The first feature I ever filed for JTA, way back in 2006, was about the cautious optimism greeting the announcement that a soft-spoken career diplomat would replace Kofi Annan at the United Nations.
At the time, few people outside the rarefied halls of the UN had ever heard of Ban Ki-moon, who had risen, quickly and inoffensively, through the ranks of the South Korean foreign ministry, becoming minister in 2004. The skinny on him then was that he was not someone who would court a high public profile or shake things up too much. He would not be nearly as prominent as Annan, whose profile owed as much to his almost regal refinement as to his marrying into diplomatic royalty.
So I was a bit surprised to see headlines late last week that Ban, in an appearance in Jerusalem, had acknowledged the UN was biased against Israel. The first report I came across had no direct quote from Ban on the subject, so I asked JTA’s Ben Sales to see if he could find the quote, which he did.
Here’s the report, from the Times of Israel:
“Unfortunately, because of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, Israel’s been weighed down by criticism and suffered from bias — and sometimes even discrimination,” Ban told the group, YNet reported. He was responding to a student who claimed Israelis felt their country was discriminated against at the UN.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Ban said, adding that Israel should be treated equal to all the other 192 member states.
The quote itself makes no mention of the UN, which gives Ban an escape hatch if anyone tries to make hay of this. But we can probably assume if he was responding to a question about Israel’s treatment at the UN, that’s what he meant. He also attributes the problem to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is of course debatable at best, though it’s probably safe to say that if the conflict were resolved, it would be harder for Israel’s critics to manipulate UN machinery to Israel’s detriment. He also uses that maddeningly anodyne formulation beloved by diplomats who have no intention of doing anything about a problem they call “unfortunate.”
Still, it’s something for the UN chief to suggest that an organization whose principal power is the perception that its actions represent the collective will of the nations of the world is not treating one of those nations fairly. Though in fairness, Kofi Annan said much the same thing in 2006, in the final months of his tenure. He also told the UN to its face — not a friendly audience in Israel.
Whether Ban can or will do anything about it is more than doubtful, it’s practically impossible. Israel’s treatment at the UN is almost entirely a function of the bureaucracy’s susceptibility to states who are intent on keeping the focus squarely on the Jewish state — and away from their own records.
Ban could draw attention to this habit, of course, though he’d probably be wise not to. He owes his job to those same states. But perhaps with just three years left in his ten-year tenure, and no more elections to win, his tongue is feeling a little looser.
UPDATED: Or not. According to the Jerusalem Post, an Israel Radio reporter pressed Ban on his comments and the UNSG seemed to fold like a house of cards. “I don’t think there is discrimination against Israel at the United Nations,” he said.