Proposals for U.N. Reform Hold Both Promise and Peril for Israel
Menu JTA Search

Proposals for U.N. Reform Hold Both Promise and Peril for Israel

It was only three years ago that Iran’s influential ex-president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, urged the Islamic world to develop nuclear weapons in order to annihilate Israel. It might seem like nothing more than inflated rhetoric. But add the fact that many believe Tehran is stringing the West along while it races to produce a nuclear weapon, and is funneling all sorts of weaponry and money to terrorist groups that attack Israel, and Rafsanjani’s words take on a far more sinister cast.

Still, would that be enough for Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran under a proposal for United Nations reform that would allow states to lash out against “latent” threats to their security?

The United Nations released a series of recommendations last week aimed at making its Security Council more responsive to the “nightmare scenarios” confronting the world today — a combustible cocktail of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and irresponsible states.

Also of interest in the report were a proposed expansion of the Security Council from 15 to 24 members and a proposed definition of terrorism.

Significantly, the new proposal goes beyond the U.N. Charter, which outlines a member state’s right to self-defense against “imminent” threats. If adopted, the proposal for the first time would endorse preventive action against latent threats as well.

But how to define a latent threat? If Israel were to take out Iran’s nuclear program — as it did to Iraq’s in a surprise attack in 1981 — would the move be sanctioned and the Jewish state applauded?

Given the U.N.’s often hostile stance toward Israel — and after Washington skirted a bitterly divided Security Council to invade Iraq last year — many are skeptical that the council ever would unite in support of a pre-emptive Israeli attack.

A spokesperson for Israel’s U.N. mission refused to comment until the report had been fully reviewed. But one U.N. source, who requested anonymity, said, “When it comes to a latent threat, the threshold would be so high” that a country would never get international backing “to make it legal.”

“If Israel were to act unilaterally,” the source said, “it would be considered a pariah and to have engaged in an illegal action. The whole theory is, even if there’s a latent threat you’d still need global consensus and for the council to approve it. So for all practical purposes, we’re in the same place we started.”

Indeed, the reform proposal reaffirms the centrality of the Security Council as final arbiter in matters of war and peace.

Therein lies the rub for Israel: Of the five permanent, veto-bearing Security Council members — the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China — only the United States is particularly supportive of Israeli actions, often brandishing its veto to defend Israel from one-sided condemnation.

Nothing in the new report — titled “A More Secure World” — suggests the break-up of that core quintet, as only Russia has seemed willing to extend veto power to additional nations.

Not surprisingly, the five more often than not vote in their national, rather than global, interest. That self-interest, embodied by the veto, will determine whether or not the council acts when crises emerge.

In March, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to issue his own recommendations in response to the report. Then the report — produced by a 16-member panel that included former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, former Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, and Amr Moussa, an Egyptian diplomat who heads the Arab League — will come up for debate in the fall when the U.N. General Assembly convenes for its 60th annual session.

Adoption of any related resolution would require two-thirds support from the 191-member General Assembly.

Much attention will center on the report’s five “criteria of legitimacy” for using force: seriousness of the threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means and balance of consequences.

However, the devil is in the details, critics say: Each criterion is vague enough that it will be open to interpretation and politicization.

For example, who decides when a threat is latent or serious, or when all non-military means have been exhausted?

As it is, Germany, France and Britain currently seem determined to give Iran every chance to cease nuclear activities to avoid Security Council sanctions, despite skepticism that Iran’s nuclear program really is for peaceful purposes.

Just as it would be remarkable if Israel were to win over the Security Council with an argument for military action, the new formula for intervention might easily be turned against Israel, says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“What happens when they want to apply this to Israel, that the security fence is a ‘latent threat,’ that targeted assassinations are a ‘latent threat?’ ” Hoenlein asked.

Israel’s enemies also might seek to describe Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal as a latent threat to the region.

“This would be one more vehicle, more cover, for them to attack Israel,” Hoenlein said.

The report deals not only with so-called “hard threats” to international peace like terrorists and WMDs, but also endorses a more proactive Security Council stance in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing and “soft threats” like poverty and HIV/AIDS.

There are two other key aspects of the report — expansion of the Security Council and the definition of terrorism.

When the United Nations was created in 1945, the Security Council was formed with five permanent and six nonpermanent members. In 1965 it expanded to its present 15-member size, with 10 countries holding rotating, two-year seats drawn from five regional groupings, in addition to the five permanent members.

The report proposes expanding the council to 24, including six new permanent members, or with new regionally distributed seats renewable every four years.

Critics long have said that the system of five permanent members was fossilized in 1945 and mostly represents the industrialized Northern hemisphere.

The developing world contends that the council should be more inclusive and balanced, especially since most of its decisions affect the poorer, Southern hemisphere.

Leading the charge to expand permanent membership are India, Brazil and economic powers Germany and Japan.

Israel for years was the only country in the world ineligible to serve on the council because the Arab world barred it from the “Asia Group.” Today, Israel’s membership in the “Western European and Others Group” places it on a waiting list that might see Israel finally sit on the council — but not before 2018.

With the council accused of being ineffective in confronting international crises, American critics from left and right contend that expansion simply will mean more chatter, more lobbying, more debates — and less action.

Pro-Israel advocates have expressed concern that expansion could dilute the U.S. veto, though the panel explicitly states that no more vetoes should be awarded.

Hoenlein and others, though, envision greater potential for anti-Israeli rhetoric and a situation where Washington may appear more isolated: Instead of 14-1 votes against Israel, with the United States registering dissent, they may be 23-1.

But one analyst suggests some upside for Israel.

“I’m not saying Germany is Israel’s ‘ally,’ but there has been some positive glimmer of support lately,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “And with Indian-Israeli relations growing, the margins of this proposal might provide something positive to Israel.”

Some Jewish observers saw more good news in the proposed definition of terrorism. U.N. debate often has broken down over the Arab-Muslim bloc’s assertion that “resistance to occupation” justifies any methods used by “freedom fighters” — oblique but obvious backing for Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in recent years has said that nothing justifies attacking civilians for political purposes. The reform panel, which Annan appointed, embraced his position.

Moussa, the panel’s only Arab member, reportedly threatened to walk out of negotiations.

In an editorial, the Forward last week called the report’s definition of terrorism as Annan’s “Chanukah gift” to pro-Israel supporters. But such celebration may be premature.

Perhaps as a harbinger of Muslim dissent next fall, the Saudi news service SANA on Sunday quoted Moussa as citing the need “to distinguish between terrorism and resistance,” and said that “resisting the Israeli occupation is not considered as terrorism.”

It’s unclear which, if any, of the report’s recommendations will survive General Assembly debate. Regardless, a dramatic change in tone toward Israel is unlikely.

“As far as the United Nations being a hostile body to Israel, I can’t expect that to change much,” said Jonathan Lincoln, a senior research associate for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Only if Israel were to change its policy, to conform with what concessions to the Palestinians the U.N. has demanded of it.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund