The Security Council, at any given time, has 15 members – five veto-wielding permanent members (the U.S., China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom), with the remainder elected by the General Assembly to serve staggered two-year terms.
The U.N. as a whole is comprised of 193 member states; a majority of these have had the opportunity – some repeatedly – to be members of the organization’s most “prestigious” body, while (as of 2017) 67 will never have had the chance. These include many smaller countries. At the same time, while Israel – whose policies and engagements receive unparalleled probing across the U.N. system – has never been elected to the Security Council, countries with a smaller population have: for example, Panama (five times), Denmark (four times), Norway (four times), Ireland (three times), Finland (twice), Uruguay (twice), Singapore (once), Paraguay (once), Luxembourg (once) and Malta (once).
Arab states in the Middle East have also been elected. Among them, Egypt has served five times, Syria three times, Algeria three times, Jordan three times, Iraq twice, Libya twice and Lebanon twice.
The current Council members whose term will continue through the end of 2017 are Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.
Those whose term ends at the end of this year are Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela.
In last week’s ballot, the countries elected to serve on the Council in 2017 and 2018 are Ethiopia (for the African Group), Kazakhstan (for the Asia-Pacific Group), Bolivia (for the Latin American and Caribbean Group), and Sweden (for the Western European and Other Group), with the Netherlands and Italy – in a rarity over recent decades, after multiple inconclusive rounds of voting – agreeing to split a term by serving only one year each.
It is difficult to predict how the altered makeup of the Security Council may impact voting on resolutions on issues such as those related to Israel – and, by extension, whether such resolutions will be proposed at all – as this is impacted at any given moment by geopolitical circumstances, by the policy orientation of sitting governments and, of course, by the specific content of any prospective motion. In the nearly half-year remaining until outgoing Council members are replaced, much can change or remain the same in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS and warfare regionally, along with related surges of migration to and recurring terror attacks in Europe, have drawn a good deal of attention away from the Palestinian-Israeli rift. However, as Western countries pledge to eradicate ISIS, a reflexive instinct to also pacify Palestinians remains. France, of late very much in Islamist crosshairs, insisted on launching a recent international “initiative” to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but its initial summit meeting excluded the parties to conflict themselves; the Palestinians, who at one point received indication that Paris would simply recognize the “State of Palestine” if negotiations with Israel failed to promptly yield it, came to endorse the effort. Absent any Israeli buy-in, the French also on various occasions have expressed a desire to get the U.N. Security Council to impose a “framework” for the resolution of the dispute.
This, that is, assuming the U.S. will not deploy its Council veto. The Obama administration has long defended Israel at the U.N., and affirmed its continued view that the conflict should be settled through direct bilateral negotiations, but it has not clearly promised to oppose any Security Council resolution on Israel during the president’s final months in office, in the absence of progress toward peace on other tracks.
Nine affirmative votes, with no veto, are needed for a Security Council resolution to be adopted. If the U.S. were to allow a Council resolution on the conflict this year – whether outlining an anticipated final-status deal or, for example, merely reproving Israel for the presence of Jewish communities in Palestinian-claimed territory – it would all but surely pass with the four other permanent members, and at least six (if not all) non-permanent members, actively supporting it. While several current Council members have shown willingness in other U.N. bodies to abstain on some overtly anti-Israel resolutions, few, if any, would abstain on (let alone oppose) a motion seen to reflect a consensus that effectively includes the White House.
As to 2017, the Security Council landscape would seem to be improving a bit for Jerusalem: three countries that dependably vote against Israel (including the vociferous Venezuela) will be out, to be replaced by only two following the same voting pattern (though the incoming three countries that typically abstain on stridently anti-Israel resolutions include Sweden, which has regularly been outspoken in criticizing Israel’s government). Israel’s effort to return to a renaissance in ties with African states like incoming Council member (and moderate-voting) Ethiopia – as well as its recent, behind-the-scenes consultations even with those like Russia, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states – may also yield subtle fruit at the U.N., if only in averting or watering down the most damaging of prospective resolutions. At the same time, of course, factors like the U.S. presidential race and now the selection of a new British premier – though a number of friends of Israel are well-placed in both contexts – offer real wildcards. Additionally, it is yet to be seen how Brexit, and global anxieties and a sense of nationalist resurgences generally, will impact the European Union and its aspiration to a bloc-wide foreign policy.
Last Friday, the so-called international Quartet on Middle East peacemaking – which includes high-level representatives of the U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia – resurfaced with a report that again sought to project an urgent need to end the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. However, the report provoked a furious backlash from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who yesterday called on the Security Council to reject the text, which notably included not only Israeli settlements but also Palestinian incitement to violence among the impediments that it perceives to peace.
More likely than heeding Abbas’s call, the Council can be expected over the coming weeks to shift focus to the process of selecting a U.N. secretary-general to replace Ban Ki-moon at the start of 2017, after ten years in office. Though formally elected by the General Assembly – which this year has been given the opportunity to interview declared candidates – the world body’s top official is traditionally chosen through intensive private haggling within the Security Council, specifically its permanent members. Like candidacies for Council membership, the role of secretary-general is (unofficially) seen as tied to region, doled out on a basis of rotation. It is now widely seen to be Eastern Europe’s turn to place someone at the helm.
While the array of candidates vary in their prior record on Middle East issues – secretaries-general are limited in what they can do to ameliorate anti-Israel bigotry at the U.N., and most have to different degrees disappointed in their efforts to at least try – Eastern European countries have, in the post-Communist era, often been characterized by considerable sympathy for the Jewish state. During a period when Eastern Europe may have some greater autonomy from centralized E.U. decision-making – or, in fact, a more influential part in shaping it – it would be a true contribution to peacemaking, and to the standing of the United Nations, if a senior-most U.N. official from that region were to model bold leadership in promoting fairness and responsibility on Israel at the world body itself.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University.To view some of his additional content, Click Here.