Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Israel and the Security Council

Israel’s recent win of the chairmanship of one of the UN’s six permanent committees reportedly came with some Arab assent. Are these Arab states aware of the doors they have opened, asks Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Israel is universally reputed as the country that has shown the UN the greatest amount of contempt and that has most frequently and persistently flouted the provisions of its charter and its resolutions. Not that this has prevented it from taking the greatest pains to assert its presence in UN organisations and to use all possible means to influence their decisions.

Recently, it has scored a number of political victories that have enabled it to break its isolation within the international body. It is useful to examine how and why this has occurred, and the possible implications.

In October last year the Fourth Special Political and Decolonisation Committee of the General Assembly discussed, among other subjects, means for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. At one of the meetings, the US proposed a decision to increase the members of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to six.

Israel nominated itself to that committee, eliciting some strong reservations from Arab states. Above all, they pointed to the lack of transparency in Israel’s space activities and its persistent refusal to join any of the nuclear non-proliferation treaties, which conflicts with the peaceful nature of the committee.

But what was striking, at the time, was how divided the Arab states were when the subject came up for a vote. While most of them abstained, four Arab states voted in favour of the draft decision to increase membership of the committee and to accept the nominees cited in the text, one of which was Israel.

The four Arab states that voted in favour were Egypt, Oman, the UAE and Djibouti, which defended their vote by saying that the vote was not in favour of the inclusion of Israel on the committee but rather in support of the Arab states that were nominated for membership. While this justification did not convince everyone, and seemed to signal a shift in the voting directions of the Arab group, it was not without a certain degree of logic at the time.

About two weeks ago the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) nominated Israel to head the UN’s Sixth (Legal) Committee, the primary forum for considering legal questions in the General Assembly. Normally, committee heads are elected by consensus without a vote.

This time, however, the objections lodged by the Arab and Islamic groups to the prospect of Israel’s presidency of this important committee forced the General Assembly to call for a secret ballot. Held on 13 June, the results were 109 votes in favour out of the UN’s 193 members and 23 against with 14 countries not present.

The election of Israel to the chair of UN’s Sixth Committee is flagrantly ironic in three respects. First, the country that is the world’s leading violator of international law has just become the head of the UN committee responsible for ensuring respect for international law in the largest global organisation responsible for the preservation of international peace and security. While this election marks a resounding victory for Israeli diplomacy, it seriously diminishes the prestige and status of the UN and turns it into a joke.

Second, Danny Danon, the Israeli permanent delegate to the UN who will be chairing that committee, is renowned for being one of the most extremist members in Netanyahu’s already hawkish government. Some among the left in Israel itself regard him as an embarrassment to their country and feel that he is not qualified to represent it in the world’s largest international forum.

Danon has repeatedly stated his opposition to the two-state solution and has always been a fervent supporter of Israeli settlement expansion policies pursued by successive Israeli governments, especially in Jerusalem. He also opposes the Oslo Accords and, accordingly, any further Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

In fact he refuses to recognise the Arab lands that Israel seized in 1967 as occupied territories and instead refers to them as “liberated” Israeli land. Obviously, such positions conflict entirely with the articles and principles of international law and UN resolutions.

Third, although the balloting in the election of the Sixth Committee’s chairman was secret, numerous press reports indicate that four Arab states were among the 109 nations to vote in favour of the WEOG nominee. This signals a dangerous shift in Arab policies toward Israel, especially in terms of the voting patterns of the Arab Group in UN assemblies and the UN’s many constituent bodies.

In this article, we would like to consider this third point more closely. To better appreciate the magnitude of the shift in the voting patterns of the Arab Group in the UN, especially vis-à-vis Israel, we need to go many years back into the past. Israel only joined the UN in 1949, while Arab states participated in the founding of the international organisation and a number of its specialised bodies, meaning that the Arab states were members of these bodies before Israel.

Since the Arab countries were officially in a state of war with Israel, from the outset they collectively adopted a strategy that sought not only to avert any relations with Israel, even indirect ones, through UN agencies and their activities, but also to isolate Israel diplomatically by exposing its expansionist and racist policies to the international community. To a considerable extent, the Arab countries succeeded in this.

The powers backing Israel saw the regional activities of the UN’s bodies as an avenue to integrate Israel into the region. The Arab states rejected the participation of Israeli experts in any regional activity sponsored by the UN. This led the Arab states to engage in a fierce battle over the definition of “region” and how UN members were divided into the “regional groups” for carrying out regional activities, and for the purpose of ensuring equitable geographic distribution when it came to electing the members of various agencies and committees.

Until that time, the “Middle East” was the most frequently used term for this region in international organisations. But as this term was based on a purely geographical notion that lumped the Arab countries together with Israel and others, the Arab states had to fight long and hard for a definition of “region” that extended beyond the geographical sense to include the cultural and civilisational dimensions.

It took until the 1960s for their efforts to succeed, introducing a special group for the Arab states in some UN organisations, such as UNESCO. At the same time, the Arab states sustained efforts to prevent Israel from being included in any of the other official UN regions. In the UNESCO General Conference of 1964, a resolution was passed forming five regional groups — Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Arab States.

Israel was not included in any of them. It seemed censured, marginalised and isolated in the UN. That continued until the 1973 October war, when Arab solidarity reached its zenith and the Arab Group demonstrated that it was a force to be reckoned with in the international community.

This enabled the Arab states to score another point in their favour: passage of a resolution providing that the inclusion or non-inclusion of a state in any of the authorised regional groups was a matter that concerned all countries and fell under the jurisdiction of the general organisations and, accordingly, that it was a matter that was beyond the competence of the individual regional groups.

The Arab states thus managed to tighten the blockade around Israel, which had futilely tried to join the European Group after having been rejected by the Asian Group. Nevertheless, this situation was not to last. Arab solidarity gradually began to crumble, and as it did the cordon of isolation around Israel began to fray.

Eventually, Israel became a member of the entity called WEOG, but still it remained relatively isolated even with that group. It was not until much later, which is to say by the time the Arab order bordered on total collapse, that it was able to perform a normal role and win the opportunity to nominate itself to the committees of the various UN organisations and their subsidiary bodies.

Although Egypt, followed by Jordan and then the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), signed peace agreements with Israel, that peace remained “cold” and all Arab countries, including these three, sustained their efforts to prevent Israel from occupying an influential or leading position in any of the UN organisations.

Israel’s recent success in winning the chair of one of the General Assembly’s six permanent committees for the first time in Israeli history and the history of the UN, and with the support of four Arab states, moreover, has one meaning: the path to a non-permanent seat in the Security Council is now open to Israel and it is only a matter of time before it obtains one.

Did those Arab states take this possibility into account? Are they prepared for such an eventuality, which will add to Israel’s assets as much as it will diminish the assets of the Arab states and, indeed, the UN itself?


The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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