The newly-minted UN chief is also scheduled to visit the West Bank and Gaza
“I call on you to end discrimination against my country in your organization,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin conveyed to his guest, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who is making his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories since assuming his new role. Moreover, Rivlin asserted, “no UN member-state should be allowed to call for the destruction of Israel,” a sentiment with which Guterres vehemently agreed, before stressing that his “mission is to promote dialogue, understanding and peace.”
Israel has long contended it is subject to unfair treatment at the UN, with the General Assembly every year passing dozens of resolutions targeting the Jewish state while ignoring far greater violations by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. In this respect, the Israeli government regularly highlights what it believes is the hypocrisy of the Human Rights Council which, according to Agenda Item Seven, must at every gathering discuss Israel’s alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians. Jerusalem also holds particular contempt for UNESCO, the cultural organization which has on multiple occasions denied Jewish links to holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank (ironically, Palestinian officials criticized Guterres in January for saying that a Jewish temple once existed atop the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif).
Another prominent example is the infamous Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of committing war crimes during its 2009 conflict with Hamas, claims that were later recanted by the lead author himself, jurist Richard Goldstone. More recently was the decision by the General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state outside the historical understanding that such a result could only come about through direct negotiations with Israel. The list essentially goes on and on; yet, Israel now believes it has a “friend” in Guterres who may be able to usher in change.
Before ascending to his position, Guterres vowed to be “on the front lines in the fight against anti-Semitism…[which is] absolutely unacceptable.” He stressed that Israel has an “undeniable right to exist and to live in peace and security with its neighbors” and that “the modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the existence of the state of Israel.” Guterres reiterated these beliefs in his press conference with Rivlin on Monday, while asserting that “Israel can be fully confident that in my role I will stress the values of the UN Charter, including impartiality; namely, treating all states equally.”
According to Colette Avital, Israel’s former ambassador to Portugal who has known Guterres for twenty years, the newly-minted UN chief both appreciates the Jewish state and the Jewish People. “I knew him when he was a backbencher in the [Portuguese parliament], and arranged for him to go to Israel as a guest of the Labor Party,” she recounted to The Media Line. “He came back enthused and since then he has always been in touch with members of the Israeli government, including when he became prime minister of Portugal.”
Amb. Avital believes that Guterres has a “keen understanding of Jewish history and is therefore very sensitive to certain aspects of Israel to which others are not.” This does not mean that he agrees with everything that Israel does, she clarified, but rather that “he sees reality as it is even if he is not in tune with all of the government’s policies.”
In this respect, Guterres identifies as a socialist who perhaps relates more closely to left-wing views, especially as they pertain to Palestinian statehood, for example. “He was a great admirer of Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Rabin,” Amb. Avital revealed, “and would probably approve more of the policies of a Labour government. But he knows how to act and to promote peace behind the scenes.”
Overall, she concluded, “Guterres understands that the UN has not always been fair towards Israel due to the composition of the Security Council or the General Assembly, but he is trying to change some things.”
In this respect, Guterres made a mark when he denounced a report by UN official Rima Khalaf’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, which labelled Israel a racist and “apartheid state.” Khalaf thereafter resigned, whereas the report was removed from the UN’s website at the behest of Guterres. Finally, the new UN boss purportedly has also instructed various bodies deemed biased against Israel to stop sending him reports they generate, which in the past were signed and rubber-stamped by the Secretary General.
Another of Israel’s primary concerns is UNIFIL, the peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon whose mandate is expected to be strengthened by the Security Council on August 30, a move which Guterres backs. U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been leading the charge against the body, having previously accused it of “not doing its job effectively” before blasting its commander over the weekend for ignoring Hizbullah’s weapons smuggling. “What I find totally baffling,” she quipped, “is the view of UNIFIL commander General Beary…[who] says there are no Hizbullah weapons. He seems to be the only person in south Lebanon who is blind.”
Following the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, the Security Council significantly boosted UNIFIL’s mandate to include laying the groundwork for an enduring “full cessation of hostilities.” To this end, resolution 1701 called for up to 15,000 UN personnel to be deployed to southern Lebanon (the current force numbers some 10,500) in order to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces to secure the border. Most important, the peacekeepers were tasked with overseeing the “disarmament of all armed groups” other than Lebanese government forces, as well as “ensur[ing] that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind…[by] prevent[ing] the entry in[to] Lebanon of arms or related material.”
