What to Expect at the U.N. General Assembly Opening Session

This month marks the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

Presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers will gather for the usual ceremonial speeches, and more importantly, for numerous side-meetings, “bi-lats,” as they are called, on any number of pressing issues.

For certain, North Korea will be on everyone’s mind, as well it should. Though the main theater of U.N. activity on this issue has been the Security Council, the topic affects the international order, and so it will get requisite attention.

But there is also a business-as-usual agenda in New York: i.e. those questions which are annual staples, among them the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The General Assembly (GA) has been the scene of so much of the U.N.’s bias toward Israel: the Yasser Arafat speech of 1974 comes immediately to mind, paired, as always, with the infamous Zionism=Racism resolution, which was adopted by a vote of  72-35, with 32 abstentions, coming a year later. In 2012, the GA upped the status of the Palestinians to “non-member state” by a vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions.

The GA is often driven by bloc voting; the European Union (28 member states), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (57 members), the African Union (55 members) are but three of the biggest examples. GRULAC, which is the U.N.’s Latin American and Caribbean regional grouping, has 33 member countries. European Union countries often abstain on Israel-related issues, but the other blocs see it the other way, most of the time voting against Israel year-in, and year-out—which accounts for the high numbers against Israel. Bloc voting imposes discipline on its members, preventing those countries that actually see Israel as a friend, or that object to rote voting when it comes to the Palestinians, from expressing an independent view.

The Palestinians use the GA opening to spray as much disparagement as possible on Israel. In his 2016 speech, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas charged Israel with “perpetrating ethnic cleansing,”  “racial discrimination,” and “aggressions and provocations against our Muslim and Christian holy sites…”  No doubt his text will include similar verbiage this time, as well.

Already, some believe this year’s “September surprise” will see Abbas calling on the U.N. to recognize “Palestine” as a “state under occupation.” This would be in line with the PA’s approach to statehood through osmosis. It is also expected that it will seek membership in the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization; if it is successful it would be the second U.N. agency, after UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in which the Palestinians would be full members. Refusing to sit with Israel for serious end-of-conflict negotiations, the preferred diplomacy coming from Ramallah is creeping legitimacy, through GA resolutions, and others adopted annually at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva and at UNESCO in Paris.

The infrastructure of bias in the U.N. system is deeply embedded through three bodies specifically dedicated to advancing the Palestinian narrative. The 1975 Zionism=Racism resolution spawned other GA resolutions that created the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, located within the secretariat of the organization. To show how tilted the U.N. is on these issues, the Palestinians are the only group to have such status at the highest rung of the organization: the Division for Palestinian Rights sits alongside offices dealing with regional matters in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas in the U.N’s Department of Political Affairs.

The U.N. funds these committees at a cost of about $6 million per year, in budget items which have been dutifully adopted by the GA each year. The funding underwrites a lengthy list of conferences, photo exhibitions and other public relations events which denigrate Israel at venues worldwide. Adding a big assist is the U.N.’s Department of Public Information, which has its own Palestinian propaganda unit and promotes these events off its own substantial budget.

While it may be a bit too early to call it a cause for optimism, statements from the U.N.’s new Secretary General Antonio Guterres leave the impression that at least he recognizes the politicization of the Palestinian issue does the U.N. no good.  He has spoken publicly several times, including at a meeting with B’nai B’rith leaders early in his tenure, about seeking to promote “balance,” and “fairness” in the business of the U.N., leaving no doubt that he is referring to the treatment of Israel. His recent visit to Israel, where he delivered a major address emphasizing these points, sent an important message to the international community, and especially to the Palestinians.

And the unambiguous statements on the fairness issue by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, have made it difficult for nations that should know better, to hide their faces from the reality that the longtime treatment of Israel as a pariah must end.

The U.N. system’s “go-along-to-get-along” modus operandi has created a numbers game that always seems to work against Israel. But some cracks in this conventional wisdom are appearing: recent votes on Jerusalem at UNESCO’s Executive Board and its World Heritage Committee appendage, went for the Palestinians, but there were some notable votes against and abstentions by a few member states that suggest a slight shift in a more balanced direction. The improvement in relations between Israel and a number of African and Asian nations will hopefully be reflected in other votes down the road, but there is no guarantee of that, as sometimes countries compartmentalize their good bi-lateral relations with Israel and their bloc voting at the U.N. and other international forums. Among the tests to come will be the Human Rights Council session next March, when a heavy load of anti-Israel resolutions are always voted upon.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching the General Assembly opening. Regrettably, more of the same will most likely be the order of the day.

About the Author
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International