Why Israel? A look at Israel and UN bias

By Leah Goldman (pseudonym)
When discussing topics around Israel one of the common questions one hears is “why is the whole world so concerned with Israel?”  This is often accompanied by the opinion that antisemitism has reared its ugly head in blanket condemnation and hatred for the State of Israel. 
Putting aside the history and impact of Israeli occupation, colonisation and military action well deserving of condemnation from those who value justice, peace and human rights, to unpack very briefly some of the ideologies in the movements supportive of Palestine and Palestinian self-determination helps to understand the question of ‘why Israel?’. To begin with, one must understand that what is special about Israel is that the creation of the Zionist State happened relatively recently in history and thus remains very fresh for the victims who were displaced by the colonial forces establishing the State of Israel. Many Palestinian refugees still hold the key to the houses in Israel proper, which they were forced to flee from. One could also argue that because the colonisation occurred more recently in history, it didn’t deploy the same genocidal tactics seen in other settler colonies around the world, which obliterated more fully the Indigenous populations that presided in these lands. That means that today there are some 9.6 million Palestinians who demand justice and in various instances retain political power to voice this demand.
The left broadly subscribes to political and historical understandings which critique colonisation and power and wealth disparities. The view that Israel is a Western democracy, touted by both supporters and dissidents of Israel, aligns it with the oppressive nations of the globe.  What’s more, the creation of this State occurred at the same historical moment when a global movement towards decolonisation became an important international agenda. Indeed, Israel was aided by the very same international body that was established to oversee a global movement towards decolonisation, situating Israel as counter to historical tides. The United Nations, which was pivotal in the establishment of Israel with UN resolution 181 calling for the partition of British mandate Palestine into two States,[1] is now viewed as an enemy of Israel and a body embedded with antisemitism. Is the UN really antisemitic?  In what ways does it serve to condemn and/or protect Israel’s right to exist in peace and security? What should we make of the UN’s position on Israel and Palestine?
How is the UN biased against Israel?
The assertion that the UN is a biased institution is echoed by many. Interestingly, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, allegations are heard from one side that the UN is a virulent anti-Israel and antisemitic institution, whilst on the other side the UN is criticised for protecting Israeli interests and taking a soft position on Israel’s actions. We first begin with the allegation that the UN is anti-Israel.   “Whatever claim to principled behaviour the political organs of the United Nations may have crumbles to a double standard whenever Israel is on the agenda.”[2]  In a speech delivered in 2006 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, he states: “I am worried by its disproportionate focus on violations by Israel.  Not that Israel should be given a free pass.  Absolutely not.  But the Council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other States as well.”[3]
Israel is a frequent subject of UN condemnations and resolutions.  Wikipedia lists some 226 Security Council resolutions concerning Israel.[4]  It is the only country to appear on the Human Rights Council’s permanent agenda.  The amount of resolutions targeting Israel causes alarm and beckons us to ask why this is so.  With major humanitarian violations occurring in other parts of the world it does lead one to conclude that UN’s focus on Israel is disproportionate.  UN Watch, a NGO whose objective is to monitor UN activity and bias, particularly towards Israel, asserts that the three special entities dedicated to the Palestinian cause have a budget of millions “which it devotes to the constant promotion of anti-Israel propaganda throughout the world.” [5]
Another point of contention is the denial of a seat to Israel on the Security Council from 1961 to 2000.  Israel is the only UN member state which has been denied a seat on the Security Council.[6]  Whilst the council is made up of 5 permanent members and 10 rotational seats, these seats are filled by member states according to their regional bodies.  Israel, which by geographical considerations should be party to the Asian states group, was denied to be a member of this group.  According to UN Watch, no UN official has ever called out the Asian states on their diplomatic bigotry.[7] After initial opposition,[8] in 2000 Israel was admitted as a full but temporary member of the Western European and Other Groups (WEOG) with imposed conditionality,[9] until November 2013 when it was granted permanent admittance.
It is important to understand that the international body has a complex structure which is subject to its own internal politics.  The allegation that the UN is obsessed with Israel must be seen within a wider framework where the composition of the UN is structured in such a way to give power, albeit limited, to socialist and anti-Western countries and blocks. “No indictment of the United Nations has been made more frequently or with greater vehemence than that it singles out Western and pro-Western states for obloquy, while winking at far worse excesses committed by socialist and Third World nations (Franck. p.811).”[10] The General Assembly gives one vote per member country, and there are many developing countries which are anti-Western, having suffered under colonial history, as well as Islamic countries that are sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination. [11] Whilst it could be argued that the UN is biased against Israel, it should be noted that the UN has also shown bias in other instances according to nations individual interests and the Communist, Muslim and non-aligned blocks, for example in its reports and condemnations of Chile vs Poland.
