albeit in general terms. Still, this condemnation was accompanied by a list of specific demands on Israel.

The Structure of Discrimination

The UN's anti-Israel bias is rooted in the organization's very structure. In the General Assembly, 130 of the 190 member nations will, almost automatically, vote against Israel.

Tal Becker, legal advisor to Israel's permanent mission to the UN, visualizes this anti-Israel voting bloc as a series of "concentric circles." The smallest of the circles is the core of twenty Arab nations that constitute what is known as the "Arab group," which initiates the harshest condemnations of Israel. These countries are part of the larger fifty-six-member "Moslem group," all of whom can be counted on to consistently support anti-Israel resolutions. These fifty-six nations represent part of the "Non-Aligned" group of 115 largely third-world nations that formed during the Cold War and generally have voted as a group independent of Soviet or U.S. influence. And an even larger circle, considered the standard lineup against Israel, is composed of the 133 members of the G-77, which includes all of the developing countries.

"While theoretically this wide group does not need to vote together, their common history of fighting Western imperialism still binds them together," says Becker. "Add to this the simple fact that, for the vast majority of these countries, it is simply not worth it from a practical point of view to anger the wealthy and oil-rich Arab world by opposing anti-Israel resolutions. They have a great deal to lose and not much to gain. It just pays for them to side with the Arabs." "There is an institutionalized set of double standards," adds Professor Cotler. Powerful countries with wide spheres of influence, or groups of countries, such as Russia, China and the Arab world, agree tacitly to ignore one another's human rights violations. Israel has no such leverage.

Exacerbating the problem for Israel is the UN's regional breakdown into five groups: the African states, the Asian states, Latin American and Caribbean states, the Central and Eastern European states, and the bloc titled Western European and Other States (which includes the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey). These groups determine which countries receive representation on various councils and agencies, most importantly the Security Council, but also the Economic and Social Council, the Commission on Human Rights, the World Court, and UNICEF. Israel is the only UN member that has been refused full permanent membership in any of these councils and agencies. Israel's ability to participate in the UN, says Cambridge law professor Sir Robert Jennings, former president of the International Court of Justice, has been "largely nullified by its exclusion from membership of a regional group. In practical terms, [Israel] is simply denied participation in many (indeed most) of the activities, functions, and offices in which all other members do participate. This hobbled and undignified position in which the State of Israel uniquely finds itself is without doubt morally shocking; but it is also manifestly unlawful and constitutes a breach of both the letter and spirit of the Charter of the United Nations."

Moreover, the system of regional grouping hurts Israel in General Assembly votes: regional solidarity means that countries are expected to vote with their groups, and in every group there are countries that lobby heavily against Israel. "It's an unfortunate fact," explains an Israeli diplomat off the record, "that Israel will always be on the side of the minority. Because the groups give the Arabs an automatic majority, they succeed with every draft, every motion. Abba Eban once said that they could get a resolution through declaring that the world was flat. We will not be able to change this."

"The Asian group is obviously dominated by the Arab world," explains another frustrated Israeli government official who works closely with the UN. "The leaders of the African group are Libya and Egypt. We try to work on regions where we have a chance, such as Latin America and Europe."

Given the UN's overwhelmingly third-world majority, the official says, the case against Israel is easy for the Arab states to make. Zionism is depicted simply as an extension of the history of European colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America--and just as these powers withdrew from their former colonies and granted them independence, they argue, so should the Jewish residents give up "occupied Palestinian territory."

Countries sympathetic to Israel face considerable pressure not to vote with the anti-Israel forces. "Even when there are certain African and Latin American countries with whom we have good relations, they often tell us that they can't vote with us because they are committed to vote with their [regional] group," says the Israeli official. For example, India and Israel enjoy excellent bilateral relations, yet India consistently votes with its Asian bloc and non-aligned group in resolutions against Israel, the result of continual heavy pressure to stick with their groups. "In this way, the more moderate countries are pulled to support the more extreme positions within their groups," says Becker. "Countries have to be extremely brave to buck the voting pattern of their traditional alliance."

When countries dare to break with these groups on the issue of Israel, they face serious repercussions. According to one UN source, at a human rights forum it was made plain to Guatemala, which often breaks with Latin America and supports Israel, that if officials did not fall in line with anti-Israel sentiment, resolutions would be introduced condemning the country's human rights record. When Bulgaria showed sympathy toward Israel in reaction to Palestinian suicide bombings, its government was warned that future trade with Arab countries might be cut. African states deemed too cozy with Israel have been threatened with similar reprisals.

Israel and its supporters have no illusions about the obstacles they face in the UN. "Palestinians are a symbol of third-world struggle for self-determination," says Becker. "Add to that the power of oil, and add to that general anti-American sentiment. We Israelis at the UN measure our success by the degree of our failure. When we don't fail completely, if we manage to get any support at all, it's considered a victory."

