By Ramzy Baroud
9 October 2017
When US President Donald Trump took to the podium to deliver his first speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared himself for a show of his own.
The Israeli leader listened attentively, flashed big smiles and applauded throughout. As Trump made his way down the speakers’ platform, Netanyahu tweeted: “In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.”
The secret behind the Israel Prime Minister’s ‘giddiness’ is simple: Trump mentioned ‘Iran’ 12 times, all in negative contexts, and ‘Palestine’ zero times.
Although the US was never a fair peace broker, under any previous administration, Netanyahu, like other Israeli leaders, perceived even the mere mention of the need to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, bothersome, if not a brazen meddling in Israeli affairs.
For Netanyahu Israel should ideally be allowed to manage its military occupation of the Palestinians without protest or pressure or even the US gently urging the need to return to the ‘negotiation table.’ If compared to the administration of Barack Obama, Trump’s attitude towards Israel is pleasing.
One of the main facilitators of the Trump’s pro-Israel policy at the UN is Nikki Haley. She was recently described by the rightwing Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, as “the (Trump) administration’s attack dog on the international stage.”
Haley has attacked various UN bodies, which she perceived as chronically ‘biased against Israel’, and waved the cutting of funds card to dissuade the UN from passing any resolution or issuing any statement that is critical of Israel.
Although previous administrations have also been pro-Israel – after all Obama gave Israel more money than any other president in history – never has the bar of expectations been dropped this low. It is as if the US government has leased its foreign policy regarding Palestine entirely to Israel, while using its political sway and financial influence to silence critics.
But the Israeli-US strategy at the UN is much more far-reaching than the usual arm-twisting and flanking of international law. Israel is now vying to join the UN Security Council itself.
Using and Abusing the UN
There is a great irony in the fact that Israel is seeking the coveted UN seat. Since its establishment atop the ruins of Palestinian cities and villages in 1948, Israel has had the most precarious relationship with the world’s largest international body. It has desperately sought to be legitimized by the UN, while it has done its utmost to delegitimize that very institution.
Following a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemning Israel’s human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in March 2014, Netanyahu accused the UN of being ‘absurd’. He vowed to “continue to denounce and expose” the UN “procession of hypocrisy.”
For years, Israeli leaders and government officials have undermined the UN and its various bodies and, with unconditional support from Washington, habitually ignored numerous UN resolutions regarding the illegal occupation of Palestine.
To a certain extent, the Israeli strategy – of using and abusing the UN - has worked. With US vetoes, blocking every UN attempt at pressuring Israel to end its military occupation and human rights violations, Israel was in no rush to comply with international law.
But two major events have forced an Israeli rethink. First, in December 2016, the US abstained from a UN resolution that condemned Israel’s illegal settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
By breaking with a decades-long tradition of shielding Israel from any international censure, it appeared that even Washington’s seemingly undying allegiance to Tel Aviv was uncertain.
Second, the rise of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement began changing the dynamics of international politics regarding the Israeli occupation.
The movement, which began as a call by Palestinian civil society to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian human rights, grew rapidly to become a global movement. Hundreds of local BDS groups multiplied around the world, joined by artists, academics, union members and elected politicians.
UNHRC quickly joined in, declaring its intention to expose the names of companies that must be boycotted for operating in illegal Israeli settlements. The efforts of human rights groups were coupled with repeated condemnations of Israel’s human rights violations as recorded by the UN cultural agency, UNESCO.
This meant that UN bodies that do not allow for veto-wielding members grew in their ability to challenge the UN Security Council. The actions of UNHRC and UNESCO spurred a determined Israeli-American campaign to delegitimize them.
Since Trump’s ascent to power, and with the help of ambassador Haley, Washington has waged a war against both organizations.
UNESCO insisted on maintaining its position, despite the call for funds to be cut. Meanwhile, UNHRC decided to go along with publishing the names of companies, despite US threats to pull out of the human rights body altogether.
Israeli officials fumed. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely charged that “the UN is playing with fire”, threatening that such initiatives will cause further loss of UN budget. She further declared that the US and Israel are working together to start a ‘revolution’ at the Human Rights Council through a joint ‘action plan.’
Signs of this oddly termed ‘revolution’ are already apparent. Aside from choking off UN bodies financially, Israel is lobbying countries in the South that have traditionally exhibited solidarity with Palestinians due to the common historical bonds of foreign oppression and anti-colonial struggles.
Netanyahu had just concluded a trip to Latin America, considered the first by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. In the last leg of his trip in Mexico, he offered to ‘develop Central America.’ The irony that, fortunately, did not escape everyone is that last January, Netanyahu declared his support for Trump’s promise to wall off the US-Mexico border and force Mexico to pay for it.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s charm offensive was planned to include Togo in October to attend the Israel-Africa Summit. Thanks to the efforts of South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, among other countries, the summit was cancelled as over half of African countries were planning to boycott it.
The setback must have been a major diplomatic embarrassment for Tel Aviv as Netanyahu has made African diplomacy a pillar in his foreign policy.
Last June, he visited Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda. He was accompanied by a large delegation of business executives. Earlier in June, he promised African leaders at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Liberia to supply them with agricultural technology that would stave off droughts and food scarcity.
The price? According to African News Agency (ANA), “Israeli technology would solve Africa’s most urgent issues – as long as African nations opposed UN resolutions critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.” Not all African leaders allowed themselves to be manipulated by Tel Aviv.
But the Israeli tactic is certainly becoming more defined and emboldened. Tel Aviv’s aim is to undercut the support of Palestinians at the UN General Assembly, and sabotage the work of UN bodies that exist outside the realm of US power.
Meanwhile, it also wants to secure a seat for itself at the UN Security Council. The assumption is that, with the support of Haley at the UN, such a possibility is not far-fetched.
Israel’s UN Ambassador, Danny Danon told the Jerusalem Post that his country expects the US to “actively support” the Israeli candidacy, against two other major US allies, Germany and Belgium. White bashing the US, Israel has spent years engineering this bid for a UNSC seat.
India’s UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin described the Israeli campaign as one executed with a “level of sophistication which is remarkable, doing it systemically, arranging fact-finding missions and bilateral agreements.”
With Haley and her boss on board, Israel is working hard to entice enough voters among the 193 General Assembly members to claim the UN’s highest seat.
In fact, Israel’s charm offensive in Latin America, Africa and Asia is partly meant to ensure the needed vote to grant it a seat in the UNSC 2019-2020 term. The vote will take place next year.
Israel’s strategy of elevating its status at the UN can also be seen as an admission of failure of Tel Aviv’s antagonistic behaviour. However, if Israel wins that seat, it is likely to use the new position to strengthen its occupation of Palestine.
It is unfortunate that the Arabs and the Palestinian Authority are waking up to this reality quite late. Israel has been plotting for this moment for years – since 2005 under the premiership of Ariel Sharon – yet the PA is only now requesting an Arab League strategy to prevent Israel from reaching that influential position.
What Palestinians are counting on at the moment, is the existing historical support that the Palestinian people have among many countries around the world, especially in the global South.
Most of these nations have experienced colonization, military occupation and undergone their own costly and painful liberation struggles. They should not allow a colonialist regime to sit atop the UN, obstructing international law while preaching to the world about democracy and human rights.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ’The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies, University of California.