Long panned for harboring deep anti-Israel bias, the United Nations (UN) has often been discounted by critical Israeli leaders as an organization with little hope for any success. However, after a tireless effort by the Israeli delegation to the UN, earlier this summer the Jewish state was selected for the first time to head the UN’s Sixth Committee, one of the permanent committees at the world body playing an important role in shaping international law.
Israel’s selection to head the Sixth Committee comes amid a broader proactive strategy by Israel to counter anti-Israel bias and to play a larger role within the world body, including by vying for a seat on the prestigious UN Security Council (UNSC), one of the six principal organs of the UN with the power to establish peacekeeping operations, place international sanctions and authorize military action.
“For 68 years, we have been a full member of the United Nations in writing, but this privilege has not been actualized,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon told JNS.org. “For 68 years, we have been on the fringes and for 68 years we have worked so hard for our chance to make a sincere difference, and to head a committee at the United Nations General assembly.”
Israel’s move to secure its position as the head of the Sixth Committee has come despite continued anti-Israel bias at the UN in recent months. Over the years, Israel’s efforts to gain more legitimacy at the world body have been thwarted by the efforts of Arab and Islamic countries, which are a considerable voting bloc equaling a quarter of the General Assembly’s 193 members.
Danon explained that Israel’s recent move to head the Sixth Committee faced numerous roadblocks, especially from the Iranian and Palestinian delegations, which “hypocritically argued that Israel isn’t worthy to hold this post.”
Last month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also proposed to adopt a resolution declaring the Temple Mount as sacred to “Muslims only.”
Danon called the UNESCO resolution a “blatant attempt to rewrite the history books that has not gone unnoticed, and we will not let this biased and baseless UNESCO resolution rob us of our past.”
But despite this continued bias, there has been a shift in strategy by Danon and the Israeli delegation in recent years that has taken Israel from a defensive to an offensive strategy at the world body.
“As a country, we are global leaders in international law and counterterrorism techniques, and now we are privileged to have the opportunity to share our expertise with the nations of the world,” Danon said, adding that when he first arrived in New York a year ago he implemented a two-fold approach.
“We will not allow any anti-Israel bias at the UN to go unnoticed and unanswered” and “we are not going to only defend ourselves, but in recognizing that ‘the best defense is a good offense’ we are going to push for positive change at the UN,” he said.
Part of this change involved emphasizing Judaism and Jewish culture at the world body. This included successfully getting the UN to recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday, and holding a model Passover Seder with more than 40 ambassadors who were able to learn about Jewish heritage. There was even a screening of “Fiddler on the Roof,” to which more than 70 ambassadors and diplomats came and learned about the Jewish people.
“We are bringing Judaism to the UN; we not only connect ourselves to our roots but also show the true face of Israel to the UN,” Danon told JNS.org.
The Israeli delegation has also taken a firm stance against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement with the help of more than 50 U.S. Jewish organizations that came together under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and recently endorsed a UN declaration opposing the rampant discrimination against Israel in the UN and its agencies.
“For years we have witnessed and protested the escalating discriminatory practices and actions against Israel at the UN,” Conference of Presidents Chairman Stephen M. Greenberg, and Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein, said in a statement. “As we have seen in recent months, this bias is being manifested in outrageous and flagrant ways. These actions not only distort the truth about Israel, they also undermine the principles of the UN and its Charter. It has to stop.”
An additional strategy Israel has also employed in recent years has been the building of diplomatic support for Israel in non-traditional regions such as Latin America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
This strategy bore fruit for Israel in late 2014, when both Rwanda and Nigeria helped defeat a Security Council resolution that would have imposed a 12-month deadline on Israel to withdraw from the disputed territories.
More recently, in July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited four African nations, including Rwanda, to bolster their support for Israel.
“PM Netanyahu’s trip to Africa included visits in four countries only—none of which have seats at the UNSC today. Significantly, however, the trip did include Ethiopia, which has been elected to the SC as of January 2017 and whose vote may therefore potentially make a significant difference to Israel,” Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky, a Neubauer research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS.org.
“While far greater resources and engagement will be needed in order for Israel to win substantial and much-needed support from African countries, the strategy of engagement, in my opinion, is certainly a positive one,” she added.
Moving forward, Israel’s next strategy at the UN is a lofty one—gaining a seat on the powerful UN Security Council in 2018.
The Security Council, which is comprised of five permanent members—the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China—and 10 additional non-permanent members (who usually serve two-year terms), is the only body of the UN with the authority to issue binding resolutions to member states. As such, serving on the Security Council comes with tremendous international credibility and respect.
“Our intention to be on the Security Council is very important to us. It is another glass ceiling that we hope to shatter,” Danon told JNS.org.
“This council is the UN’s most important institution, and it plays a key role in safeguarding international peace and security. Just as we insist that Israel must be treated equally throughout the UN, this is true as well for the Security Council,” he said.
Hatuel-Radoshitzky explained to JNS.org that Israel’s selection to head the Sixth Committee might also help bolster its chances for the non-permanent Security Council seat.
“According to the UN Charter, in presenting their candidacy for a non-permanent UNSC seat, states should be evaluated based on their contribution to “the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the UN,” she told JNS.org. “Naturally, chairing the Sixth (Legal) Committee can serve to strengthen Israel’s claim to a UNSC seat in this respect.”
However, due to the prominence of the Security Council, Israel is likely to face stiff opposition not only from Arab and Islamic countries, but even from allies like many European countries, who are sometimes troubled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
“First is the time factor,” Hatuel-Radoshitzky explained. “The election is to commence two years from now, and in our region this is a very long period of time in which ample developments could potentially unfold, influencing Israel’s policies and actions, as well as those of her regional neighbors,” she said.
Additionally, the ballot for the Security Council voting is closed, meaning that countries that may publically endorse Israel, such as European allies, could potentially vote for another state without having to explain their choice, Hatuel-Radoshitzky said.
Complicating matters further for Israel is also its geographic membership at the UN. Although geographically sitting in southwestern Asia, Israel’s membership to the UN’s Asian group has been blocked by Arab and Muslim states. As such, the Jewish state belongs to the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), along with non-European countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This means Israel faces more competition from other democratic countries for the seat.
The WEOG group is expected to produce two members to join the council in 2018. Currently, Israel, Belgium and Germany are competing for the position. However, Germany is expected to gain the seat, leaving the battle between Israel and Belgium for the final slot.
Despite the uphill battle faced by Israel for both continued legitimacy in the UN and a seat on the Security Council, Danon remains optimistic that Israel will achieve these goals in time.
“There is a lot of time to go between now and then, but we’re preparing for it. I believe that we’ve shown that Israelis are capable of reaching any position in the UN as our Sixth Committee victory has proven,” Danon told JNS.org. “And at the end of the day, to win and make great achievements is not going to be straightforward or easy, but I have full faith that it is possible.”