Does Israel Actually Want the U.S. to Defund the UN?

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Some Israel supporters are calling for the U.S. to disengage from the United Nations, but this would actually harm Israel's interests -- and go against the wishes of its diplomats

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President Obama meets Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York / Reuters

One of the many effects of the Palestinians' bid for statehood at the United Nations is a renewed campaign for the U.S. to withdraw its financial support of the institution and downgrade its engagement. "I would tell the other 190-plus members of the United Nations: If you vote for a declaration of Palestinian statehood, the United States will defund the United Nations, period, close quote," Bush-era UN ambassador John Bolton recently said on Fox News.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, submitted a bill that would block U.S. funding to any UN agency that elevates the status of "Palestine" in the international body. (It heads into committee markup next week.) And a new political group called Emergency Committee for Israel, founded by Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer, recently demanded in a full-page New York Times ad that President Obama prove he is "a staunch and reliable friend of the Jewish State ... by announcing the United States' departure from the appalling, anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council."

There is a legitimate debate as to the efficacy of the United Nations. But these critiques -- couched in Israel's interest -- present opposition to UN engagement as a measure of pro-Israel bono fides. The problem is that Israel itself is against many of these proposals made on its behalf. A former Israeli diplomat summed up his country's opposition, calling the tactics "big on ideology but very short on actually helping Israel."

Being seen as "pro-Israel" in America seems to have increasingly little to do with actually supporting Israel

According to multiple sources in the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations, as well as Israeli officials, Israel continually asks the U.S. to remain engaged at the UN -- and often to ramp up its engagement. "Every time an Israeli diplomat comes to meet with us, they thank us for being so involved on their behalf at the UN -- particularly places like the Human Rights Council," one high-level State department official told me. As to the recent anti-UN campaign by self-described "pro-Israel" groups and individuals, he said, "Israel is not thrilled this is happening."

A desire to further Israel's interests drives no small part of U.S. engagement with the UN, sources in both governments say. "Our approach at the UN has advanced American interests and values, bolstered Israel's security, and ensured that Israel never stands alone in the face of constant attempts to chip away at its legitimacy," a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the UN told me.

U.S. involvement in the UN, and particularly its significant financial contributions, gives it leverage with other member states. That leverage can be especially crucial at times such as last month, when the U.S. furiously lobbied other UN member states to vote against the unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the General Assembly. "If we don't pay our UN dues, not only will we face penalties and potentially losing our vote in the General Assembly, but we also lose our leverage," the State Department official said.

Palestinian efforts for recognition by international organizations are not over. Even if they lose in the General Assembly, the Palestinians can repeat their bid for upgraded membership in specialized and technical committees such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The recent Palestinian statehood campaign has given momentum to a UNESCO bid, which has been tabled for the past 20 years but will likely be approved at their general conference next month, according to a State Department official involved in the negotiations. "Why would these so-called friends of Israel be trying to pull our leverage when we are so far in front on issues relating of concern to Israel?" an Obama administration official asked.

U.S. engagement at the UN brings other tangible benefits to Israel, allowing the U.S. to fight against the Arab League-sponsored Israeli Nuclear Capabilities resolution at last year's IAEA general conference, which would have called on Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (The resolution did not even make it onto the agenda for this year's conference.) UN engagement also enabled the U.S. to muster broad support for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, which created the most comprehensive and biting international sanctions regime ever faced by Iran.

The U.S. is also helping Israel in its bid for the executive board of UNESCO, and is working with Israel on a potentially groundbreaking UNESCO initiative to promote Holocaust education around the world. The U.S. also helped lead a UNESCO deal with Jordan regarding controversial renovations that Israel wanted to make to the Mughrabi Gate near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

One of the most significant ways the U.S. has used its leverage to help Israel at the
UN is by pushing for Israel's admission to the Western European and Others Group and the JUSCANZ group (a consultative body to the UN Human Rights Council), which allowed Israel membership in such UN bodies as the UN Development Programme and the UN Commission on International Trade Law. Israel, thanks in part to U.S. lobbying on its behalf, will join the board of United Nations Children's Fund and chair an Economic and Social Council subsidiary body in the coming months. Due to U.S. prodding, the Western European and Others Group is even putting Israel up as its candidate for a future Security Council seat. All of these efforts are crucial in helping to counteract Israel's marginalization in its UN regional bloc.

9-11 Ten Years LaterTo be sure, the UN Human Rights Council -- where U.S. presence is of particular scorn by UN critics -- is often "blatantly, horribly anti-Israel, and incredibly dysfunctional," as one U.S. diplomat described it to me. But U.S. efforts have ensured that, in its most recent session (ending last week), no resolutions were adopted under the council's Israel-specific agenda item. In March 2011, the U.S. prevented six anti-Israel resolutions from unanimously passing the council. It also blocked membership to regimes that are hostile to Israel, such as Iran and Syria, and helped kick Libya off the council. U.S. efforts also helped prevent the controversial Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza War from advancing beyond the council, and were integral in the UN Palmer Commission's pro-Israel report on the Turkish flotilla raid. The spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the UN said that they have long "[stood up] in the Human Rights Council to fight biased actions against Israel that too often divert attention from the world's most egregious human rights abuses."

U.S. diplomats attribute these campaigns against U.S. involvement in the UN to an outdated understanding of the institution. "These folks have a fantasy that the U.S. somehow bestows credibility on the UN, and that if we disengaged, it would whither on the vine," said a former State department official. "That may have been true in 1945, but it's not true today." Israeli diplomats understand frustration with the UN, but see the anti-engagement strategy as foolish. "If there is no correlation between the punishment and the desired outcome, that's emotion, that's not foreign policy," a former Israeli diplomat said.

Defunding the UN would not only decrease U.S. leverage there, it could also harm Israel. "If the result [of Ros-Lehtinen's bill] is that UNWRA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] has less funds, and that leads to a situation where schools and health clinics close down, that plays into the hands of Hamas, that is bad for Israel," the Israeli diplomat said. "If funds for UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] get cut, that would be very bad for Israel. ... There is a lot we don't like about the UN, but they do a lot that is critical for us."

These campaigns in the name of Israel to disengage from the UN follow a disturbing trend: Advocacy for policies by "pro-Israel" actors that actually run counter to Israel's interests. (Another example: recent calls to cut off aid to the Palestinians, when the Israeli government itself released a report calling for the international community to continue aid to the Palestinians.) Being seen as "pro-Israel" in America seems to have increasingly little to do with actually supporting Israel. It is no coincidence that most of these efforts are run by partisans hoping to win Jewish support.

So why aren't we hearing more about this from Israel? "The Israeli politicians with a public profile, they'll demagogue the issue to whip up support from their base," a State Department official told me. "But if you talk to Israeli diplomats, the ones who are out in the field, defending Israel every day in the international community, they'll tell you how important U.S. engagement at the UN is to Israel's interests."

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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