NEW YORK, May 30 (JTA) Israel and its supporters are applauding a breakthrough for the country at the United Nations, a body that many believe has long treated the Jewish state unfairly.
Israel the only U.N. member country that has been excluded from a regional group was formally invited May 26 to join the Western European and Others Group, known as WEOG.
On Tuesday, in a letter from U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry, Israel accepted the invitation, saying, “We hope that this acceptance will open a new chapter in the relationship between Israel and the United Nations.”
Later in the day, Lancry told Jewish organizational leaders that this marked a “historic turning point for Israel.”
A statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the WEOG admission “marked the end of four decades of discrimination and injustice.”
The temporary membership will give Israel a stronger voice in U.N. affairs, according to Israel and its advocates.
But while heralding the move, Israeli leaders and their backers say they are still concerned about some of the membership “modalities,” or conditions, imposed on its acceptance mainly that Israel can only participate in WEOG activities coming out of the U.N.’s New York headquarters and that Israeli representatives will be barred for two years from running for positions on U.N. councils.
Israel will be excluded from WEOG discussions and consultations in Geneva, Nairobi, Rome and Vienna, thus effectively barring it from U.N. talks on human rights, racism and a number of other issues.
Israel’s membership in the 26-member U.N. group, which includes the United States and Canada, is temporary, on the condition that it continue to apply for the more geographically appropriate Asia group.
That group, which includes Israel’s most intransigent foes Iran and Iraq, has consistently rejected Israel’s applications.
Israel will be required to renew its WEOG membership every four years.
For decades, Israel has been the only U.N. member shut out of a regional group, and last week’s invitation followed years of lobbying.
“We’re ecstatic. Our foot is in the door. But our happiness is tempered by the fact that we will have to accept certain conditions that distinguish us from other full members,” said Jeff Helmreich, press officer for Israel’s mission to the United Nations.
In a statement, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Israel’s admission marks “the start of a new era” for Israel’s status in the international arena.
However, David Harris’ statement added that “we now look forward to early action to expand Israel’s membership to include other key U.N. sites.”
Harris Schoenberg, chair of the U.N. caucus of Jewish non- governmental organizations and a representative of B’nai B’rith International, described the invitation as “a huge step forward but clearly incomplete.”
Both the AJCommittee and B’nai B’rith say modifying the modalities will be a priority in the future.
Nonetheless, they and the Israeli mission say they are celebrating the new status and that it will allow Israel to argue its positions from the inside, rather than the outside.
“We have the benefit of associating with a whole block of countries rather than being isolated and outside every club,” said Helmreich.
Israel was inching toward WEOG membership in the mid-1990s until the November 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The Europeans were loathe to reward his eventual successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with WEOG membership because of his perceived intransigence in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The European outlook changed with last year’s elections of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The vocal advocacy of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has also been credited with moving Israel’s position forward.
Speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday, Holbrooke called the development a big “win.”
“Does it auger good things for the whole U.N. system vis a vis Israel?” asked Holbrooke, whose lobbying efforts were hailed as “extraordinary.”
“I think so; we’re getting there bit by bit.”