Gerald M. Steinberg

An Israeli Human Rights Walkout? Weighing Pros and Cons

Commenting on a recent performance of the “theater of the absurd” at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a reference to “reevaluating Israel’s ties” with this body. Since Israel is not among the 47 member states that were elected to sit on the UNHRC, quitting is not an option, but Israel could again suspend all cooperation and activities.

What would a walkout from a body in which Israel is not even a member accomplish, and what would be the costs? At first glance, the benefits are hard to discern. Such a move would not end the use of the HRC as a staging ground for political warfare, including the thinly disguised “investigations” of Israeli responses to terror.

These commissions are created by a majority dominated by the Islamic bloc (officially the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and the anti-Israel publications are written by UN staff members who are beholden to them. This staff, along with many diplomats from the European Union and elsewhere that are based in Geneva, work closely with powerful NGOs that exploit human rights, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, and others. And when the reports attacking Israel for “war crimes” and other charges, are published, these are automatically adopted by the states that sit on the Council. Israel’s strong opposition, often supported by the US, and the exposure of systematic inaccuracies and bias, have made little difference in the outcome.

But the threat of an Israeli boycott is not entirely without impact. The HRC, like many other UN frameworks, derives some of its legitimacy (to the degree that this remains) from universal participation. A few years ago, when Israel froze cooperation with the process known as the Universal Periodic Review of human rights practices, in protest against the bias and abuse, a number of governments paid attention. As a result, and in order to convince Israel to end the walkout, the WEOG (Western Europe and Others) group agreed not to participate in or provide legitimacy to the HRC sessions that blatantly single-out Israel, among other concessions.

Having used this tactic once, it is unlikely to work again. If Israel adopts a policy of non-cooperation now, it will not be a bargaining chip and will keep Jerusalem out of the Council sessions (where non-members can participate in debates) and related frameworks.

This participation, despite the limitations, can be important in educating and working with at least some of the government officials, including Europeans. Indeed, the detailed criticism of the report on the 2014 Gaza conflict, started by William Schabas (forced to resign after his work for the PLO was exposed) and completed by Mary McGowan Davis, was important. As a result, the UK and Germany, and perhaps others, were able to negotiate a water-down resolution, which, although adopting this absurd report, removed many of the operative recommendations regarding sanctions, the ICC, and other aspects. (Having led this revision process in cooperation with Israel behind the scenes, the UK and German governments were obliged to vote in favor, rather than abstaining or joining the US in opposing.)

Despite the systemic discrimination, Israelis positions also have some impact on other UN bodies, such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which is considering the application of a Hamas-front organization known as the Palestine Return Centre for recognition as a bonafide non-governmental organization (NGO). On July 20, the 54 member states in ECOSOC, (including the US, Germany and UK), are scheduled to vote on the PRC, whose campaign for membership is led by Sudan. If the PRC and its allies succeed, the group’s leaders would receive badges that provide open access to UN facilities in New York, Geneva, and elsewhere, as well as the right to participate in committee meetings (including the Human Rights Council) and other activities.

For Israel, exposing the connections between the PRC and terror organizations before the ECOSOC vote is an important objective. This pseudo-NGO is headed by Hamas activists such as Majed al-Zeer, who, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center, “was a Hamas activist in Judea and Samaria after the movement was established. As far as we know, he maintained relations with Hamas after he settled in Britain.” Similarly, the chairman of PRC’s board of trustees was active in dispatching convoys to Gaza though former British MP George Galloway’s organization, Viva Palestina. Majdi Akeel, a member of PRC’s board of trustees, is also an activist of Interpal, which sends money to Hamas. Interpal is a designated terror organization by the United States. Ghassan Faour is also on Interpal’s board of trustees. In addition, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke at the organization’s annual conferences, and on June 1, 2015, after the winning a preliminary vote, Haniyeh’s office congratulated the PRC leadership. (This was later denied, when they realized that the ECOSOC process had been completed, and that this embrace could the UK and other countries to vote against the PRC’s application in the final stage.)

By participating in the activities of these UN frameworks, as distasteful as this is, Israel is able to provide vital information to and limited moral pressure on the member states and the UN officials who are willing to listen. To influence policy and impact on the legitimacy of these processes, including the Human Rights Council, Israel cannot act alone – change will come only through an alliance of other democracies.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)