On Dec. 2, Israel was granted membership in Geneva of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), one of the semi-official “regional groups” within the United Nations. Effective at the start of 2014, this step represents modest but important movement toward eroding systemic discrimination against Israel within the world body.
Regional groups largely control the election of members to important U.N. positions, and also engage in substantive coordination of policy at the United Nations. As a Middle Eastern state, Israel’s natural regional group would be the Asia-Pacific Group, which includes such powerhouses as China, India and Japan, as well as several of Israel’s most dependable friends at the United Nations, the Pacific island nations of Micronesia, Nauru and the Marshall Islands. However, a host of Arab and Muslim members of the Asian Group, including Syria and Iran, have insisted on excluding Israel.
Thus, for decades, Israel was the only member state to be deprived of a home in a grouping of counterparts within the U.N. system. By contrast, Turkey enjoys inclusion in both WEOG and the Asian Group. And the observer delegation of the Palestinians – now called the “State of Palestine” at the United Nations – has already been included as a full member of the Asian Group for 27 years.
In 2000, Israel was admitted as a member of WEOG in New York. Subsequently, an Israeli ambassador to the United Nations was elected as a vice president of the General Assembly for the first time in 53 years. However, Israel had not been granted inclusion in WEOG in Geneva, the U.N.’s European hub and home to the Human Rights Council, or elsewhere. (In 2010, meanwhile, Israel was invited to take part in sessions in Geneva, but not in New York, of the consultative group JUSCANZ, which convenes advanced democracies that are not European Union members.) For years, a series of WEOG states objected to expanding Israeli membership in the group.
In March 2012, Israel announced that it would discontinue engagement with the Human Rights Council. This followed an unending barrage of anti-Israel excoriations at the council dressed as probes, from the predestined Goldstone “fact-finding mission” on Hamas-controlled Gaza to condemnation of Israel’s interception of a Turkish flotilla set to breach a maritime closure on that territory.
In January 2013, Israel decided not to participate in the council’s “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR) process, an assessment of each country’s human rights performance. Past Israeli participation in the UPR involved being subjected to predictably negative scrutiny – while some of the world’s worst rights abusers use the same exercise to congratulate one another on their supposed commitment to human dignity.
Western countries, though, were concerned over the precedent that might be set in Israel’s “boycotting” of the UPR. Accordingly, quiet talks began with Israel on possible terms for its reengagement. Israel soon announced that it would resume cooperation with the council – and it proceeded to submit to the UPR. And, finally, Israel was invited to join WEOG in Geneva, while European governments also signaled that they would avoid discussing Israeli policies under the rubric of “item 7” – the council’s only permanent agenda item dedicated to scrutinizing a single country, Israel.
The longstanding burden of exclusion has symbolized Israel’s unparalleled mistreatment on the international scene – and its adversaries’ campaign to exploit the United Nations as a political tool for isolating, demonizing and even delegitimizing the only Jewish, democratic state.
To be sure, WEOG admission does not automatically give Israel a level playing field at the United Nations, nor does it guarantee meaningful participation, as the world body is rarely a meritocracy. Though Israel, which has never had a term on the Security Council, hopes to win a seat on that preeminent body in 2018, Germany says that it will again contend for the same spot.
There has been little relevant structural or attitudinal change at the United Nations, which routinely condemns Israel more than all other countries combined. Three U.N. bureaucratic bodies, and a Human Rights Council special investigator, are dedicated to the advancement of an extreme version of Palestinians’ political narrative and objectives. International officials were astonishingly silent when Iran’s supreme leader labeled Israel – even amid recent nuclear negotiations – a “rabid dog” doomed to “annihilation.” In commemoration of the very date in 1947 on which the United Nations had called for a Jewish state, the world body hosted an event at which the Arab League representative rejected recognizing Israel as such. Successive speakers also accused the country of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing,” and a United Methodist Church official renewed his call for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” measures against Israel.
The General Assembly, meanwhile, decided to declare 2014 the “International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” One can only hope that Palestinian leaders will not use the occasion to make good on threats to renew “internationalizing” disputes with Israel at the United Nations.
This said, after decades of suffering second-class-citizen status at the United Nations, Israel’s growing integration among fellow democracies there is both appropriate and encouraging.
We must advocate for more such progress – for the standing of the United Nations itself as much as for Israel.