UNITED NATIONS — Israel and its supporters are hoping that a comprehensive reform package to be adopted next week during the United Nations General Assembly will open the door to some of the key changes that Jerusalem has been demanding for years.
“We see in this General Assembly [what may be a] unique opportunity to see some of the changes take place,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, told the Forward. “We are not naive and know we will not achieve all of them, because things take time at the U.N., but this is the 60th G.A. and there is an ambitious reform agenda, so this is a real chance.”
Gillerman warned, however, that Israel would not agree to a reform package that failed to address its concerns.
Member states are negotiating a draft reform document that is to be submitted for approval to a special summit of heads of state at the U.N. between September 14 and 16.
While the United States has asked for more than 700 changes in the draft document initially submitted by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan back in March, the Bush administration and Congress have endorsed many of the changes advocated by Israel, chief among them the elimination of several U.N. entities dedicated to advancing the Palestinian cause, the reduction of many anti-Israel resolutions adopted by the G.A., the removal of any barriers blocking Israel’s ability to join U.N. bodies, the adoption of a new definition of terrorism and the overhaul of the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission.
“A true test of whether there is meaningful U.N. reform is whether there is a dramatic reform of the way that the U.N. treats Israel,” former House of Representatives leader Newt Gingrich told the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations during a July 21 hearing. Along with former senator George Mitchell, Gingrich headed a Congressional task force on U.N. reform that issued a report earlier this summer advocating major changes at the international body.
But while America’s backing is obviously important, Israeli officials have focused their efforts on getting the European Union on board. Gillerman said the E.U. is the “moral compass” of the U.N. and could sway Third World nations from their traditional support for the Palestinians.
“We are working to get the E.U. to spearhead the effort to reform the way the Middle East issue is handled at the U.N.,” Gillerman said.
The issue has long been a top concern among American Jewish communal officials. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the group has been holding more private meetings than usual with U.N. ambassadors and officials.
“This year, the stakes are higher,” he said. “What happens now could have a much longer term impact.”
To confront U.N. issues, in March, several Washington insiders created a new organization, the American Jewish International Relations Institute. Headed by Richard Schifter, a former U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and chair of the American Jewish Committee’s International Relations Committee until earlier this year, the new institute issued a comprehensive report detailing anti-Israel activities within the U.N.
“What we are saying is that this opportunity should not just be used to move the deckchairs around,” Schifter said. “It should also be used to address the fundamental intellectual dishonesty of the U.N.”
Some observers said that progress was plausible on some key issues, especially in the wake of the successful disengagement from Gaza.
For instance, Israel is pleased with a growing consensus over a definition of terrorism that would reject any justification for the targeted killing of civilians. For years, the Arab countries have insisted that exceptions be made for “resistance to occupation” or “national liberation movements” — widely seen as code words for Palestinian attacks against Israel — effectively blocking the adoption of several international conventions on terrorism. However, a growing number of countries, including European and Muslim ones who have been targeted by terrorism in recent years, have come closer to the Israeli position and a compromise could be reached. diplomats said.
Also high on the Israeli, as well as the American, agenda is the replacement of the human rights commission with a human rights council. The existing commission often includes countries with records of human-rights abuses, and one-quarter of its resolutions have focused on Israel. Jerusalem insists that that the new human-rights body has clear criteria for membership and guarantees against the politicization that marred the commission’s proceedings over the years.
While observers have said that an agreement on terrorism and the human rights council is possible, other goals favored by Israel are likely to take more time.
One goal unlikely to be fulfilled is the elimination of four U.N. bodies dealing exclusively with Palestinian issues: the committee on the exercise of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, the division for Palestinian rights in the department of political affairs, the special information program on the question of Palestine in the department of public information and the special committee to investigate Israel practices.
Schifter’s new organization has emphasized the energy and money eaten up by those bodies in its report.
“We think it can be brought to an end by shining a spotlight on it,” Schifter said. “It proceeded under the radar screen of a great many people.”
Both Israel and the United States would like to see those committees defunded, since formally eliminating them would require a G.A. vote — an unlikely prospect. Annan has proposed to review the mandates of U.N. entities older than five years and their impact on the budget.
While he acknowledged that the prospects of reducing the number of resolutions criticizing Israel adopted each year by the G.A. were limited, Gillerman expressed confidence that Israel’s temporary status as a member of the Western European and Other Countries regional group would become permanent, providing Israel with the rights to compete for all positions within the U.N. system.
“There is an opening to make Israel an active member” of the Western European bloc, Gillerman said, noting that the group had allowed Israel to officially put its candidacy up for election in front of the Security Council. “We have a promise from the secretary-general to make every effort to make Israel a full member of [the European group]… so this is something that could happen.”