It should come as no surprise that the comments by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres about Israel’s war with Hamas set off yet another round of discourse around anti-Israel bias at the UN.
Guterres’ speech to the UN Security Council, in which he claimed that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” could easily be interpreted as using Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to explain, if not justify, the inhumane war crimes perpetrated by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. This, as opposed to the simple, common sense argument that nothing can explain, much less justify, the radical, hateful and morally twisted acts committed and documented by Hamas against music lovers in a peace-promoting music festival, or Israeli civilians from babies, through toddlers and children to the elderly, in their homes.
Guterres’s words naturally sparked calls to ban UN officials from entering Israel and to boycott UN organizations. But to boycott the UN would be a terrible mistake for Israel.
First, Israel perceives itself as an innovative start-up state deserving of a place in the elite club of liberal democracies. As such, Israel is held to western liberal democratic standards, and against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, needs to constantly justify its rightful place in this prestigious club. Seeing as all other members of this club engage with the UN, and have important roles in its bodies, Israel cannot afford to leave a vacuum in this arena that would naturally occur in its absence. In other words, Israel should not count on anyone else to do its work for it and should constantly strive to engage as a means to drive change rather than disengage in dismay.
Second, discourse and language employed in UN discussions, resolutions and committees can make a difference, and are readily echoed in the media – hence serving to shape public discourse. This has been proven in academic research that traces how the International Court of Justice advisory opinion issued in 2004 played a role in transforming the reference term “security barrier” to “the Wall,” for example.
Third, and perhaps most obviously, is the conventional power held by the UN’s most important body, the Security Council, which can potentially enforce a sanctions regime.
Some advocates of boycotting the UN claim that global politics have rendered the UN irrelevant. This approach ignores important areas of the UN’s work that are directly relevant to Israel.
In his speech, Guterres spoke about the “inviolability of UN facilities which today are sheltering more than 600,000 Palestinians.” The immediate reference here is of course to UNRWA facilities in the Gaza Strip that undoubtedly conduct important, indeed life-saving, work. Hence, while this statement can be easily supported at first-sight, worth noting are two facts in relation to UNRWA, with immediate implications to the current conflict.
One is that the role of UNRWA premises as launching pads for Hamas rockets, and as designated areas to stockpile Hamas weapons, has been documented, and even acknowledged by former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon following Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
The second piece of relevant information about UNRWA is that as opposed to UNHCR, the UN body designated to deal with refugees from all conflicts of the world, at UNRWA, which deals with Palestinian refugees only, 99% of employees are local, with an unknown number of Hamas supporters among the organization’s ranks. This is further complicated by the fact that the status of Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA is not revoked due to involvement in terror activity – again in contrast to refugees serviced by UNHCR.
It is precisely because the UN harbors anti-Israel sentiment that Israel should strive to engage with the many bodies under the UN umbrella and harness its soft-power to lead towards change. This can be done by encouraging Israelis to seek positions within the UN, climb its ranks and influence policies and sentiments; by critically reading UN reports and statements – commenting, flagging and exposing inaccuracies wherever these occur; by taking an active part in UN discussions open to civil society organizations, which can be done after obtaining a UN advisory status, and encouraging Israeli experts to appear before relevant UN bodies.
If Israel wants to enhance its international standing – there is no other choice.