The US State Department announced this week that it will stop funding the United Nations Population Fund, which promotes family planning projects across the globe. Washington explained the drastic step by saying the organization “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” (UNFPA disputes this claim, saying all couples “make their own decisions.”)
Meanwhile, other UN agencies, especially those notorious for their severe anti-Israel bias, continue to receive American taxpayers’ money. Despite the new US administration’s pledge to tackle hostility toward the Jewish state in international bodies, so far those efforts have been limited to threats and minor tactical steps such as blocking Palestinians from top positions within the organization or getting anti-Israel reports pulled.
President Donald Trump has made defending the Jewish state a core tenet of his foreign policy. “I reject unfair and one-sided actions against Israel at the United Nations,” he said during his February 15 press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There’s a “new sheriff in town,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared last week, announcing that “the days of Israel-bashing are over.” If the organization’s member states continue obsessing about and demonizing the Jewish state, “we’re going to kick them every single time,” she pledged.
Indeed, Haley prides herself with having booted former Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad, who was set to become the UN’s envoy to Libya, and with contributing to the resignation of the head of a UN agency that published a viciously anti-Israel report which the UN itself rejected. “The United States stands with our ally Israel and will continue to oppose biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world,” she declared after the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia accused Israel of apartheid.
“We appreciate the new spirit brought by Ambassador Haley and believe that she will support our efforts to implement real changes at the UN,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, told The Times of Israel this week.
Furthermore, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in early March threatened to leave the UN Human Rights Council if it does not change its “biased agenda against Israel.”
But aside from that warning, the public vows to “change the culture of the UN,” and the above-mentioned, relatively minor moves against Palestinians, the US has so far initiated no reforms that promise to structurally change the UN’s notorious anti-Israel bias.
Emboldened by the vocal support from Washington, Jerusalem has recently taken measures to punish the UN for advancing hostile resolutions. After the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlement enterprise and declared it illegal, on December 23, 2016, Israel decided to cut $6 million from its annual contributions to the organization.
“This sum represented the portion of the budget allocated to anti-Israel UN bodies that must be canceled or reformed,” Danon explained. They include the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the Division for Palestinian Rights, the Work of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, and the Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine of the UN Department of Public Information, he said.
In March, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council passed a series of anti-Israel resolutions, prompting Jerusalem to further slash funding for the mother organization. “I am not prepared to pay for and finance the attacks against us at the UN. We are changing the rules,” Netanyahu declared at the time. The saved money would be spent on expanding ties with countries interested in cooperating with Israel, he said.
“We made clear that instead of supporting incitement and hurtful propaganda, we will use these funds to aid developing countries directly,” Danon confirmed.
After two rounds of budget cuts, Israel currently transfers only $3.7 million to the UN annually.
Several top officials in Jerusalem would love to see the US quit the Human Rights Council altogether. But so far, the government has not publicly urged the White House to do that, or even to slash funding to the organization.
Israel has not even called on the administration to cut funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which Jerusalem considers one of the most problematic UN bodies. Israeli officials accuse UNRWA of colluding with the Hamas terror organization in Gaza and of facilitating anti-Jewish incitement and even terrorism against Israeli civilians.
More than a third of UNRWA’s budget comes from the US, which in April holds the rotating presidency at the UN Security Council.
‘Either Agenda item 7 goes or we go’
The Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to Times of Israel queries about Jerusalem’s expectation of the administration’s UN policies.
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, however, knows exactly what he would like the US to do: get UNRWA to change the way it defines refugees, and threaten to withdraw from the Human Rights Council if it does not remove the infamous Agenda Item 7, which singles out Israel for perpetual censure.
“The US should present the council with an ultimatum: Either Item 7 goes or we go,” Oren told The Times of Israel this week. The organization would still be heavily biased against Israel, he added, “but at least it would not condemn us three times a year automatically.”
Since 2007, Israel has been the only country whose alleged human rights abuses are regularly discussed in the framework of a single permanent item on the Human Rights Council’s agenda. Last month, the council again passed a number of resolutions criticizing the Jewish state under Item 7.
“Item 7 prevents any sort of reform because the council condemns us automatically,” Oren said. “By singling out Israel for condemnations, Item 7 is not merely critical of Israel, it is inherently anti-Semitic. And I don’t use this term cavalierly.”
As it did for years during the tenure of Barack Obama, the US voted against all resolutions under Item 7. It also encouraged other countries to follow suit.
