UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is a man very much in the middle.
On the one hand, there is a new wind blowing out of Washington demanding the United Nations alter its systemic discrimination against Israel and anti-Israel bias that permeates so much of the organization.
US ambassador Nikki Haley is leading the high-profile charge on this matter, and there have been threats in Washington to withhold funds if the situation is not changed.
Israel has decided to withhold $8 million of the $47m. it gives each year to the organization as membership dues and for funding peacekeeping forces and – even though this is an insignificant part of the UN’s budget, the move was noted in the UN’s Turtle Bay neighborhood – not necessarily because Israel’s move will cause significant damage, but out of concern that it may be a harbinger of what the US might do if the situation does not change.
But on the other side the Palestinians, the Arab countries and some Europeans are arrayed, pushing equally hard in the opposite direction, pressuring Guterres not to change the UN’s attitude toward Israel; not to alter the situation; to go along; and not revamp what has been operative practice inside the organization for years.
These countervailing pressures have put Guterres on a seesaw – one day condemning a UN-sponsored center for women in the West Bank named after a notorious Palestinian female terrorist, and on another day issuing a statement obliquely criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for calling for the dismantling of UNRWA, following the discovery of a Hamas tunnel underneath two of the organization’s schools in Gaza.
Guterres, his spokesman said late Monday, “is concerned about recent public criticism of UNRWA and the integrity of its operations.” The secretary- general, the spokesman said, “wishes to express his 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.”
Netanyahu said on Sunday that UNRWA perpetuates, rather than solves, the Palestinian refugee problem, and called on Haley to work toward the organization’s dismantling.
Reaction in Jerusalem to Guterres’s comments about UNRWA were muted, with neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry initiating a response.
Nikki Haley blasts UN rights forum for "chronic anti-Israel bias" (credit: REUTERS)
The reason is simple: Israel is appreciative of Guterres’s efforts to fight against the anti-Israel bias at the UN and understands the strong counter-pressures he is under.
Jerusalem believes that the new secretary-general – in office since January 1 – is more receptive than his predecessors to listening to Israeli complaints and protests about biased reports and prejudicial treatment.
Both Ban Ki-moon, Guterres’s immediate predecessor, and Kofi Annan – who was the secretary-general two terms ago – spoke of strains of anti-Israel bias and discriminatory treatment toward the Jewish state at the end of their tenures. Guterres is different in that he has discussed it at the very beginning of his.
What Israel is uncertain about, however, is whether the former Portuguese prime minister really believes it or is simply concerned about the Americans. Whatever the case, he has changed wordings in some reports and refused to sign others that bash Israel.
Almost every week, one UN body or the other issues a report that – whether it deals with women’s rights, children’s’ rights, or heritage sites – includes wording and language slamming Israel.
These reports are fed from the Palestinian narrative and, in turn, feed that narrative, then often forming the basis of other UN decisions. And around and around it goes.
Jerusalem realizes this is a difficult dynamic to change all at once and has been impressed by Guterres’s willingness to take some steps in that direction.
For instance, it used to be that UN Human Rights Commission reports dealing with Israel would be sent to the secretary-general for his signature.
The UNHRC no longer sends those reports, however, knowing that he won’t sign them.
In addition, Guteres has, over the last six months, made some cosmetic changes to language in some reports – not necessarily everything Israel asked for – but also seen as a sign of taking Israel’s concerns seriously.
And he certainly is willing to let his opinion against an anti-Israel bias in the organization be known.
The question, however, is whether he has the persistence and determination to continue this fight over the long haul, something that will put him at odds and in conflict with many of his organization’s member-states.
The answer to that question may be bound up with whether the Trump administration itself is willing to fight this battle over time, putting it at odds with many UN countries.
As of now, Jerusalem – while optimistic – does not have a categorical answer to either of those questions.