The allegation that the UN is obsessed with Israel seems vividly stark when looking at the statistical propaganda publicised by UN watch which compares UN condemnations of Israel compared to other member states.  While the UN’s repetitious focus on Israel is undeniable, the examples provided by UN watch need further scrutiny in both specific and broader contexts.
The numbers of condemnations and UN resolutions against Israel is undeniably high; however they most often rely on data collected by proponents of Israel.  For example a statistical analysis was conducted in 1991 commissioned by the office of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  It is interesting to note that this study revealed that 42% of Security Council resolutions passed against Israel between 46-89 were “neutral or balanced,”[12] suggesting that simply pointing to the amount of condemnations is not suffice without an interrogation of the content.
Disputing the figures in 2014.
According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website, [13] in 2014 the UN Human Rights Council made 102 resolutions.  Of these, human rights were addressed in 3 resolutions on Syria, as well as in Sri Lanka, Iran, Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea and Belarus. Pertaining to Israel, resolutions were passed on the right of Palestinians to self-determination, the human rights situation in Occupied Palestine, Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, Syria and the Golan and a fact finding report in Gaza.  Universal Periodic reviews were conducted on some 38 other member states. [14]
There were 63 UN Security Council resolutions in 2014.  Only two are directly concerned with Israel, pertaining to disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria (mentioned twice) and withdrawal from Northern Ghajar in Lebanon.  Sudan and South Sudan was subject of 6 Security Council Resolutions, 3 resolutions on Liberia, 2 on Syria, 2 on Afghanistan, 4 on Somalia, 3 on Central African Republic, 4 on Libya, to name a few.[15]
Repetition and Failure to comply
It is also important to note that whilst the figures still show a high proportion of UN condemnations directed at Israel, many of these resolutions are repeated following failure by Israel to comply. For example, of 77 Security Council resolutions passed between 1955-2013, 22 resolutions were passed repeating the demand for Israel to disengage and stop attacking Lebanon.  A further 10 resolutions urge and deplore Israel for failing to comply with UN resolutions, missions and peacekeeping forces.[16]   Indeed Israel holds the record for ignoring United Nations Security Council resolutions, according to a study by San Francisco University political science professor Steven Zunes.[17]
…Or is the UN bias pro-Israel?
Whilst it has been established that Israel is subject to a disproportionate amount of UN resolutions, it must be taken into account that the only forum within the UN where actions are taken is the Security Council.  The permanent members of the Security Council are the main victors of World War II and each hold veto power to obstruct any resolution.  The United States have vetoed over 40 condemnatory Security Council resolutions[18], stating they will only support resolutions which condemn specific Palestinian terrorist groups and security as a condition for Israel withdrawal- a policy that has come to be known as the Negroponte doctrine.[19]
According to the Global Policy Forum (an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinizes global policymaking), since 1967 and the passing of resolution 242 calling on Israel to relinquish territories acquired during the war, the Security Council has taken no significant action towards ending the Israel’s occupation.[20]  Furthermore, none of the condemnations of Israel have resulted in coalition action in its territory, indictments of its leaders; let alone a conviction, or international sanctions, as has been the case with Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. There have only been three convictions in the International Criminal Court, all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.  Whilst Israel stands in breach of Security Council resolutions it has not been subject to UN condoned military intervention such as occurred in Iraq. Even though the International Court of Justice declared Israel’s separation barrier to be illegal, the Security Council is yet to formally accept or enforce the Court’s ruling.  “No enforcement action or any other action to implement UN resolutions and international law has been ordered by the Security Council.”[21]
Whilst UN watch draws attention to the unfair  amount of condemnations against Israel, it has little to say about America’s vetos of Security Council resolutions, or Israel’s inaction and dismissal of resolutions, despite stating that: “None of this means Israel should be above the law.”[22]
Israel and its supporters, who have historically ignored UN resolutions, now completely dismiss UN statements and reports according to a logic that the UN is an anti-Israel and antisemitic body.  As put Aeyal Gross from Haaretz: “Most Israelis and their supporters will find no compelling reason to waste their time on a “defective and biased” report that is issued by a body that is “obsessed” with Israel, as Netanyahu said” [23]  One example of this is in the recent UNHRC report on the Gaza incursion of 2014. Whilst the report “devotes ample space and deference to Israelis suffering from rocket attacks,” violations of the laws of war by both sides, and serious efforts were made not to slant the report in favour of either side, still Netanyahu was quick to dismiss the entire report. [24]
Haaretz Correspondent Chemi Shalev states: “It is a vicious circle that has traditionally marked Israeli attitudes to its 48-year occupation of the Palestinians… International condemnation of Israel is automatically dismissed and portrayed as incontrovertible proof of incorrigible anti-Israeli sentiments and rampant anti-Semitism.” He continues to say “Israel is the victim of a blatant double standard and the UNHCR is indeed a ridiculously one-sided anti-Israeli operation. This does not negate the fact that in some cases the IDF employed exaggerated and indiscriminate force that resulted in massive and unwarranted loss of civilian life.” [25] The feeling of persecution and prejudiced targeting has succeeded in driving Israelis further to the insular right in an ever deepening cycle of alienation and dismissal of world opinion.