Even Israel's main defender, the U.S., has not always sided with the Jewish state. Before 1972, it never used its veto power in the Security Council, preferring to abstain on anti-Israel votes, and occasionally even supporting them. Between 1973 and 2000, the U.S. vetoed thirty-three Security Council resolutions critical of Israel and supported or abstained on fifty-seven others.

The UN Human Rights Commission

Some of the most virulent anti-Israel activities occur under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), which Professor Anne Bayefsky of York University in Toronto, Canada characterizes as "the tool of those who would make Israel the archetypal human rights violator in the world today. It is a breeding ground for antisemitism and a sanctuary for moral relativists. In short, it is a scandal."

Chosen through the regional groupings system, the UNHRC is composed of fifty-three states. It meets for six weeks each year in Geneva, Switzerland with a mandate to "examine, monitor, and publicly report either on human rights situations in specific countries or territories or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide." Since its inception, approximately 25 percent of its resolutions have condemned the State of Israel; in the 2002 session, the number rose to 30 percent. During the 1991 session, the Syrian ambassador invoked the antisemitic "Blood Libel," accusing Jews of killing Christian children to use their blood in the baking of matzah. In March 1997, the Palestinian representative falsely accused the Israeli government of having injected 300 Palestinian children with the HIV virus. In 2001, the Algerian representative called Israel soldiers "the true disciples of Goebbels and of Himmler." And last April, the Commission passed, by 40-5, a resolution introduced by Pakistan endorsing "all available means...including armed struggle" to establish a Palestinian state--which constituted a green light for continued suicide bombings. Israel was condemned on fifteen points; there was not a word of criticism with regard to Palestinian violence. The only countries to vote against the resolution were Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Guatemala. Italy abstained; the United States was not sitting on the Commission at the time.

By contrast, resolutions against Iranian human rights abuses were not brought to a vote. A resolution criticizing Russia's actions in Chechnya and a resolution against China for its human rights abuses in Tibet did not even reach the floor for discussion. And UNHRC has never condemned numerous known human rights violators Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.

"If you had the world's democracies standing up against this, you could turn this around," Cotler says. "But instead, you have European countries like Sweden voting in support." When asked by Israel for an explanation of their votes, the Europeans say they feel a responsibility to balance the pro-Israel stand of the United States and to defend what they believe is a distinction between armed struggle and terrorism.

In addition to condemning Israel in its regular forums, the UN spends more than three million dollars annually on three mechanisms that operate full-time to investigate, prepare reports, and hold conferences on Israel's alleged violations: the Special Rapporteur to Investigate Israeli Human Rights Abuses, established in 1993; the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting Human Rights, established in 1968; and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, established in 1975 on the same day the GA passed the Zionism equals racism resolution.

Going Forward

The UN's hostility to Israel did abate somewhat in the mid-1990s, during the height of the Oslo process and on the heels of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had commanded an anti-Israel voting bloc. The Jewish state also won a small but significant victory in May of 2000, when, as a result of extended American pressure, it was awarded temporary and limited admission to the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the UN in New York. Beginning in 2002, Israel is eligible to serve on key UN bodies to which it had previously been denied access; however, it is not clear if the WEOG group will dare to nominate Israel to fill a vacancy, or if Israel would be elected. The temporary membership will be reconsidered in 2004.

Also in Israel's favor is the support of Kofi Annan, who is considered by Israeli officials to be the most sympathetic secretary general in recent memory, one who resists knee-jerk condemnation of the Jewish state. To be sure, Annan has been sharply critical of Israeli actions, but he has also been willing to criticize Palestinian violence. He has repeatedly called the suicide attacks on Israelis as "immoral, illegal, as well as politically counter-productive." Even after his dispute with Israel over sending the investigating team to Jenin, Annan declared in his report on the incident that the Palestinian Authority was responsible under international law "to protect Israeli civilians from attacks, including suicide bombings, emanating from areas under its control."

Despite the UN's glaring shortcomings, Professor Irwin Cotler feels strongly that Israel must not give up on the world body. "The UN is still the primary international lawmaker and treaty-maker," Cotler explains. "It has the authority to authorize interventions such as those in Kosovo and Rwanda. This central body is not going away. Israel deserves a real place there." And, he says, Israel needs to be more proactive. "In my opinion," he says, "Israel should have gone to the UN before it went into the territories [during Operation Defensive Shield]. At the very least, the military operation should have been accompanied by a parallel diplomatic initiative, sending emissaries to key countries to explain the action Israel was taking, the same way the U.S. has regular UN briefings when it takes action in the world. Also, Israel should have been regularly submitting briefs to the UN regarding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's failure to keep armed elements out of the camps."

Israel will continue to make its case before the UN, even as it views the world body as, in Tal Becker's words, "a tool for the Arab world to gain political advantage without negotiating with Israel." As long as this state of affairs continues, Israel is not likely to trust the world organization, which for decades has treated the Jewish state as a pariah among the nations.

Allison Kaplan Sommer, a former Jerusalem Post correspondent, is a freelance writer who lives in Ra'anana, Israel.

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a UAHC Congregation

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