It is on this final point that Israel, among others, has forcefully denounced UNIFIL’s apparent failures, as Hizbullah has effectively transformed itself into a regional powerhouse, capable not only of warring on behalf of the Assad regime and its Iranian patron in Syria but also of threatening the entirety of Israel with an arsenal of missiles that is now estimated at over 120,000. Despite the prohibition of Hizbullah activity in southern Lebanon, it has militarized homes and villages in preparation for war with the Jewish state under the guise of a nebulous non-profit organization.
At his own press conference with Guterres on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu slammed the UN for failing to prevent the rearmament of the Lebanese Shiite group and for allowing “Iran to turn Syria into a base of military entrenchment, and [for trying to use] Syria and Lebanon as war fronts [in] its declared goal to eradicate Israel.”
Despite the apparent tensions, as regards Israel’s two overarching goals—to end the UN’s anti-Israel bias and to rein in Hizbullah—both are achievable according to Jerusalem’s former ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman. “During my six year term,” he revealed to The Media Line, “I learnt that nothing is impossible at the UN if you do the right thing and form the right coalitions. As hostile as the body is to Israel and as much as there is an automatic majority against it, there are still things that can be done.”
In this respect, the ambassador highlighted his election as vice president of the General Assembly during his tenure, as well as the passage of an International Holocaust Remembrance resolution, “which was an historic occasion.”
Amb. Gillerman conceded, however, that there are limitations to what Israel can achieve as its diplomats must work within a pre-existing system and accept various political realities. “Israel has made inroads with many countries but most of them are still under the radar,” he explained, “but the UN will probably be the last place where there is a change in the voting patterns as well as in the speeches and expressions towards Israel.
“The most frustrating thing at the UN is the difference between what people tell you in private and what they do in public—it will take some time to bridge that gap.”
As per the new UN chief, specifically, Amb. Gillerman agrees that Guterres can have a positive influence, albeit a potentially limited one, as it is the member-states that ultimately make the decisions. “The UN is a building on First Avenue and it is only as good as its tenants; which, in turn, is based on the world we live in. It will be hard for him to change the DNA of the UN completely,” he expounded to The Media Line. “Nonetheless, Guterres is a person who has the right values who believes in the right principles and I believe this Secretary General, given his past, wants to be on the right side of history and will therefore show a more balanced approach.”
Finally, as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Amb. Gillerman believes that Guterres will be “quite eager to continue the UN’s involvement in the peace process and will hopefully appoint a capable and distinguished representative to the Quartet [made up of the U.S, EU, Russia and UN]. I think it is a priority for him and I believe he will be more outspoken moving forward.”
In fact, Guterres has been relatively mum on the issue amid accusations by the U.S.—and Jerusalem—that the UN is not an objective intermediary. Nevertheless, Guterres will travel to Ramallah on Tuesday to meet with Palestinian leaders. The Palestinians’ permanent observer to the UN, Riyad Mansour, previously made clear that “this visit will allow the Secretary General to see first-hand the effects of Israel’s illegal settlements which the Security Council has opposed.” Mansour added that he hopes Guterres will reiterate a commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in east Jerusalem.
It comes at a sensitive time, as U.S. President Donald Trump is working feverishly to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and while Guterres will undoubtedly express support for the initiative, he will likely do so reservedly until such time Washington presents a comprehensive plan towards renewing the stalemated process.
In Gaza, Guterres will meet with members of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which runs many humanitarian programs in the Strip. The situation in the Palestinian enclave could perhaps be another point of contention, as this past June Netanyahu advocated for the shuttering of the UN organization after a Hamas attack tunnel was found beneath two UNRWA schools. Israel also maintains that UNRWA buildings at times have been used by Hamas not only as safe havens but also as launching pads for attacks on Israel.
“In various UNRWA institutions,” Netanyahu declared, “there is a lot of incitement against Israel, and therefore [its] existence and unfortunately its work from time to time perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem rather than solve[s] it.… Therefore, the time has come to dismantle UNRWA.”
In response to Netanyahu’s affirmations, a spokesperson for Guterres reiterated the Secretary General’s “support for UNRWA and his admiration for the role it plays in delivering essential services and protecting the rights of millions of Palestine refugees across the Middle East.”
Israel has also called on the UN to “strongly and unequivocally condemn Hamas” and formally classify the group a “terrorist organization.” In his comments Monday, Rivlin made clear that, “while Israel remains committed to peace, Hamas in Gaza must not be allowed to rebuild its weapons. And the bodies [of Israelis killed in the 2014 conflict that are being] held by Hamas must be returned.”
Guterres will thus have to tread lightly if he is to curry favor with the Israeli government, a juggling act between doing what he himself believes is right and what is demonstrably wrong—the latter being the position that Israel argues the UN most often promotes against it.