Even those closely attuned to global affairs might be forgiven for having missed the big occasion – and not only because it had the misfortune of falling during a pandemic and in the run-up to an American presidential election.
In some key circles, the U.N. – the closest humanity has to a world parliament – has fallen into irrelevance or even disrepute. This is a tragedy because the international organization could play a singularly important role in so many areas.
But hampered too often by inefficiencies, ineffectiveness, corruption and unending politicization, few beyond diplomacy wonks truly feel that the U.N. matters greatly, let alone positively, in their actual lives. This sentiment is not least common in the United States – the world body’s host nation, its largest budgetary contributor and its original lead architect – among both centrist liberals and conservatives, including those otherwise invested in multilateral engagement.
One primary cause of this disillusionment is the world body’s treatment of a key American ally, Israel. Although no country should be immune to reasonable criticism, at the U.N. some are. Indeed, the worst of them are routinely awarded posts in influential forums like the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, while Israel – the Middle East’s sole democracy, one of the world’s smallest and most beleaguered nations – is ritualistically condemned more than all other 192 member states combined.
In multiple U.N. settings, Israel alone is singled out, officially, for scrutiny and condemnation on a permanent basis. Israel alone is excluded from its natural regional group. Its adversaries’ narratives are promulgated, full-time, by dedicated bureaucratic units. Only companies doing business with Israel or in territory it holds are stigmatized by a discriminatory U.N. blacklist. Israel is targeted by repeated special “investigators” and “commissions of inquiry” whose biased conclusions are established in advance – though this normally goes unmentioned by relevant press outlets, academics and civil society groups.
And Israel alone has been delegitimized not only in demagogues’ speeches at the U.N. – which have obscenely compared the world’s only Jewish state to apartheid South Africa and even Nazi Germany – but in a notorious, since-rescinded General Assembly resolution comparing only Jews’ movement for independence, Zionism, to racism.
Next year, 20 years will be marked since a U.N. conference on racism, in Durban, South Africa, again suggested that Israel alone is racist – and it produced scenes of outright anti-Semitism that shocked even U.N. officials. As a result, the U.N. has lost all credibility with Israelis of diverse stripes, but also with many serious, fair-minded observers.
It wasn’t always this way.
The U.N. was born in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and Jewish communities – led by organizations like mine – saw great hope in the formation of the U.N., the adoption of its Charter and the eventual crafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Isaiah Wall opposite U.N. Headquarters, with its scriptural prophecy of peace among nations, testifies to the vision of a better shared future. Israel itself, whose birth was endorsed by the world body decades before oil-rich Arab states and their allies solidified an automatic majority in international organizations, had no fewer than seven favorable references to the U.N. in its Declaration of Independence.
But Palestinian and other hardliners, preferring a strategy of leveraging global pressure against Israel over direct talks and compromise, have persisted in “internationalizing” their conflict with Israel. The U.N. has thus been mired in never-ending confrontation that in no way improves the lives of Palestinians or Israelis.
Fortunately, a confluence of circumstances has provided a rare opening for a new era in U.N. relations with Israel – and by extension a rehabilitation of the U.N.’s own standing in America and abroad.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, building upon eventual exhortations by his predecessors Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, has committed himself to fighting anti-Semitism, and he has called denial of Israel’s right to exist – the posture still held by Iran, Hamas overseers of the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah jihadists dominating Lebanon – a form of that scourge. He has designated Miguel Moratinos, a former Spanish foreign minister, as focal point in combating hatred of Jews, and has in Nickolay Mladenov, Bulgaria’s former foreign minister, a respected envoy to the Middle East. Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives who is now a resident expert at the U.N., even drafted a report for the General Assembly focused extensively on global animus to Jews.
Even more importantly, Iran’s widely malign policies – combined with American leadership, and new regional focus on constructive partnership – have brought Israelis and Arabs closer together. Over recent weeks, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan have joined Egypt, Jordan and other regional countries choosing common cause with Israel over old divides. Meanwhile, Israel already enjoys robust ties with not only the U.S. but also other major world powers, and once-distant countries (like several in Africa) are renewing their own close friendships with Jerusalem.
If the U.N., looking ahead to its centenary, is to regain relevance and respectability – though that will not happen overnight, particularly in the shadow of COVID-19 – it must fully and proactively embrace, not trail behind, a new paradigm of cooperation and commonality instead of grievance and partisanship.
The Security Council and General Assembly can begin by formally saluting the recent widening of the circle of friendship between Israel and its neighbors. The bodies should encourage more of the same – and signal that the days of U.N. exploitation as a tool of anti-Israel warfare have passed.
For its own sake – and for the sake of genuine peace – it’s time for a new U.N. approach to the Middle East.