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Red Cross Vote Reflects Decades of Lobbying, and Last-minute Push

June 23, 2006
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Israel’s admission to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement was the result of 58 years of aggressive, sustained lobbying.

But it also was due to some last minute, behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the Red Cross conference in Geneva this week.

The conference, which drew 192 Red Cross states and 183 national emergency relief societies, was convened to determine if Israel’s emergency services agency, Magen David Adom, should be allowed to join the international humanitarian organization.

Thursday’s final vote was decisive: 237 in favor of Magen David Adom and 54 against, with 44 abstentions.

Previous attempts to gain entry had been blocked by Arab and Islamic countries, which latched onto the agency’s Star of David logo as a pretext to reject the Israeli agency.

But that point of contention was cleared up in December, when a neutral symbol – a red crystal – was allowed. That satisfied the last condition Israel needed to submit its membership application to the Red Cross, though Arab and Islamic countries still did all they could to block the move ahead of the vote early Thursday morning.

Reaching this point took decades of work by major Jewish organizations, and the battle also played out in Washington, where a number of legislators made it a priority issue.

The American Red Cross also played a leading role in the campaign. Since 2000, the ARC has withheld $42 million in dues, 25 percent of the international federation’s annual income.

But why did Magen David Adom succeed now, after so many years of failed attempts? Why couldn’t the Organization of the Islamic Conference once again keep Israel out?

For one, Israel’s admission was linked to the admission of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which had been relegated to observer status because of a statute admitting agencies only from sovereign states. Changing the statute to allow a simultaneous vote on the Israeli and Palestinian agencies may, in the end, have created more votes for Israel.

The strategies employed by Arab and Islamic nations may have also contributed to the victory. Two nations – Tunisia and Pakistan – tried to pass an amendment challenging Magen David Adom’s jurisdiction in areas Israel conquered during the 1967 Six-Day War, such as the Golan Heights and West Bank.

That amendment was shot down in a 191-72 vote, with 44 abstentions. Stuart Jackson, chairman of American Friends of Magen David Adom, called it a “tactical mistake” for these countries to focus on Middle East politics.

“The chairman said, ‘Look, we’re not in the political business,’ ” Jackson said, paraphrasing a statement from the conference’s chairman, Mohammed al- Hadid, of Jordan. “We’re in the business of doing humanitarian work.”

The strategy of challenging where the Israeli relief agency can operate contradicted the position of the Palestinian envoy, who argued for a total rejection of the Israeli agency. According to Jackson, the Palestinian envoy even was willing to forgo admission of the Palestinian agency, as long as Magen David Adom didn’t get in.

Jackson said that message met with general disapproval.

Another hitch occurred with the memorandum of understanding signed in November by MDA and the Palestinian group. The agreement specified certain steps Israel had to take on the ground, such as allowing Palestinian ambulances to pass easily through checkpoints.

Some reports indicated that Swiss inspectors who visited Israel to monitor the agreement weren’t satisified with what they saw.

Still, that wasn’t enough to derail the process. Ian Piper, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the Israeli-Palestinian memorandum of understanding was intended to be a work-in-progress.

“It didn’t lay down a certain list of requirements by a certain date,” Piper said. “Clearly you had advances in some areas and less progress in others…but it’s ongoing.”

Still, the last minute glitches were anxiety-producing.

Marla Gilson, director of Hadassah’s Washington office, said she and her staff did some last-minute lobbying with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the U. S. House of Representatives’ minority leader, and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N. Y.), and pushed NCSJ, an advocacy group for Jews in the former Soviet Union, to lobby Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority state.

“We were fairly panicked yesterday,” Gilson said, citing a steady stream of messages among Geneva, Israel and Washington. The fact that the Islamic Conference “mounted such opposition was quite concerning.”

Shai Franklin, director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress, said that as the hour grew late – the vote didn’t come until almost 3:30 a. m. – he became increasingly worried about procedural delays.

He also was troubled by comments from Syria, which objected to how the votes were being counted.

In the end, such objections fell on deaf ears. A few nations – such as Jordan, Oman and Egypt – even surprised observers by voting for the measure.

After the ruling, Jewish groups flooded inboxes and fax machines with congratulatory messages.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva, called it a “historic day for Israel.”

Rabbi Danny Allen, executive vice president of American Friends of Magen David Adom, called it a “vote for humanity over sectarian politics.”

The chairwoman of the American Red Cross, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, agreed, citing it as a “remarkable and long-overdue response to the inclusion of all the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.”

Piper expressed hope that the decision would pave the way for better relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

“They have been made two equal societies, trying to fix problems on the ground,” Piper said. “All of that really does matter – it reinforces the credibility of these societies and their ability to do work.”

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