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Security Council’s New Five: A Middle East Perspective

How might the newest members of the top United Nations panel shape the region?

Syria. Yemen. Israel. The Palestinians. Lebanon. Iran. There is no region in the world that draws more time, effort and attention from the United Nations Security Council than the Middle East.

Because of its powers – including authorizing war and imposing sanctions – winning a seat on the Security Council is considered a pinnacle of achievement for many countries. Yet its many resolutions, legally binding upon UN member states, are often violated, slow-walked or outright ignored, with few consequences.

The council’s permanent members – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – each wield an incredibly powerful veto over any potential resolution, making measures of consequence few and far in between given the competing interests and alliances of the P5.

Each year, five of the Security Council’s 10 non-permanent member-nations depart, and five others are elected to fill their seats. Freshly-elected India, Kenya, Ireland, Norway and Mexico are set to replace Indonesia, South Africa, Belgium, Germany and the Dominican Republic.

But, to some, very little will change.

“The Security Council of 2021 will likely not be radically different from the council of 2020 as far as Middle East politics is concerned,” UN expert Irwin Arieff told The Media Line.

Perhaps the biggest impact comes from a country that lost in this week’s secret-ballot elections. Canada put on a full-court press in its pursuit of a council seat but suffered a humiliating defeat to Norway and Ireland in the Western European and Others Group, which had two seats up for grabs.

“Canada has long been a strong supporter of Israel, while UN members as a whole tend to tilt in favor of a more evenhanded approach on the Middle East conflict. Canada’s past backing of Israel through thick and thin appeared to give a significant boost to its Western bloc rivals, both of which are expected to be tougher on Israel and more open to support for the Palestinians,” Arieff said.

Norway in particular has historically prided itself on its initiatives in pursuit of a Middle East peace deal negotiated among the parties, rather than the strongly pro-Israel vision pushed by US President Donald Trump. It played a crucial role as an intermediary in the reaching of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, negotiated and signed in 1993.

Ireland, meanwhile, has become known as perhaps the most anti-Israel country in Europe, especially now with the rise of Sein Finn, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian Authority, in the last national election.

The counter to that is India, which has hedged its Middle Eastern bets under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his “look West” foreign policy.

“Modi has managed to cultivate positive relationships with Israel, Iran and within the Arab Gulf, along with a strong personal friendship with US President Donald Trump, and may be able to leverage his various ties during India’s two-year run on the Security Council,” International Peace Institute analyst Linnea Gelo told The Media Line.

Modi has managed to cultivate positive relationships with Israel, Iran and within the Arab Gulf, along with a strong personal friendship with US President Donald Trump, and may be able to leverage his various ties during India’s two-year run on the Security Council

“India replaces Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world and has served as a diligent Arab and Muslim voice,” Gelo said. “Modi, suffice it to say, will not be taking up the banner of the Muslim world on the council.”

India’s stances on the council could very well hinge on the upcoming US presidential election. Modi and Trump are close. Meanwhile, former US vice-president Joe Biden’s campaign sacked Amit Jani, its Muslim outreach coordinator in March following complaints that he is close to Modi and an Islamophobe.

Mexico could build its scarce Middle Eastern ties on the back of its Security Council seat. Israeli-Mexico relations entered a golden age under then-president Enrique Pena Nieto, and at the UN, the country abstained from two key anti-Israel resolutions.

Current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has no real ties to Israel one way or another, and while Israel generally does not have strong relationships with leftist leaders (Greece being a notable exception), it appears that Obrador is focused more inwardly on Mexican affairs.

He has called on the US and Iran to avoid conflict and has run his foreign policy on the basis of respect for all states. The Mexican government staunchly denied a Wall Street Journal report earlier this year claiming Iran and Mexico had entered into a period of rapprochement since Obrador took office.

Israel does get a boost as Kenya takes South Africa’s place on the council. Israeli-South African ties were essentially severed by Pretoria in response to the IDF’s heavy response to Gaza border rioters. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic blitz in Africa has resulted in strong ties with Kenya, while Nairobi has also positioned itself as the gateway to Africa for all Middle Eastern nations and still favors Arab-Muslim nations at the multilateral level.

The five newly-elected nations will take their Security Council seats at the start of the new year, and anyone paying attention to the Middle East knows that some of the issues confronting the council today could look vastly different in five months. Others will last well beyond the next two-year council tenure.