Israel and the UN: antagonism and distrust

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In July, the United Nations adopted a resolution aimed at investigating human rights violations that might have occurred during the war in Gaza. Israel, along with the United States, criticized the resolution for underscoring Hamas’ role in the conflict while putting excessive blame on Israel. This week, Israel’s foreign ministry told Reuters it had no intention of cooperating with the UN at any level in the investigation, calling its findings “pre-determined”.

This decision is only the latest in the contentious history that characterizes the relationship between Israel and the UN. Israel alleges that UN shows an anti-Israel and sometimes even an anti-Semitic bias. In 2012, Israel barred a UN fact-finding mission from entering Israel to investigate settlement activity. In 2013, it became the first country to withdraw corporation from the Universal Period Review process, part of the UN Review on Human Rights. No other member country has done this before.

As Anav Silverman from the Tazpit News Agency details, Israel’s dismissiveness of the UN was first articulated by former Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s famous “UM-Shmum” statement in 1955 Israeli cabinet meeting (UM is the Hebrew acronym for the UN and “shm” signifies contempt), where he rejected the UN as useless in the quest for Middle Eastern peace. In his speech at the UN in 2011, Netanyahu echoed this sentiment when he called into question the UN’s ability to criticize Israel when it put “villains” in leading roles: Muammar Gaddafi had chaired the UN Commission of Human Rights and Saddam Hussein led the UN Committee on Disarmament.

The UN has also hurt Israel on a more personal level. In 2000, UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon videotaped Hezbollah’s kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers. Israel requested the tapes to help recover the soldiers. The UN at first denied they had the footage, and then refused to hand it over for almost a year. Faced with international condemnation, David Krusch from the Jewish Virtual Library reports that the UN apologized to the Israeli government for its “serious error in judgment”. The three soldiers were pronounced dead soon after. The UN has since been viewed as an illegitimate body across many, if not most, political spectrums in Israel.

Eytan Gilboa, a prominent professor of Bar-Ilan University, believes Israelis think that the strong Arab bloc in the Security Council has turned UN declarations biased towards condemning Israel. Many point to Kofi Annan’s opening statement in the 61st General Assembly in 2006 as their confirmation, when he said that “…supporters of Israel feel that it is harshly judged by standards that are not applied to its enemies. And too often this is true, particularly in some UN bodies”.

AIPAC’s several studies show that Israel is the object of more investigative committees, special representatives, and rapparteurs than any other country. In the recent decades, “Emergency Special Sessions” held by the UN have only focused on Israel. Israelis often call attention to the fact that there have never been such sessions to examine the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. Around 48% of the Human Rights Council Country-Specific Resolutions have targeted Israel, and it has been condemned more times than every repressive country in the world combined.

In 2007, Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement that emphasized his “disappointment at the council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world”. In March 2012, the US sent a letter to UNHRC to complain about the clear anti-Israel bias within the council:

“The United States remains extremely troubled by this Council’s continued biased and disproportionate focus on Israel…The absurdity and hypocrisy of this agenda item is further amplified by the resolutions brought under it including, yet again, a resolution on the “human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan” motivated by the Syrian regime, at a time when that regime is murdering its own citizens by the tens of thousands”.

In 2013, Israel’s UN ambassador, Ron Prosor’s told the Security Council that they “needed a GPS system to find its moral center in this debate on the Middle East”.

Israel and the UN did not always have this relationship. Israel believed it owed the UN a great deal when the it recognized the state of Israel in 1948; this allowed Israel to pave its way towards greater legitimacy amongst other countries in the world. In a speech to the UN, Moshe Sharrett, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, defined the goals of Israeli foreign policy as a commitment to the principles of the UN, the enhancement of the UN’s authority, and an establishment of an Arab-Jewish alliance within the framework of the UN. Israel, he said, must do its best not to alienate the UN.

But the UN has alienated Israel, and in turn Israel has increasingly withdrawn from engaging with it. For instance, Saul Takahashi, Deputy Head of the UNHRC, said in a lecture that the UNHRC regularly submits drafts of its resolutions before they are published to the concerned governments. The Palestinian Authority has always extended its full participation. The Israeli government, on the other hand, has regularly ignored these drafts and refuses to respond to the UN. These resolutions then get published without Israeli input. The consequence is that in Israel loses any chance it might have to influence the international community’s view. Instead, by disengaging, it confirms and exacerbates any biases the UN might have. It appears as an even more dangerous aggressor once it refuses to participate within the UN.

This is extremely damaging to Israel’s image in the world. The UN has a unique role that represents the broad consensus of the international community and has the ability to evolve its missions and goals and enforce them upon a country without fear of repercussions. Its statements hold large political weight and its disapproval of a country has the power to delegitimize it, as we see with Israel. On the other hand, its approval of a country legitimizes it, as we can see with Palestine. In 2012, Palestine was granted the status of an “observer state”, and most countries around the world now acknowledge it as a legal sovereign state.

By ignoring the UN and what it represents, Israel fails to recognize or address concerns that the international community has in regards to Palestine. Nothing hampers a peace process more than a refusal to at least acknowledge the other side’s demands. Even though the UN might be biased in targeting Israel as much as it does, it does not mean that the actual substance of the resolutions is baseless, inaccurate, or unhelpful. Because Palestine has incorporated many of the UN’s resolutions in its official dialogue and as part of its formal stance regarding negotiations, Israel’s stance makes the peace process even more difficult than it already is. It also gives the Arab world and the rest of the international community the impression that Israel has no value for their opinion.

In 2007, Gilboa gave a lecture at the Annual Conference of the International Studies Association, where he stated that “most people around the world view the UN as a source of legitimacy, legality and international norms…Israel must devote much more attention and resources to a systematic campaign at the UN to create more balanced resolutions and actions”.

Israel ends up shooting itself in the foot through its anti-engagement strategy. Delegitimization isolates it, hurts its economy (as seen with the BDS movement), alienates possible allies and exposes it to legal assault. The Times of Israel reported in 2012 that Amos Yadlin, former intelligence chief Israel, called the delegitimization of Israel a graver threat to it than war.