“Bravo, Ambassador Haley!”
This is the headline David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, chose for his Huffington Post opinion piece dedicated to America’s new ambassador to the United Nations. “Ambassador Haley, you have quickly established yourself as a courageous and unbending voice of principle in a setting where the word is more often observed in the breach than as a matter of course by some member states,” Harris, who leads the Jewish organization most closely involved with the UN, continued his praise.
And he is not alone.
The pro-Israel community is thrilled with Nikki Haley, President Trump’s representative to the international body, who as her first order of business decided to take on what she, Israelis and many in the Jewish community view as an inherent bias against Israel which has infected all UN branches. Haley will address next week thousands of pro-Israel activists from AIPAC’s policy conference’s main stage, and will later return to New York to attend a UN event dedicated to battling the campaign aimed at boycotting Israel.
“I have already gotten used to the hostility and cynicism of the UN toward Israel, but she came in with a new approach,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN told the Forward. “She came with a direct approach that is refreshing and encouraging.”
Haley’s pledge to fight anti-Israel bias in the international body, presented clearly and forcefully in her first days in office, warmed the hearts of many pro-Israel activist and transformed the former South Caroline governor into an instant heroine for the Jewish community. But delivering on her promise could prove to be difficult and it is still not clear if Haley can succeed in turning around the organization’s views on Israel, where her predecessors made only incremental advances.
Haley, 45, came to Turtle Bay after an impressive political career, but with zero diplomatic experience. A daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, Haley joined her mother’s clothing store after graduating from college and turned it into a multi-million dollar business. She was the first Indian-American elected official in South Carolina and became governor in 2010. Always a Republican, her political views shifted from leaning toward the Tea Party and running with the endorsement of Sarah Palin, to a more critical view of Donald Trump during the Republican primaries. Members of the pro-Israel community note that under Haley, South Carolina became the first state to enact an anti-BDS law.
An early appointment of Trump, who chose her even before selecting his Secretary of State, Haley made Israel a priority from day one. In her confirmation hearing she lamented the treatment Israel receives from the UN, saying that “nowhere has the U.N.’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” After her first Security Council meeting, Haley came out to the press and made a statement that became viral in Israel.
“It’s the first meeting like that that I’ve attended, and I have to say it was a bit strange,” she said, describing how instead of discussing ISIS, or the war in Syria, or Hezbollah’s rocket stockpile buildup, the committee focused on criticizing Israel. “I am new around here, but I understand that’s how the Council has operated, month after month, for decades,” Haley said, promising that, “I’m here to say the United States will not turn a blind eye to this anymore.”
“US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, thank you for your unequivocal support for Israel! It’s time to put an end to the absurdity in the United Nations,” Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Facebook, sharing the video of Haley’s comments with his followers.
Haley’s combative opening statement was followed by similar comments and by an effort she led to withdraw a report issued by the UN Economic and Social Commission which described Israel as an apartheid state. Her pressure eventually led to the resignation of Rima Khalaf, author of the report. “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign,” Haley said in response.
But not all of Haley’s pro-Israel overtures went well. She blocked the appointment of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to lead the organization’s mission to Libya, stating that “for too long the U.N. has been unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel.” But critics noted that Fayyad was, in fact, highly appreciated by Americans and Israelis as a pragmatic and moderate Palestinian leader, committed to the idea of a two-state solution. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in a tweet called Haley’s move “stunningly dumb,” and Susan Rice, who served as UN ambassador under Obama bashed the move, saying “Fayyad is first rate. The UN would be lucky to have him in Libya or anywhere else.”
Haley’s criticism of the United Nation’s focus on Israel and its refusal to include Israelis in leadership positions is, however, nothing new. Her predecessors under Obama, Samantha Power and Susan Rice both worked tirelessly to counter these trends and both won praise from the Jewish community for their efforts. “Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, the U.S., under both Democratic and Republican presidents has been quite successful in chipping away at biases and obstacles Israel faces at the UN,” said Scott Lasensky, a former Obama administration senior adviser on Israel and the Middle East. “I give our administration credit for chipping away at these biases and obstacles,” he said, adding his wishes that under Nikki Haley the trend will continue.
Israeli ambassador Danon agrees that relations with Rice and Power during the Obama administration were “excellent” and that they too worked to overcome the UN’s basic tilt against Israel, but, he makes clear that much of this was overshadowed by the decision of the Obama administration to abstain in the December 23 Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activity. “You cannot ignore the fact that the administration allowed this shameful resolution to pass,” said Danon.
Haley’s pro-Israel credentials will face many challenges as she is forced to deal with more substantive issues raised by UN members. So far the Trump administration made good on his promise to back Israel by boycotting a Human Rights Council session discussing the Jewish state, but will likely face new attempts in the future to define the outcome of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement through the UN. Haley will also be in a unique dilemma her predecessors did not have to face, working for an administration that has vowed to cut funding for the UN and many of its operations across the world.
As for the Jewish community, they will now wait and see if the new ambassador keeps up an unofficial tradition started by Rice of gathering Jewish leaders to a private briefing at the ambassadors every year before the General Assembly convenes, a meeting aimed at assuring Jewish activists that America will have Israel’s back at the General Assembly discussions.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.