Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel and the UN: A new page?

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In September 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stood at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly and declared that "Israel has a bright future at the UN".

He also declared "the war against Israel at the UN is over" and that "a decade from now an Israeli prime minister will stand right here where I am standing and actually applaud the UN." Given some of the events at the UN which have transpired since, such as UNSC Resolution 2334 condemning settlements one-sidedly and the several UNESCO motions denying Jewish history in the Land of Israel, the prediction that it may take a decade for things to change at the UN today appears to be on firmer ground than the claim that the war on Israel at the UN is over.

Yet even as Israel enjoys an unprecedented string of diplomatic achievements outside the UN's halls, there are signs that things are improving at Turtle Bay - and these were clearly on display during the visit to Israel of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Israel and the Palestinian areas last week.

The elevation of Guterres to the post of UN-Secretary General at the beginning of 2017 was in itself a significant step toward changing the old UN culture. Described by former Israeli officials as a "friend of Israel" prior to taking up the post, the former Portuguese prime minister began on the right foot by referencing the destruction of the Second Temple in his International Holocaust Remembrance Day speech on 27 January and subsequently declaring during a radio interview that "It's clear as the sun is clear that the Temple, which was demolished by the Romans, is a Jewish temple", much to the chagrin of those - such as the plurality of the Executive Board, of UNESCO - who wish to deny Judaism's 3,000-year-old ties to Jerusalem.

In May, Guterres' spokesman condemned the naming of a Palestinian women's centre after terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre that claimed the lives of 38 civilians, including 13 children. That same month, Guterres told officials from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that "denial of Israel's right to exist is anti-Semitism". With all this in mind, expectations for the Secretary General's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories were indeed high.

Fortunately, Guterres' measured and practical approach mostly continued during his trip. He told Netanyahu in Jerusalem on 28 August that he understood Israel's security concerns and promised to be an "honest broker", adding:

"To be an honest broker means that all countries must be treated equally both by the Secretary-General and the Secretariat that the Secretary-General directs. This is for me very clear and you can be sure that these values will be upheld."

However, speaking in Ramallah a day later after a meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, however, Guterres did unfortunately endorse the UN's flawed line on the blanket illegality of settlements:

"There is no plan B for the two-state solution ... We believe that settlement activity is illegal under international law. It's an obstacle to the two-state solution."

Guterres' Ramallah visit was also not without incident. As reported by Palestinian Media Watch, he was "entrapped" into an unscheduled meeting with the mothers of five incarcerated Palestinian terrorists, with the Palestinian News Agency WAFA reporting he responded sympathetically to their petition demanding the prisoners' freedom. However, a UN spokesperson didn't mince words in denying the WAFA report, saying, "All of the quotes attributed to the Secretary-General are fabricated."

In Gaza on 30 August, Guterres described what he saw as "one of the most dramatic humanitarian crises that I've seen in many years," while calling for an easing of Israel's military blockade and for the international community to support humanitarian aid in the strip. He added that the division between the PA and Hamas "only undermines the cause of the Palestinian people" and that "militantism" was causing damage to the region, but stopped short of directly condemning Hamas terrorism. He did not meet with Hamas.

He did however tour the Israel-Gaza border by helicopter and visit a Hamas terror tunnel, in addition to meeting families at Kibbutz Nahal Oz near the Gaza border, where a Hamas rocket killed four-year-old Daniel Tregerman during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Speaking at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv later that day, he repeated the following about those who deny Israel's right to exist:

"Let me stress that when I talk about anti-Semitism, I include calls for the destruction of Israel. Israel is a Member State of the United Nations. It bears all the responsibilities and enjoys all the rights of every other Member State and, therefore, it must be treated as such."

In addition, Guterres again mentioned settlements, but showed far more balance about the causes of the conflict than many public figures in Australia:

"It is my deep belief that a two-State solution is the only way forward - the only path towards the historic compromise that can settle this conflict and lead to a better future for all. That is why I have been, and will continue to be, expressing my disagreement, when it's the case, with unilateral measures and facts on the ground that can or could undermine that solution - including settlement activities, but also continuing violence, terror and incitement."

Perhaps most importantly, he strongly stressed that the only way forward is through negotiations, saying "There is no alternative to a negotiated solution between the two parties," - thus implicitly rebuking Palestinian strategy in recent years of seeking resolutions and pressure from international NGOs rather than engaging in direct negotiations with Israel.

He was also full of praise for Israel and its achievements:

"Your country has become renowned worldwide for its great cultural, scientific, technological and scholarly achievements. We had the opportunity just two days ago to see some remarkable examples of innovation that can be of extreme utility for humankind all over the world in fighting climate change or in accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals. You have succeeded in protecting your security against many threats, signing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and building successful international alliances. Most importantly, you have created, for the first time in 2,000 years, a home for your people."

Unfortunately, that home is under constant threat from enemies who deny the right of Israel to exist, many of whom use Guterres' organisation - the UN - as a forum to engage in lawfare against the Jewish state. And while Guterres may have given his assurances that both he and the secretariat he represents will be "honest brokers", UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein is planning to release a "blacklist" of international companies that do business in East Jerusalem, West Bank settlements and even the Golan Heights, later this year.

This is while the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continues to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee issue, itself a major obstacle to peace, in addition to tolerating festering antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment - the very evils Guterres has condemned - within its ranks.

Perhaps, as Netanyahu predicted, an Israeli Prime Minister could stand in the General Assembly in a decade and applaud the UN. But despite Guterres' goodwill, the limited positive trends in the organisation are going to have to become much more dramatic fairly soon for that scenario to ever become reality.

Gareth Narunsky

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