Multilateral Cooperation Between The United States and Israel: Fighting Delegitimization, Moving Forward Together

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Washington, DC
June 15, 2011

Good afternoon. I want to thank Rob Satloff and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for this invitation. It is truly a privilege to have this opportunity at this distinguished institution to exchange ideas and views on topics that the Institute has been so deeply engaged in since 1985.

As the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, my bureau serves as the primary U.S. interlocutor with the United Nations and a host of international agencies and organizations.

We are also charged with implementing the President’s vision of robust multilateral engagement as a crucial tool in advancing U.S. national interests.

This effort is particularly important for the United States as we face a rapidly changing global landscape and a myriad of difficult challenges including, continued economic instability, complex security challenges such as terrorism and non-proliferation, and a transforming North Africa and Middle East. Time and again, we have found that multilateral tools and levers at the UN and elsewhere have been essential for the United States in achieving our foreign policy goals, enhancing our security, and advancing our values.

Today I am going to focus on the Administration’s far-reaching efforts to normalize Israel’s status in and across the UN and broader multilateral system, and to counter head-on efforts of de-legitimization and continued structural bias.

As you can imagine, we spend a considerable amount of time in my bureau, in the seven U.S Missions to the UN, the State Department and across the Administration on these very issues. In particular, our Missions to the UN have close cooperation with their Israeli counterparts in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Nairobi and Montreal and across the full range of UN and multilateral fora. In fact, there are only a handful of other countries where our level of cooperation at the UN is so deep.

Now many of you are already familiar with our extensive military cooperation and assistance to Israel, which helps maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over potential threats. That cooperation is one pillar in the Administration’s unparalleled strategic partnership with Israel, which covers the full depth and breadth of our shared interests, as well as our diplomatic engagement with a special focus on core UN and multilateral issues at the highest levels.

Our diplomatic engagement with Israel in multilateral affairs is rooted in a core commitment by President Obama. As the President articulated recently, “The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable -- and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.”

These commitments are enduring, and go well beyond our strong bilateral ties. President Obama and this Administration have worked tirelessly, in both word and deed, across the UN system, to ensure that Israel’s legitimacy is beyond dispute and that Israel has the opportunity to contribute fully to all institutions to which it belongs.

That’s why we vehemently reject attempts to de-legitimize the State of Israel. As the President stated at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year, “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” and “efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States.”

With those words in mind, I want to talk briefly about the possibility that the Palestinians will pursue membership at the UN in September. The President has been clear that he supports “two states for two peoples,” and that it would be a mistake for the Palestinians to pursue a path for statehood at the UN rather than at the negotiating table with Israel. We have been frank that we reject counterproductive attempts to resolve permanent status issues at the UN.

As the President said on May 19, “For Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state.” That’s why we are focused on a negotiated outcome that will lead to the establishment of an independent, viable State of Palestine alongside a secure State of Israel.

As I said earlier, we have been steadfast in our determination to ensure that Israel is treated fairly, that its security is never in doubt, and that Israel has the same rights and responsibilities as all UN member states.

We have opposed unbalanced, one-sided resolutions, at the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and elsewhere. We have opposed the deeply flawed and biased Goldstone Report, and voted against multiple resolutions on last year’s flotilla incident at the Human Rights Council. On the Goldstone Report, we have been clear that we want to see UN action end in relation to the report. Regarding the flotilla issue, we have joined the Secretary-General in his call on Governments to use their respective influence to discourage future flotillas, and avoid unnecessary and unhelpful provocative actions that seek to bypass the effective mechanisms that exist to deliver goods and services to Gaza.

Our human rights efforts across the UN System have focused on defending the oppressed against oppressive governments. We have led an informal coalition of democracies from around the globe in criticizing those who violate human rights, including those who and seek to divert attention from their own human rights violations through biased or spurious challenges to Israel’s legitimacy in multilateral venues.

We have also tirelessly defended our principles by opposing the candidacies of human rights violators who seek places on various UN bodies. Last year, we worked hard on multinational efforts that led to the exclusion of Iran from membership on the UN Human Rights Council and the Executive Board of UN Women. We worked similarly hard in efforts to suspend Libya’s membership on the Human Rights Council in March, and last month we prevented Syria from gaining a seat at the Council.

Over the last several months at the Human Rights Council, we led unprecedented resolutions condemning human rights abuses in Libya, Iran and then Syria and putting in place mechanisms to document abuses and hold those governments to account.

