Bibi’s Revenge at U.N. Risks Israel’s Bid for Security Council Seat
Israel’s dream of a seat on the 15-nation body is dimming as Netanyahu retaliates against countries that opposed settlement expansion.
The U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements last month struck a significant blow to the Jewish state’s international credibility. But the resolution also threatened something far more tangible: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behind-the-scenes push to win Israel a seat on the 15-nation security body.
For the past year, Israel has engaged in an intensive, if quixotic, campaign to secure one of two Security Council seats reserved for Western governments for 2019-20 — a goal that will require it to beat out either Germany or Belgium.
That effort is now in jeopardy as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Israel, and its supporters in the U.S. Congress threaten to retaliate against the United Nations and governments that supported what they view as a deeply unfair resolution. The move could alienate even potential supporters of an Israeli bid to the Security Council.
Netanyahu summoned the envoys of Security Council member states on Christmas to express his disappointment. He announced that Israel will reassess its relations with the United Nations and cut aid to two African supporters of the resolution, Angola and Senegal. This raised the risk that the U.N. African Group, which accounts for 54 votes in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, could strike back.
Israel’s response to the settlements resolution, one U.N. diplomat said, is “certainly not helpful to their campaign. The African group will not like this.”
An Arab diplomat called it “definitely a setback for them — not because of the vote, per se, but their reaction to it.”
“They are back to square one,” the Arab diplomat told Foreign Policy.
A European ambassador said Israel has been “pretty serious about their candidature” over the past year, but its diplomatic charm offensive has hit a brick wall with the settlements resolution.
“I think that it’s over,” the European diplomat told FP. “I never thought they could win anyways.”
In Washington, however, the Republican-controlled Congress is preparing legislation to cut U.S. funding to the United Nations. Trump, meanwhile, warned on Twitter that U.S. relations with the United Nations will be affected by the vote. “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump tweeted after the settlements vote.
A spokesman for Israel’s mission to the U.N. declined a request for comment. Israeli officials recognize they face an uphill struggle to win a Security Council seat, but hope the political environment will improve by the time the General Assembly votes in the summer of 2018.
In the meantime, Israeli officials remain committed to pursuing their campaign and are planning to host their third visit to Israel by U.N. ambassadors later this year.
In mid-December, as Palestinian authorities lobbied support for the Security Council’s condemnation of settlements, Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon hosted a delegation of U.N. ambassadors from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe for a five-day seminar on Israeli contributions in agriculture, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity.
The trip was organized and funded by the American Jewish Committee. It drew senior U.N.-based diplomats from 14 countries — including Albania, Argentina, Botswana, Jamaica, Mexico, and Uganda — to Israel to hear the government make its case on Israel’s contributions to the international community. It included a side trip to Ramallah, where the foreign delegation met with a Palestinian officials.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, issued a public appeal last month to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to back Israel’s bid. “If you want a real change in the world,” Netanyahu said, “imagine a state of Israel in the Security Council of the United Nations.”
Israel’s hope for a place at the Security Council’s iconic horseshoe table is the latest stage of its ongoing diplomatic outreach campaign focused on bolstering relations with governments around the world, including African states that have traditionally opposed Israel at the U.N. and its former Arab enemies in the Middle East.
Earlier this year, Netanyahu traveled to four African countries — Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda — to shore up relations. In September, Netanyahu met with more than a dozen African leaders and envoys along the sidelines of the General Assembly. Afterward, Israel invited Rwandan President Paul Kagame and other African leaders to a conference at U.N. headquarters on technology and innovation in Africa. Netanyahu is planning to travel to West Africa this year.
Israeli leaders believe they have made significant strides in expanding their diplomatic outreach.
In a September speech to the General Assembly, Netanyahu said Israel has diplomatic relations with over 160 countries, nearly double the number as when he served as U.N. ambassador 30 years ago. Netanyahu attributed this to the fact that most governments — in contrast with their U.N. delegations — recognize Israel can be a valuable partner, with a world-class intelligence agency and expertise in everything from cybersecurity to agricultural innovations that can benefit their own people. Israel also has forged important, though highly discreet and unofficial, relations with wealthy Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which share its fears of a rising Iran.
In many ways, Israel is an improbable aspirant for membership in the U.N.’s security body. Netanyahu routinely slams the U.N. as a hypocritical, anti-Israel organization that has spent whatever moral force it may have possessed when it recognized Israel’s independence. In his latest address, he mocked the U.N. General Assembly as a “moral farce.”
