WASHINGTON — A former top US diplomat voiced concern recently that any United States action to defund the United Nations would wind up relinquishing control of the world body to China and thus strengthen efforts to censure Israel.
Responding to a proposal made by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to cut UN funding over a Security Council resolution passed last month critical of Israeli settlements, Ambassador Richard Schifter stated that such a plan could backfire if it came to fruition.
“My worry would be that, at that particular point, the Chinese would take over the UN and this would not be in the best interest of the United States,” Schifter told The Times of Israel. “It would, in fact, allow the members who are inclined to use that forum against Israel to do so unabated.”
The United States government gives the United Nations roughly $8 billion in both mandatory payments and voluntary contributions each year, with at least $3 billion going to its regular and peacekeeping budgets.
Those funds make up for 22% of the UN’s financial resources, which is more than any other country contributes. Japan provides the second largest amount with China coming in third.
But the level of diplomatic capital and leverage the People’s Republic holds over other member states would allow them to usurp America’s role in New York, Schifter said.
A longtime diplomat, Schifter has held roles such as former assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, US envoy to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights and UNESCO Committee on Conventions and Recommendations and deputy US representative to the UN Security Council.
In 1993, former president Bill Clinton made him a special adviser to the president and the National Security Council. Since leaving that post in 2001, Schifter has headed the American Jewish International Relations Institute, for which he often speaks publicly about the UN and Israel.
While the veteran diplomat said Sen. Graham’s concerns about the UN’s bias toward Israel are “valid,” he argued the US should focus instead on using its power to reform and reorganize the international institution.
“What really needs to be done is make significant changes in the structure of the UN,” he said, which included placing oversight bodies and instituting certain personnel standards that ensure envoys are casting votes on measures with the authorization from their respective heads of state.
According to Schifter, who spent more than 20 years working in the United Nations, many countries vote on specific resolutions to go against American government policies — which can often include voting against Israel — instinctually and without any guidance.
Similar ideas for reform were put forward in 2005 by a bipartisan, Congressionally mandated panel led by former New York Sen. George Mitchell (D) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), but their recommendations went largely ignored.
Leading up to the Security Council vote last December, in which it appeared the US would withhold its veto and allow the measure through, as it eventually did, Graham threatened to have Congress cut funding to both the UN and certain members for its targeting of Israel.
The motion that passed after the US abstained — UNSC Resolution 2334 — says the settlement enterprise “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law” and calls for a complete end to all construction in areas Israel captured after the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem and the Old City, which includes the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the holiest sites in Judaism.
It also calls on all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” — language that Israel fears will lead to a surge in boycott and sanctions efforts, and that an Israeli official warned would provide “a tailwind for terror.”
Graham’s proposal seems to have caught on with other members of his party. On Thursday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate saying he would formally introduce legislation in the coming weeks to withdraw financial support of the UN “until they repeal this disgraceful anti-Israel resolution,” he said.
In his remarks, Cruz cited a US decision to cut funding to UNESCO, in 2011, over its decision to accept a Palestinian bid for full membership. “We know previously that one way to get the UN’s attention is to cut off their money,” he said.
Because other UN organizations did not grant the Palestinians membership status following that action, Cruz argued, it proved the tactic’s efficacy.
“We know from the failure of other UN organizations to recognize so-called Palestine as a member state, after American taxpayer dollars were withheld … that the UN over and over again values its pocketbook over its leftist values,” he said.
While Schifter ultimately disagrees with the Graham-Cruz proposal, he does advocate qualifying funding to certain UN programs that work against US interests.
Case in point, he said, would be the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to which the United States donates almost $400 million annually.
The agency, Schifter suggested, does important work but also contributes to the demand of granting all Palestinian refugees a full right of return, which he described as “the fundamental reason the Palestinians are not prepared to enter into a peace agreement.”
One of the central Palestinian demands in peace negotiations has been a guaranteed return for all Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants to Israel.
Israel has consistently rebuffed such an outcome, as the injection of a massive Arab population into Israel proper would effectively abrogate the state’s Jewish character.
Schifter, a former refugee himself who fled his native Austria during the Holocaust, said fully defunding UNRWA would not be wise “because Jordan, for example, who you don’t want to hurt, benefits from that,” but that the US should not allow an agency to which it provides large-scale funding to continue promulgating such a notion.
“It doesn’t make much sense to allow an organization that lives off of US dollars to promote a position that continues to damage the prospects of the two-state solution the US so desires,” he said. “So there are UN programs that we fund that we have a very serious interest in reforming for the sake of Israel’s benefit.”