The Obama administration’s willingness to expand its involvement in the United Nations has not attracted strong criticism from pro-Israel groups, despite the longstanding belief that the international body is decidedly anti-Israel.
In recent days, Washington has signaled a new effort to try to effect change from within the UN and its agencies, and Jewish leaders here, though somewhat skeptical, seem prepared to give the administration some latitude.
While no one is predicting quick and dramatic results in the effort to reform UN agencies that seem obsessed with hammering Israel, many are saying it could ultimately prove beneficial – if Washington sticks to critical red lines.
“There is a degree of skepticism about the UN as an institution, at least as it relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and whether or not it can be reformed,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “But at this point, there’s a willingness to give the administration some slack to see whether engagement in organizations like the Human Rights Council can achieve a positive result.”
The Human Rights Council’s actions have focused on Israel for alleged abuses of human rights, while ignoring blatant violations from other countries.
But U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice explained in highly undiplomatic terms that the U.S. is in a better position to fight “against the anti-Israel crap” from the international community by participating in the council rather than staying away. “We have a record of abject failure from having stayed out,” she said, and can be more effective “by leading and lending our voice from within.”
Some Jewish leaders say they have seen faint glimmers that UN officials are coming to understand that the body’s overwhelming anti-Israel bias has undermined its credibility with key members, especially in Europe.
And Israel has always had a more ambivalent view of the UN — indignant about one-sided criticism and the skewing of agencies like the Human Rights Council, but also convinced that its interests demand an active UN role for itself as well as for the U.S.
Israel “has some reason to be ambivalent,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “The U.S. protects Israel in the Security Council, but undermines it by supporting the five UN Committees that advance Palestinian interests in direct opposition to the continuance of Israel.”
Bryen warned that the Obama administration’s efforts to expand UN involvement could backfire.
“The risk is that you will find yourself back in, and unable to get out,” she said. “You end up giving legitimacy to those who don’t deserve any. And there will be a price for U.S. reengagement, and that price will have something to do with abandoning Israel.”
Ultimately, she said, the effort to reengage, while “understandable,” may encourage forces that hope to use the international agency to undo the state it created after World War II: Israel.
That could be one of the goals of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly plans to attend next week’s Durban II conference in Geneva – a conference the Obama administration is once again boycotting after a failed effort to dramatically change an agenda it considered overly focused on and critical of Israel.
The UN issue boiled to the surface only weeks after President Obama’s inauguration because of intensive planning efforts for next week’s Durban Review Conference in Geneva. In February the administration announced it was breaking with Bush administration policy on the conference, a follow-up to the disastrous 2001 conference on racism and xenophobia that turned into an Israel and Jew-bashing extravaganza, and sending a delegation to preliminary meetings convened to set the agenda.
Critics predicted a sellout of Israel; supporters said U.S. credibility would be enhanced by giving diplomacy a chance. Major Jewish groups were divided, with the Anti-Defamation League opposing the move while the American Jewish Committee took a wait-and-see attitude. The administration said it was testing the waters to see if the Durban process could be reformed.
Less than a month later, the administration had its answer: reform failed, and Washington decided to resume the U.S. boycott of the conference. After the announcement, a revised Durban draft document that eliminated much of the negative references to Israel ignited speculation the administration would do yet another 180-degree turn and decide to participate.
But on Monday the State Department announced that while it “welcomes the recent progress” in the Durban documents, “there remain… elements of the current draft text that continue to pose significant concerns. The U.S. believes any viable text for the Review Conference must be shortened and not reaffirm in toto the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA).”
In other words, the boycott will continue unless there are further – and dramatic — changes.
The administration decided in late March to seek a place on the UN Human Rights Council, a committee boycotted by the Bush administration because of its overwhelming negative focus on Israel.
Critics charged that the goal of reforming the council was naïve. Anne Bayefsky, a strong UN critic, wrote in Foreign Policy that the Council is “controlled by human rights abusers who like it just the way it is…. By letting some of the world’s worst regimes rub shoulders with its leading democracy, the United States becomes an enabler.”
Some Jewish groups, including the ADL, urged the administration not to seek a spot on the Council, but again the response from Jewish groups to the decision to seek to rejoin was muted.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that “when the U.S. has a game plan and red lines,” it can trigger change in the international body.
Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said the reengagement effort could pay dividends for Israel if Washington is able to deal with the “fixation and obsession” across the UN hierarchy.
“Strong markers have to be set down by the administration as it goes back in,” said Mariaschin, whose group has had a long and consistent record of UN criticism. “If they don’t, they will find themselves fighting nothing but rear-guard actions. The abusers of the UN system have made a steady and good business out of this obsession with Israel.”
He said real reform will be difficult because of a “culture and a bureaucracy” that have bought into the idea that Israel criticism is the most important job of the international body.
But he also expressed hope that “if the administration does it properly, it can be an opportunity; it can be a positive development for Israel.”
Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said he is not surprised about the muted Jewish reaction to the reengagement effort, which he said is more about diplomatic style and nuance than substance.
“Much of the hue and cry is an example of the ‘gevalt syndrome,’ he said. “It’s been wildly exaggerated.”
He said the U.S. reengagement could potentially be good for Israel if it helps restore relations with this country’s critical allies – but that it would be “wildly optimistic to predict big payoffs” in terms of UN reform.
Others aren’t so sure the effort is worth the risk.
Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel, said problems will emerge if the administration does not have clear time lines for breaking off engagement if its efforts fall flat.
“What’s the point where they will say this isn’t working, these people don’t want to be friends?” he said. “Or, because they’ve become ideologically wedded to reengagement, will they remain involved?”
JINSA’s Shoshana Bryen said that Washington and Jerusalem may have fundamentally different and conflicting goals when it comes to the UN. For this country, greater UN involvement is seen by the current administration as a key element in the effort to restore diplomatic relationships battered by eight years of confrontation and unilateral diplomacy.
For Israel, that growing involvement is worrisome because it could give added legitimacy to the very forces that would like to use the UN as the blunt instrument to ultimately undo the Jewish state.
At the same time, Israel itself continues to seek greater UN involvement.
“Israel has a very odd relationship with the UN,” Bryen said. “I’ve often asked Israelis: given what it is and what it does, why don’t you just walk out the door? Invariably, what they say is that it is not Israeli to abandon the playing field. If you leave the playing field, the little progress you’ve made over time will disappear.”
More importantly, she said, Israel fears that much of the anti-Israel focus within UN agencies is part of a longstanding effort to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.
“They fear that if they leave now, the UN can just vote Israel out of existence,” she said.