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For Israel Supporters, U.N. Reform Carries Risks and Potential Reward

September 7, 2005
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As the United Nations gets ready to mark its 60th anniversary, the buzzword around the halls of the world body — and in capitals from Washington to Jerusalem and beyond — is “reform.” President Bush pushed the controversial appointment of John Bolton as America’s U.N. representative in part, he said, because Bolton “would provide clear American leadership for reform at the United Nations.”

In a report urging governments to work for change at the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on member states to adopt “the most far-reaching reforms in the history of the United Nations.”

Dan Gillerman, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, said firsthand experience has made the need for U.N. reform very clear to him.

“From Israel’s perspective, it needs urgent, dramatic and very serious overhaul,” he told JTA in a recent interview.

Some Jewish and Israeli leaders wonder how such changes might affect Israel. Long a pariah at the United Nations, Israel has been singled out time and again for disproportionate opprobrium, underrepresented on important committees, denied full membership in powerful regional groupings and constantly attacked by a bloc of Arab states and their supporters.

“Generally, our greatest hope is that reform in the work of the General Assembly and its various bodies also brings an improvement of the way that Israel, especially in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian and -Arab conflict, is being treated in the United Nations,” said Marco Sermoneta, political counselor in Israel’s U.N. mission.

It’s not the first time that reforming the United Nations has dominated discussions about the body, whose critics describe it as corrupt, bloated, inefficient, feckless and biased.

In a position paper addressing Annan’s reform proposals — laid out in a March document called “In Larger Freedom” — the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said, “All talk and no action is the bumper-sticker history of reform at the U.N.”

When world leaders gather along the East River from Sept. 14-16 for the 2005 World Summit as the 60th U.N. General Assembly opens, there was hope that they would sign on to an “Outcome Document” — the contents of which are still being hammered out by member nations — that proposes significant changes for the United Nations.

With both Bush and Annan firmly supporting reform — and an embarrassing oil-for-food scandal keeping the U.N.’s problems in headlines around the world — those pushing reform say a window has opened.

The 39-page draft Outcome Document isn’t country-specific, and many of the reforms Israel is hoping for do not appear in its pages.

The document’s ultimate fate is uncertain. According to a New York Times report, the United States recently recommended jettisoning more than 400 passages of the document. Proponents fear more countries may follow suit, objecting to elements they feel aren’t beneficial to them and demanding that other items be added.

Israel has been lobbying quietly to have its issues included on the agenda. Beyond a general change in an organizational culture that often has sanctioned hostility to Israel, insiders cite several specific areas where reform could boost the Jewish state’s standing in the United Nations:

Israel would like to see the end of four U.N. committees established specifically to aid Palestinians. The one-sided attention of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the Division for Palestinian Rights, the Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine and the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices is unique in the world body.

“The U.N. spends an exorbitant amount of time and money on Israel-bashing,” Gillerman said, adding that these committees cost the United Nations $6 million a year.

Along with the United States and other nations, Israel would like to see changes to the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights, which includes some of the world’s worst human-rights violators, including Syria, Sudan, Libya and Cuba.

One proposal would preclude human-rights violators from membership on the commission and would change it to a council, which would enlarge its membership and allow for more frequent meetings.

“They spend days talking about Israel and 13 seconds talking about China,” lamented Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

Israel wold like to see the number of anti-Israel resolutions passed by the General Assembly each year — currently about 20 — drastically reduced. Israel is hoping that the secretary-general will be given power to revisit mandates that are more than 5 years old — which would include some anti-Israel resolutions that have lingered for years.

Gillerman said he met recently with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who co-chairs the American Task Force on the United Nations along with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Gillerman also has been lobbying the European Union and others on this issue, hoping to get it into the Outcome Document.

Israel wants the United Nations to take a new look at its regional grouping system. After decades of being blocked by Arab countries from the Asian bloc, Israel recently was included in the Western Union and Others Group, but it’s still excluded from U.N.-sponsored organizations and conferences outside of New York. That means, for example, that Israel can’t take part in the substantive consultations of the Human Rights Commission, which take place in Geneva.

But Israel isn’t thrilled about all aspects of reform, such as a proposed expansion of the Security Council. The council now has five permanent members with veto rights and 10 members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms.

Names bandied about as potential members of an expanded council include South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. Israel is concerned that unfriendly nations could make their way onto a body already seen as antagonistic to Israel.

“We’ve seen the Security Council in action, and even countries that are considered friends of Israel have not really come forward in times of need — and it’s only thanks to the support and friendship of the United States that we have sometimes been able to deal with crises in the Security Council,” Sermoneta said. “Even though we support a reform of the Security Council, we also believe that improvement doesn’t necessarily entail enlargement.”

In any case, insiders say it’s unlikely that the Security Council will be expanded in the near future.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva, said that reforming the Human Rights Commission carries with it both hopes and risks. On the one hand, he said, eliminating human-rights violators from the body may lead it to act more rationally. There also is discussion of giving the group a mandate to look at all states, rather than the select few it now investigates, Neuer said.

On the other hand, he said, if the group is enlarged and empowered to meet more frequently without its root problems being addressed, that could bode ill for Israel.

“I see nothing in the current document that prevents the Human Rights Commission from passing, once again, half of its resolutions against Israel,” he said. “There’s a great danger that we will be giving more power, more credibility, more prestige to the Human Rights Commission, operating under a new name, without addressing the core problems.”

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