As the curtain rose this month on the U.N. General Assembly’s 55th session, it also ushered in what Jewish observers hope will be a new era for Israel.
But will the changes only be cosmetic?
Enemies of the Jewish state have long ganged up to portray it as the most reviled member of the United Nations.
Yet relations with the world body are clearly thawing, say Israeli and American Jewish observers, thanks in part to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in late May and the Camp David summit in July, after which the Israeli side was praised for displaying more flexibility than its Palestinian counterpart.
Most important, though, is Israel’s official – albeit partial and temporary – entry into the Western European and Others Group, one of five regional groupings.
Prior to May, Israel had been the only one of 189 U.N. member states shut out of the regional grouping system – and therefore ineligible to serve on the Security Council and prominent U.N. agencies.
Israel’s natural home is with the Asian grouping, but a slew of foes, including Iraq and Iran, have easily blocked Israel’s membership.
So Israel turned to the 27-member grouping known as WEOG, which includes the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Years of lobbying finally overcame resistance from certain Europeans, some of whom were said to be under pressure from their Arab allies to exclude Israel. Others were concerned about increasing competition within WEOG for the posts allocated to each grouping to the commissions of every U.N. agency.
At a celebration of Israel’s new status last week in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Israel’s Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami both hailed the admission to WEOG and credited the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, for giving a crucial shove.
Albright described Israel’s inclusion as “a turning point for the U.N., because some of its lowest moments are associated with unwarranted anti-Israel sentiments.”
Speaking at the same gathering, sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Ben-Ami added that membership would “enable us to adequately voice our ideas on issues of global importance and to contribute productively to the important work of these organizations.”
Still, Ben-Ami continually referred to “WEOG New York,” duly noting that Israel is still restricted from the assorted U.N. agencies in Geneva, Vienna, Rome and Nairobi that deal with health, labor, the environment, atomic energy and intellectual property rights, among many other issues.
Israel accepted heavily “conditioned” membership, whereby it would not run for any of the agency posts for two years.
Israel and its advocates say the Jewish state was content to have its foot in the door for now, rather than gamble and push for the unlikely prospect of full, unconditional membership.
Now the second phase of lobbying – for equal footing – has begun.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization is currently canvassing the 26 other members of WEOG to nail down who is for, against or ambivalent about “normalization” of Israel’s relations within the group’s satellites, and what exactly the grievances are.
“This is a diplomatic and psychological breakthrough for Israel,” said Harris, who is spending the year in the AJCommittee’s affiliate in Geneva, U.N. Watch.
“It begins to end the isolation of Israel in the world body,” said Harris, who recently published “In the Trenches,” a book about his career as a political activist.
“It begins to end the anomaly of Israel’s unique status outside the five regional groupings. And it begins to mainstream Israel into the workings of the U.N. But it’s only a start, and there’s a long way to go.”
Psychologically, it will be comforting for Israel to know it actually has “partners,” WEOG members who might stick up for Israel when it comes under attack. And Israel will now be allowed to participate in WEOG discussions and to share information often inaccessible to non-members.
Beyond that, though, it’s unclear what tangible results will come.
Moreover, WEOG will vote again in four years on Israel’s temporary membership, which essentially means Israel is on probation, said Michael Colson, executive director of U.N. Watch.
“There’s a practical element missing” to Israel’s membership, said Colson. “Is it just symbolic, or are there any real teeth to it?”
One thing seems certain, however: Nothing will prevent the annual blizzard of anti-Israel resolutions at the world body.
Israel has long been the whipping post of the U.N.’s Arab and Muslim member states, which for years counted on the support of their allies in the Communist orbit and Third World.
The United Nations is a democracy, where each member has one vote. The United States has the same, equal vote as the world body’s newest member, Tuvalu, a group of islands in the West Central Pacific.
The annual resolutions, for example, condemn Israel for its policies regarding settlements, Palestinian refugees and the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza. The most infamous was the 1975 “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, which was repealed in 1991.
However, most of the resolutions are still on “automatic pilot,” said Harris, and repeated each year.
Recently, though, Israel gained a key ally in U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Annan, in a speech to the AJCommittee in December 1999, observed that “the exclusion of Israel from the system of regional groupings; the intense focus given to some actions taken in Israel, while other situations sometimes fail to elicit similar outrage; these and other circumstances have given, regrettably, the impression of bias and one- sidedness.”
For now, there will be no change, say observers. Israel simply doesn’t have enough allies to overcome the Muslim- led voting bloc.
As for the future, Israel may see its WEOG negotiations stall – and the global good will it has engendered quickly evaporate – if the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak falls and is either replaced by Likud, or a Likud- Labor government of national unity.
Presumably, under either scenario, the Palestinians would be offered far less than they were at Camp David.
Since Israeli officials and Jewish advocates often complained that their efforts to join WEOG were unfairly linked to the Middle East peace process, some wonder if that would again translate into anti-Israel sentiment at the United Nations.
“I’d rather not speculate on what-if situations,” said Harris.
“I would only say that Israel’s standing in the United Nations should in no way be linked to the politics of the day.
“Iraq was not suddenly excluded from the Asian group when it invaded Kuwait. Rwanda was not excluded from the African group when genocide took place on its soil. No other country is subjected to this kind of scrutiny or unfair status.”