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US says it avoided UN debate on Palestine ‘in support of Israel’

Statement comes after Jerusalem denies report that move at Human Rights Council indicated shift in Washington’s policy on Israel

File: Delegates speak prior to the opening of a session of the Human Right Council on March 23, 2015 in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/)
File: Delegates speak prior to the opening of a session of the Human Right Council on March 23, 2015 in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/)

The US refrained from speaking at a United Nations discussion of violations of human rights in the Palestinian territories Monday, saying the move was done in support of Israel.

A statement by US Ambassador Keith Harper to the Human Rights Council in Geneva confirmed an Israeli claim that the US silence was meant to back Jerusalem against the historically anti-Israel panel, and not as a result of tensions between US president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as had been reported.

“Our non-participation in this debate underscores our position that Item 7 lacks legitimacy, as it did last year when we also refrained from speaking,” Harper said. “The United States’ approach to the Human Rights Council’s Item 7 has not changed. We remain deeply troubled, by this Council’s stand-alone agenda item directed against Israel, and by the many repetitive and one-sided resolutions under that agenda item.”

The session was an annual review of Agenda item 7, which discusses accusations against Israel for alleged abuses against Palestinians, and is usually used by countries as a soapbox against Israel.

The US’s policy for several years has been to boycott the debate, a move praised by Israel, which also does not take part.

“As was the case last year, the United States will not engage in the debate.  Neither will Israel,” Harper said.

The US traditionally defends Israel at the UN and its constituent bodies from international censure. However, officials have indicated Washington may pull back that umbrella in response to anger at Netanyahu for statements he made last week in which he seemed to take a two-state solution with the Palestinians off the table.

Earlier Monday, an American spokesperson in Geneva told Reuters that “the US delegation will not be speaking about Palestine today,” which was taken as a sign of deteriorating ties with Israel. Reuters has since updated its story.

The move was reported by Reuters to be part of Obama’s “reassessment” of Washington’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in light of Netanyahu’s pre-election comments rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But an Israeli Foreign Ministry source categorically denied the thrust of the Reuters report.

Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the American delegation was not present at the debate “at Israel’s request.”

He said that Jerusalem asked its friends to stay away from such debates every year.

Jerusalem had quit the Human Rights Council in 2012 to protest its alleged anti-Israel bias. Late in 2013, Israel rejoined the body, after Western member states promised to admit the country into the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), which significantly increases Jerusalem’s ability to advance its interests at the body. In addition, the WEOG states agreed not to participate in discussions over Agenda item 7 for two years.

“Reuters took the statement by the [American] spokesperson and misinterpreted it to mean that it was a response by the Obama administration to the elections in Israel,” he said. “The report is untrue. Every year, the Americans stay away from this debate, which singles Israel out for censure, at Israel’s request.”

Israel’s delegation to the Geneva-based UN body also refused to appear at the debate about the state of human rights in the Palestinian territories.

Israel provided no immediate explanation for not being present at the session dedicated overwhelmingly to discussion of its policies and alleged abuses, but a source close to the council said its absence clearly amounted to a boycott.

Monday’s session had originally been scheduled to discuss a probe on the 50-day war in Gaza last year, but the investigators obtained a delay after the head of the team quit under Israeli pressure.

“The process cannot be rushed,” former New York judge Mary McGowan Davis, who has taken over as head of the team, told the council.

Canadian international law expert William Schabas resigned as chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict last month after Israel complained he could not be impartial because he had prepared a legal opinion for the Palestine Liberation Organization in October 2012.

Schabas strongly denied that he was beholden to the PLO but said he was reluctantly stepping down to avoid the inquiry into the July-August conflict — commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council — being compromised in any away.

AFP contributed to this report.

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