A closer examination into the treatment of Israel by the UN reveals that the UN is not a unified body which can be easily defined as pro or against Israel.  On the one hand it disproportionally targets Israel in resolutions and condemnations whilst failing to act or enforce these, where in similar instances pertaining to other member states it has acted more strongly.  The broader contexts where we refer to the UN need to be scrutinised, so whilst there may be validity in criticising the UNs fixation on Israel, so too can the US’s powers to encumber any real enforcing action. Unfortunately Israel has used perceived bias within the UN as a means to completely disregard any of its expertise and promotion of global human rights agendas.

[1] http://www.adl.org/israel-international/un-international-organizations/c/Israel-at-the-UN.pdf
[2] Franck, T.M. (1984) “Of gnats and camels: is there a double standard at the United Nations?”, American Journal of International Law, Vol 78:4, p.819
[3] http://www.un.org/press/en/2006/sgsm10788.doc.htm
[5] http://www.unwatch.org/site/c.bdKKISNqEmG/b.1359197/k.6748/UN_Israel__AntiSemitism.htm. There are three special UN entities dedicated to the Palestinian cause. The oldest is the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, created in 1968. In 1975, the General Assembly added the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Supporting its work is the Division for Palestinian Rights.
[6] http://www.eretzyisroel.org/~jkatz/unitednations.html
[7] http://www.unwatch.org/cms.asp?id=4861971&campaign_id=63111
[8] http://www.eretzyisroel.org/~jkatz/unitednations.html
[9] http://www.science.co.il/Arab-Israeli-conflict/Articles/Newman-2000-08-01.php
[10] Franck, T.M. (1984) “Of gnats and camels:is there a double standard at the United Nations?”, American Journal of International Law, Vol 78:4.
[11] Emmanuel Mréjen (1998 ) “Israel and the reform of the United Nations”, Israel Affairs, Vol 5(1).
[12] http://www.eretzyisroel.org/~jkatz/unitednations.html
[13] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/Documents.aspx
[14] Suadi Arabia, Senegal, Nigeria, Mexico, Mauritius, Jordan, Malaysia, Central African Republic, Belize, Chad, China, Monaco, Congo (2), Malta, Israel, New Zealand, Afghanistan, Chile, Uruguay, Yemen, Vanuatu, Macedonia, Comoros, Slovakia, Eritrea, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Cambodia, Norway, Albania, Cote d’Ivoire, Portugal, Bhutan, Dominica, Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Qatar, Nicaragua.
[15] http://www.un.org/en/sc/documents/resolutions/2014.shtml
[16] http://www.ifamericansknew.org/stat/un.html
[17] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/study-israel-leads-in-ignoring-security-council-resolutions-1.31971
[18] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/UN/usvetoes.html
[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negroponte_doctrine
[20] https://www.globalpolicy.org/security-council/index-of-countries-on-the-security-council-agenda/israel-palestine-and-the-occupied-territories/un-involvement.html
[21] http://www.economist.com/node/1378577
[22] http://www.unwatch.org/site/c.bdKKISNqEmG/b.1359197/k.6748/UN_Israel__AntiSemitism.htm
[23] http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.662591
[24] http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/west-of-eden/1.662490
[25] http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/west-of-eden/1.662490

A response to this article has been published here.

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