“The United States strongly and unequivocally opposes the existence of the UN Human Rights Council’s Agenda Item Seven: ‘Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,’” acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said on March 20.
“The so-called ‘Agenda Item 7’ discredits the standing of the only UN body specifically designed to address the state of global human rights by allowing nations to distract from their own abuses back home by churning out anti-Israel propaganda,” Ambassador Haley said.
But the US has not announced its departure from the council, or any other punitive measures.
America’s relationship with the UN human rights apparatus was never easy. President George W. Bush refused to join the council when it was founded in 2006 to replace the Human Rights Commission. His successor, Obama, argued the US could better exert positive influence on the council from the inside and entered it in 2009.
‘I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but wanting to reform the UNHRC is like wanting to reforming the BDS movement from the inside’
Even some pro-Israel organizations, including UN Watch and the World Jewish Congress, believe that it is better to engage with the council than to quit and leave it with no one to oppose its anti-Israel obsessions.
But Oren insists the council cannot be reformed from the inside, and the US should leave. “By being there, the US and like-minded countries are only legitimizing an inherently anti-Semitic organization. I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but wanting to reform the UNHRC is like wanting to reforming the BDS [Boycott, Divest and Sanction] movement from the inside.”
Officially, the Israeli government has not taken a position on the matter, Oren admitted. He added, however, that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is on record urging the US to quite the council, and assumes that Netanyahu shares that view.
Indeed, in February Netanyahu was recorded telling MKs at a Likud faction meeting that he suggested the US leave the council when he met Trump in the White House. “During the visit I raised the question whether the US should remain in the Human Rights Council,” he said.
Asked by an MK if it would be smart for the US to leave the council, given that it supports Israel there, the prime minister responded, “No, it’s better to leave. These types of organizations must be delegitimized.”
Netanyahu sees the Human Rights Council’s delegitimization of Israel as a strategic threat,” Oren said. “It’s designed to deny us the right to defend ourselves and ultimately the right to exist. It’s not just that they condemn us and that’s unpleasant. It’s a concerted effort to tie our hands in the face of terror. If we can’t defend ourselves then we are in serious danger.”
Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, last week discussed his views about the UN with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for international relations; Erin Barclay, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs; Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Eliot Engel, ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“There is a lot of openness for my ideas,” Oren said, acknowledging, however, that none of his interlocutors promised to adopt his proposals.
In his discussions in Washington, Oren also suggested the administration use funding as a leverage to effect change across the UN system. The US should establish a set of criteria to determine which UN agencies it should continue to fund, he said.
“One criterion is whether an organization is inherently anti-American or inherently anti-Israel. Another criterion is whether an organization actually does anything,” Oren said.
For instance the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), whose purpose since the late 1940s has been to monitor ceasefires and supervise armistice agreements, is “not doing anything” and should be closed down, the historian-turned-diplomat-turned-politician said.
What about UNRWA?
Despite their concerns over UNRWA, Israeli politicians usually don’t advocate the closing of the organization, arguing that the situation in Palestinian refugee camps would be even worse of UNRWA ceased to exist. In that spirit, Oren, too, stopped short of urging the US to withhold funds from UNRWA, but said Israel should strive to change the way the organization decides who it considers a refugee.
Palestinians who fled in 1948 are the only refugees in the world who bequeath their special status to future generations, leading to the fact that today there are millions of Palestinians considered refugees, even though they were born far away from Israel decades after the state’s founding.
“By changing the definition of ‘who’s a Palestinian refugee?’, you change the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Oren said.
In his comments to The Times of Israel, Danon, the Israeli UN ambassador, also refrained from calling for the US to slash funding for the UN, much less scrapping it. Rather, he demanded more “transparency and accountability” from the organization. “We won’t accept the current reality in which known Hamas operatives are on the UNRWA payroll as they continue to incite and educate the next generation to hate Israelis,” he said. “On multiple occasions we have made clear to the organization, the donor countries and the UN itself that we cannot let such a situation continue and real oversight is needed.”
The coming months will show the extent to which the US administration can live up to the high expectation it created by repeatedly vowing to fight Israel’s battles at the UN.
“At the US Mission, we’re all about changing the culture and bringing positive energy to the United Nations,” Ambassador Haley said last week in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “People who’ve worked with me know that I have no tolerance for unmet promises and inaction. My team is about action, reliability and results.”
The new administration has “already started to make some progress,” she said, but also acknowledged that old habits die hard, especially at Turtle Bay. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have illusions about how easily an institution the size and complexity of the United Nations can be changed.”