Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2009, pages 33-34
United Nations Report
By Ian Williams
TIME WAS when Israeli politicians ignored the U.N. Now they turn up in droves—and then ignore the international body. In the last month or so, President Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and, finally on June 19, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all made the pilgrimage to New York to greet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and bend his ear. Once can’t be sure whether this was out of a new-found deference to the world organization, or an opportunity to line up campaign donors in New York while visiting on “government” business.
In any case, each Israeli politician used the occasion to make the usual suspect Likudnik-style demands: against Iran, against Hamas. The Israeli desire to enforce every jot and tittle of U.N. resolutions on Hamas, Iran, Syria, or Lebanon is refreshing—until contrasted with their unspoken assumption that no resolution, whether admonitory or mandatory, applies to Israel.
Each subsequent press statement from the Israeli side detailing its demands received lots of media publicity, despite the total omission of what Ban told them. He is a person of almost infinite patience, but his quiet exasperation with Israeli deafness is growing, not least since he went to Gaza earlier in the year and saw for himself just how much disrespect Israel has for both the U.N. and Palestinians.
He sees his role as an interlocutor, however, so he tries to remain non-confrontational and refrains from giving the lie to his visitors. Sadly, to outsiders, there are times when he bends so far backwards that his tightrope walk looks almost like limbo dancing—as with his diplomatic refusal to release his own organization’s report on Israel’s attack on Gaza.
The media tended not to pick up information from U.N. press releases—for example, that the secretary-general told his visitors to stop settlements, to stop blockading Gaza and to allow the U.N. humanitarian agencies to operate there. Ban even called for a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Maybe he should shout, and the media might listen.
Of course, Ban Ki-moon can draw strength from the fact that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of the White House team are now effectively saying the same thing. While one applauds that, it would be interesting indeed if the White House started framing this not just as previously agreed Israeli commitments, but as the law: i.e., binding U.N. decisions and international law and conventions.
Of course, for domestic reasons, to defang the lobby on Capitol Hill, where Congress has traditionally displayed extreme insouciance to U.N. decisions about Israel, the Obama administration has cleverly framed all of its pressure on Netanyahu in terms of Israel’s own commitments under Oslo, the road map and the bipartisan policy of the U.S. for many years. Washington has never denied the illegitimacy of the occupation or settlements: it is just that successive U.S. administrations have connived at the Israeli evasions of its promises. Obama’s welcome change is crucial to his administration’s credibility. He cannot collude with the traditional Israeli smoke and mirrors over settlements that, while pleading compliance, has doubled the settler population in the occupied territories.
Since the Quartet line, as in fact reiterated by Shalom to Ban Ki-moon, is that Hamas must renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and accept previous engagements, one does have to wonder why the secretary-general, or Hillary Clinton, let alone the EU, are meeting with politicians who ignore previous agreements to abide by the law and stop expanding settlements, refuse to renounce armed incursions into the Palestinian Authority, and above all do not accept a Palestinian state. But it is a good excuse to meet them and speak truth to power.
As Ban told a U.N. gathering on Palestine in June, “I remain seriously concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Nearly five months after the end of the hostilities, nothing beyond basic needs such as food and medicine is allowed in. Essential recovery efforts and long-term development initiatives are impossible in these conditions. I call on Israel to allow in the fuel, funds and materials that are urgently required to repair destroyed and damaged schools, clinics, sanitation networks and shelters and to restore a functioning market.
“In the West Bank, there have been encouraging developments by the Palestinian Authority toward building the institutions of an independent state and improving the security situation through the newly trained Palestinian Authority security forces. However, routine incursions by the Israel Defense Forces are a hindrance to progress. Palestinians continue to endure unacceptable unilateral actions, such as house demolitions, intensified settlement activity, settler violence, and ever increasing movement restrictions due to permits, checkpoints and the wall and fence barrier. The time has come for Israel to fundamentally change its policies in this regard, as it has repeatedly promised to do. There must be a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including from natural growth, and settlement outposts must be evacuated. Furthermore, I am extremely worried about intensifying Israeli actions to alter the status of East Jerusalem.”
Somehow, this strong, strictly factual and legal dressing down never appears in the Israeli press communiqués, nor much in the U.S. press reports of the meetings and the ministerial briefings afterwards.
Of course, when he visited the U.N., Lieberman threw in the Netanyahu gambit: the prime minister’s “acceptance” of a Palestinian state. Despite his lithe exterior, the Israeli prime minister conceals within him a Humpty Dumpty, who when he uses a word, means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Netanyahu’s Palestinian state would make the South African Bantustans look like superpowers. It would be demilitarized, and as he commented afterward, would have to accept Israeli military incursions to keep it so. It would have no control of its own airspace above, and very little of its water resources below, and it would have to give up its internationally accepted legal rights to any part of Jerusalem, let alone the settlement blocs. In fact, as has been pointed out, it would have all the autonomy of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Chutzpah Front
On the chutzpah front, Israel’s chief delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) complained that chief Mohamed ElBaradei was refusing to meet Israeli officials on alleged Syrian nuclear activities and was “biased.” Coming from a nuclear non-member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), this was enriched beyond measure. ElBaradei actually took it for granted that the Israelis had bombed the alleged Syrian reactor, and quite rightly pointed out that they had no right to. Indeed, he is so biased he has declared on the record that an Israeli strike against Iran would be “insane.” It was not for nothing ElBaradei got a Nobel Prize.
International concern was muted by Syria’s reticence on the issue of the Sept. 6, 2007 Israeli attack. Damascus does not want to confirm how vulnerable it is to Israeli air strikes and was almost certainly being evasive with the IAEA about its nuclear program. It is worth remembering that a nuclear enrichment program is neither illegal nor against the NPT or IAEA charter—although concealing it, not declaring it, is.
But the legal response is to report it, not bomb it, and ElBaradei forcefully told the Israeli delegate, “You, sir, did not allow us to do what we are supposed to do under international law. You are not even part of the [non-proliferation] regime to tell us what to do. We would appreciate that you stop preaching to us.”
There is one side-effect of Israel’s new love affair with the U.N., combined with the change of administration in Washington. After almost 30 years of shilly-shallying with the U.S. dues to the U.N., the House in June passed H.R. 2410 to authorize full payment of back dues to the U.N. going back a full decade.
Beginning in the 1970s, under pressure from mostly pro-Israeli legislators, grandstanding American politicians have tried to use non-payment of dues to browbeat the U.N. into a more “acceptable” Middle East policy. The campaign, which united otherwise liberal Democrats with rabid conservatives, has caused profound international embarrassment to U.S. diplomacy—not least when a private citizen, Ted Turner, actually paid several hundred million dollars out of his own pocket on behalf of the delinquent U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. paid some of its dues—almost always on the last possible day—to avoid losing its vote in the General Assembly. Recently, Congress refused to authorize sufficient funding for peacekeeping operations that the White House and State Department were pushing for in the Security Council. It did not add to Washington’s diplomatic credibility, even though allies and the U.N. were sympathetic to the plight of administrations hog-tied by a lobby-bound legislature. Less sympathetic nations, generally ignorant of how democracy works, and understandably bemused by the sight of its Washington version in action, simply saw it as yet another example of American double standards.
As of this writing, H.R. 2410, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman (D-CA), awaits its Senate counterpart. The Sanity Clause is long, long overdue.
Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at <www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com>.