We are continuing these efforts at the current session of the Council by working with a broad variety of states on joint statements on Syria and Yemen, and a resolution on Belarus. Today in Geneva over 50 states agreed to the statement on Syria, and over 70 states supported the one on Yemen, including 22 Arab states.

Much work still needs to be done at the Human Rights Council. We continue to protest the egregious permanent agenda item on Israel. But we have managed to use every opportunity to shift the focus of the debate at the Council addressing the most serious human rights abusers, rather than unfairly singling out Israel.

Last September we joined international partners to defeat a resolution at the IAEA that singled out Israel’s nuclear program for rebuke. Just last week, the IAEA Board of Governors, which includes the U.S., adopted a resolution finding Syria in noncompliance with its international nuclear obligations and referred the matter to the UN Security Council. Syria blatantly violated its nonproliferation safeguards obligations and has hindered the IAEA’s efforts to investigate the matter. Syria must fully cooperate with the IAEA and resolve all outstanding issues related to its noncompliance. 

We have also worked to isolate Iran at the UN Security Council, imposing tough sanctions that have set back its nuclear programs. We have been steadfast in calling on Iran to live up to its own commitments and its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and its IAEA Safeguards Agreement.

At the Security Council and throughout the UN System, in the face of high diplomatic hurdles, we have mobilized countries from every region to take principled stands on these pressing issues.

All these efforts demonstrate that our commitment to defend Israel throughout the UN system, both in countering biased anti-Israeli actions and in opposing those who seek platforms to expand anti-Israel efforts at the UN, remains strong. Our efforts go beyond such defensive steps, however. Let me turn now to how Israel and the United States are working together to move forward in the UN and elsewhere.

Despite the difficulties that Israel faces at the UN, one thing has remained constant in my discussions with my counterparts in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They continue to express and implement their strong desire to expand Israel’s positive global agenda across the UN and multilateral system.

Let me review four conversations I had with Israeli officials when I was in Israel in March.

  • When I met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor he emphasized that Israel was looking for ways to draw on its expertise in a wide range of technical areas; highlighting Science, Technology, and Holocaust Education at UNESCO; Food Security and Desertification at the UN’s Food Agriculture Organization; and Emergency response efforts to Haiti and elsewhere, to further enhance its multilateral engagement.
  • Israel’s Minister for Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch affirmed his government’s interest in working with the UN to find opportunities for Israel to contribute to international peacekeeping operations, building on its successful deployment of a police contingent to Haiti last fall.
  • I was hosted by Israeli Deputy Minister Gila Gamliel at the Knesset where she focused on Israel’s long-standing commitment to empower women in Israel and globally. She reemphasized Israel’s desire to join UN WOMEN, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. At the event, I expressed our strong support for Israel’s involvement on Gender Issues in the UN General Assembly and at Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women, and across the UN system.
  • I also met with Haim Divon, head of MASHAV, which is Israel’s equivalent to USAID. He emphasized MASHAV’s potential to contribute to the international community’s efforts in these areas. Like us, Minister Divon and his colleagues understand that the combination of effective diplomacy and development can reinforce our mutual interests in achieving better futures for peoples around the world. He spoke about MASHAV’s agreements with the UN, including a recent agreement with the World Food Program.

Why are all of these conversations important? They highlight something that may not be obvious. Israel wants to play a larger role globally, multilaterally and at the UN. It does not want to be viewed solely through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis understand that they not only have rights within the international system; they also have responsibilities, and they want to meet them. To that end, the United States is working with Israel to advance its positive multilateral engagement agenda, and move beyond the focus on contentious political and security issues, with the aim of addressing the issue of delegitimization and Israel’s treatment at the United Nations.

Here are some examples of this collaborative effort:

We have worked with Israel to support the appointment of Israelis to UN positions, like Frances Raday who was recently chosen as an Expert Member of the Human Rights Council’s Special Working Group to eliminate discrimination against women.

In 2009, we helped to secure the passage of Israeli-sponsored technical resolutions on Agricultural technology, a similar resolution with our assistance also passed in 2007.

Progress has also been made normalizing Israel’s status in multilateral bodies, including joining the OECD and removing some of the discriminatory barriers to Israel's participation in UN voting and consultative blocs.