But at the same time, Netanyahu has picked up and led Israel’s long-term effort to normalize relations with other states at the United Nations — a push backed by the United States. The effort dates back to the Clinton administration, when then-U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke helped Israel gain membership in the Western European and Others Group, one of several regional blocs that run the United Nations. The development allowed Israel to compete for posts on U.N. committees. Israel is still the only Middle East country that has never served on the Security Council, but announced in 2005 that it would throw its hat into the ring.
But the 2018 vote, while far on the horizon, still demonstrates there are limits to how far Israel can proceed. For years, Netanyahu has believed he could “minimize the importance of the Palestinian issue and gain international acceptance” by forging practical relations in Africa, East Asia, and Europe, said Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security.
“The increasing, quiet security cooperation between Israel and many of the Arab states is a testament to that approach, and to increasing common interests in countering Iran,” Goldenberg told FP. “The settlements resolution was a reminder that this strategy has limits.”
Goldenberg said the stalemated peace process is likely to “continue to exact a toll on Israel internationally.” But over the long haul, he added, Israel will continue to expand its global campaign to “seek to gain greater international acceptance.”
But Israel doesn’t have an endless amount of time. It must collect 129 votes, or two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 193 countries, before the 2018 decision.
Israeli officials realize that even before the settlement vote, they faced an uphill battle to secure a seat on the council. But they still believe they can win enough support — particularly in an election where delegates can cast their votes anonymously. In June, for the first time ever, Israel was elected to chair one of the General Assembly’s primary subsidiary bodies, overcoming stiff opposition from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Israel secured 109 of the 175 votes cast to the Sixth Committee, which oversees legal matters for the General Assembly. Two years earlier, in 2014, Israel was elected vice chair of a separate U.N. General Assembly subsidiary body dealing with decolonization.
Skeptics of Israel’s ability to build enough political support say last month’s Security Council resolution proves that Jerusalem’s settlement policies still matter — and that absent a radical shift, Israel has virtually no chance of gaining the seat.
“Most Arab countries want to move on from the Palestinian issue, but it’s also obvious that they can’t do so as long as the occupation and the settlement program continues as it is,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Both public opinion and their own values prevent them from doing so, much as strategic calculations urge them to try to find a way,” he added. “Israel isn’t going to get a Security Council seat.”
Though Israel’s reputation at U.N. headquarters may be in the gutter, it’s never been better in Washington. Lawmakers in both parties, joined by Trump, have fallen over themselves to oppose the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from the Security Council vote.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the abstention “extremely frustrating, disappointing, and confounding.” Republicans in Congress went many steps further, vowing to pass multiple resolutions in the House and Senate condemning the U.N. vote. (A vote is scheduled in the House on Thursday.)
Meanwhile, three Republican senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Dean Heller of Nevada — introduced legislation Tuesday to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The passion project for many pro-Israel hawks has been opposed by previous Democratic and Republican presidents.
Trump blasted the U.N. immediately after the Security Council vote, calling it “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time.”
A catalyst for such enthusiasm is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization that directs tens of millions of dollars to lawmakers in support of hard-line positions.
But the 14-0 vote for the Security Council resolution, with one U.S. abstention, showed that Congress’s pro-Israel fervor is far outside the mainstream as far as the international community is concerned.
And a poll released Wednesday suggests that American public sentiment is not driving the actions of Congress. Forty-three percent of U.S. voters have not heard much, or anything at all, about the resolution condemning Israeli settlements, according to the Politico/Morning Consult poll. Voters are sharply divided on support for Israel’s settlement policies, with 28 percent in support and 28 percent saying they are illegal.
“The U.N. vote was a massive blow to the mythology that Israel’s occupation policies are essentially no longer a controversial matter in the international community,” Ibish said.
“The idea that Israel’s international standing was rapidly improving, despite its policies towards the Palestinians, has been a mainstay of Mr. Netanyahu’s political pitch in recent years to the Israeli public,” he added.
“But where he was mistaken, and mislead the public, was in the notion that nobody really cares anymore about Israel’s policies and that the Palestinian issue is now a dead letter, long forgotten and discarded by both the international community and the Arab countries.”
Photo credit: ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch