Though no one realizes it, Israel may be a linchpin in this year’s historic push for change at the United Nations. Israel’s tortured history at the UN is emblematic of much (though by no means all) of what is wrong with the world organization. Longstanding U.S. perceptions of the UN membership as anti-Western, unprincipled, motivated by petty biases, and dominated by a herd mentality stem largely from—and are given continuing basis by—the body’s history of anti-Israel conduct. An organization that has been too fractured and passive to confront the moral challenges of our time—including Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur—has managed to adopt more than twenty resolutions chastising Israel each year since 1985. The isolation of Israel at the UN has strained the U.S.-UN relationship and undercut the legitimacy of the global body in the eyes of many Americans.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is seeking to restore the UN’s credibility after an era of scandal and paralysis. In March he issued a set of recommendations based on the work of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change he set up to propose reforms. Although Annan’s proposals do not directly address Israel’s anomalous position, they do get at certain conditions that have contributed to the ostracizing of Israel. If implemented, these measures should begin to show that the organization is serious about reform. At the same time, simply enacting the Annan reforms will not root out entrenched patterns. The reforms should go hand in hand with a political push led by the United States to put Israel on an equal footing with the organization’s 190 other states. If Israel’s standing does not improve after a major reform effort, Secretary-General Annan and the High-Level Panel will have failed to check the organization’s worst impulses, and the UN’s credibility crisis will persist.
If Not Now, When?
Amelioration of Israel’s situation at the UN is timely, achievable, and can help the Mideast peace process. It was Yasir Arafat, with a 1974 speech before the UN General Assembly delivered with a pistol visible on his hip, who galvanized the world organization against the Jewish state. His death and succession by the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza, and the resumption of direct Palestinian-Israeli talks represent the first thaw in relations since the late 1990s and should carry over to the UN. Events in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt suggest that the Mideast as a whole may be entering a new phase of reform and modernization. If so, it is vital to ensure that the UN enhance reform and modernization in the region rather than undermine them with a continuation of old patterns of anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel.
Given the precarious standing of the United States in the Muslim world, Washington would face difficulties in tackling the problem of Arab anti-Semitism head-on. (Even recent efforts by Jordan to nor...
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