In fact, in a two year period from 2009-2010, Israel was admitted to the JUSCANZ Group in Geneva and in the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee in New York. JUSCANZ is comprised of Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and several others with variable memberships in different UN fora. While these are small steps forward for Israel -- JUSCANZ consultation groups are important given they allow members to exchange information in advance of committee meetings and debates across the UN. Israel’s inclusion in JUSCANZ membership helps to reduce the impact of its exclusion from other negotiating and regional blocks.

Israel and its people also have a tremendous amount of expertise and know-how to share multilaterally and throughout the UN system. UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova in her recent visit to Israel highlighted her organization’s “excellent cooperation” with Israel in a variety of fields including education, culture, science, and communications. Given Israel’s contributions at UNESCO you can understand why, like the United States, they are candidates for the UNESCO’s Executive Board.

Certainly, Israel and the United States will continue to face difficult challenges in the UN system. We are not so naïve to think that a positive agenda alone will immediately change the status quo for Israel. However you can see a path over the past decade where there has been some success for Israel’s engagement at the UN. We plan to build on these successful efforts.

One constant we hear from Israeli counterparts is how much they appreciate the Administration’s efforts and U.S.-Israeli cooperation at the UN and multilaterally. In order to sustain these efforts, the United States must maintain the strongest position it can at the UN, and that means paying our bills on time and in full. We are more credible politically when we fulfill our treaty obligations and contribute to work that advances our interests. When we are delinquent, it impairs our ability to advance U.S. interests and effective cooperation on key security threats at the UN.

We want to see the gains of the past 2 ½ years continue, where the Administration has worked day in and day out at the UN and multilaterally on critical peace and security issues, including counter-terrorism and non-proliferation, issues which greatly concern the United States and Israel, and where we have been successful in achieving American objectives, mobilizing international partners and leveraging the full range of multilateral institutions.

Today, the UN is playing an indispensible role in two countries of enormous importance to the United States: Afghanistan and Iraq. Both this Administration and the previous Administration strongly supported this UN involvement, understanding it to be complementary to our own efforts. Without the UN’s work in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. efforts to responsibly draw down our military forces from both countries as the President has committed to doing would be all the more difficult. If the United States doesn't pay our dues, why would others continue to support their dues going to missions that are great importance to the United States?

  • Think about it. How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on Iran or North Korea if we were continuing to incur arrears? As the President pointed out, “At the United Nations, under our leadership, we’ve secured the most comprehensive international sanctions on the Iranian regime, which have been joined by allies and partners around the world.”
  • How would our failure to pay our bills impact the success of Security Council sanctions regimes -- that have placed global asset freezes and travel bans on terrorists and their supporters?
  • How would it impact the International Atomic Energy Agency which has been invaluable in focusing on Iran and Syria’s nuclear activities?
  • How would it impact the President’s commitment to a shared security with Israel?

These are risks we cannot afford to take. The United States cannot afford failed short-term tactics that have long-term implications for our security, and we must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills.

Another danger on the horizon is efforts by some to limit U.S. participation at the UN and in UN bodies. This would have negative repercussions for the U.S. given that our multilateral accomplishments would not have happened without an American voice at the table. UN bodies, including the Human Rights Council, have improved as the result of direct U.S. engagement. If we cede ground, if our engagement in the UN system is restricted -- these bodies likely would be dominated by our adversaries. A scenario where power vacuums are filled by adversaries is not a good for the United States and certainly not for Israel.

We saw such a scenario at the Human Rights Council prior to the U.S. joining in 2009. Israel was singled out for five special sessions, far too many unbalanced resolutions focused on Israel; and far too few resolutions, special procedures, or other attention were directed to the world’s most troubling and urgent human rights situations. As I said, the challenges continue at the Council, but the Council’s improvement through U.S. engagement is undeniable.

Looking ahead, we are committed to building on our efforts with Israel at the UN, including working with Israel to advance its positive global agenda, and continuing to oppose attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

President Obama has repeatedly backed up that commitment, including last month when he spoke at AIPAC’s annual conference. With that said, Israel, like the United States, must continue to adjust to a global landscape that has changed dramatically over the past two decades, and one where more of today’s solutions to 21st century challenges are found at the UN and in multilateral fora.

As President Obama stated, “The United States sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the State of Israel.” The UN and multilateral fora are critical to meeting this challenge, and are more relevant than ever as we seek to influence and encourage lasting reform and democratic change in Israel’s neighborhood and as we respond to the shared threats and challenges of our time.

I will end there. Again, thank you this opportunity.