Israel’s flourishing relationship with the world is a topic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to talk about, and a presentation he gives over and over and over at conferences, to groups, and with visiting dignitaries.
He did it again on Wednesday evening, at the annual end-of-the-year reception the Government Press Organization holds in his presence for foreign journalists, held this year at the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem.
After Bat-El Papua gave an inspirational presentation on growing up as a person of short stature, after Miri Mesika sang four songs, and a band from Shalva – an organization dedicated to the care and inclusion of persons with disabilities – lifted the spirits
with a rendition of “Hallelujah,” Netanyahu came out and spoke once again about how Israel’s ties with the world are booming.
Accompanied by one slide of the Middle East showing Iran and Islamic State’s penetration, another map showing countries with which Israel has signed agreements, and a third with a graph highlighting the percentage of global cybersecurity investment in Israel, Netanyahu discussed how the world’s thirst for security and technology has led country after country to Israel’s door.
Netanyahu said he has traveled to Africa three times in two years, Japan has increased its investment in Israel enormously, and numerous Middle East countries – the cherry on top – all want cooperation with the Jewish state.
And it’s all true. But what he left out is that some of those countries that benefit so heavily from Israel’s security intelligence, arms and technology still are unable to cast their votes for Israel in key votes in international forums.
TAKE, FOR example, last week’s vote at the UN on an American-sponsored anti-Hamas resolution. Although mustering a huge majority – 87-57 – the resolution fell nine votes short of the two-thirds majority the Palestinians and their allies made sure was needed for it to be adopted by the UN General Assembly. The two-thirds majority was needed because of a procedural motion Bolivia sprung on the body minutes before it was to vote on the anti-Hamas measure.
That motion passed by only three votes – 75-72 – meaning that had two countries flipped their votes, or if four countries that abstained had voted against the measure, there would have been no reason for a two-thirds majority, and the anti-Hamas resolution would have passed.
And here’s where things get dicey for Netanyahu’s narrative about the flourishing of ties. Among those that voted for the two-thirds majority were countries on which Netanyahu has expended a great deal of time and energy, countries such as Argentina and Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan and Guatemala.
Richard Schifter, a former US diplomat who served in a number of roles in the UN, said that some of those votes could be explained. For instance, he said that Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales explained afterward that his country’s vote was simply improperly cast.
Schifter, the founder of the American Jewish International Relations Institute – a group established to monitor, track and combat anti-Israel voting patterns at the UN – said a number of ambassadors had received direction from their capitals to vote for the Hamas measure, but were not given instructions on how to vote on the motion for a two-thirds majority, since that came up at the last minute.
He said this explains Brazil’s vote. That country’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has said he is going to upgrade and improve his country’s relations with Israel, and Brasilia instructed its ambassador to vote for the anti-Hamas measure. But when the two-thirds procedure vote was sprung, Schifter said, the Brazilian ambassador had no instructions, and decided on his own “to adhere to the old line.”
THERE ARE are a number of ways to look at the UN vote. On the one hand it could be seen as yet another loss for Israel and the US in the world body, since in the final analysis the resolution was not adopted.
Following the Sunday evening terrorist attack at Ofra, US Ambassador David Friedman stressed that the UN failed to pass the resolution. “Hamas calls the shooters “heroic” – yes, the same #Hamas that the @UN could not resolve to condemn last week,” he posted on Twitter.
On the other hand, the vote could also be seen as a victory, since for the first time a majority of countries voted against the Palestinians on their “home court” in the UN, something that has always seemed unthinkable.
Granted, the measure did not get the two-thirds majority of those that cast nay or yea votes to become a bona fide resolution, but 87 counties voted for it, and only 57 – or about 30% of the UN member states – opposed. That sends a message.
Interestingly, Israel took a fairly low profile on the vote after it was over. Netanyahu praised the 87 countries who voted for it, as did Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon. But that was about it. For instance, Netanyahu didn’t mention it in his presentation before the journalists on Israel’s flourishing ties with the world.
Moreover, no Foreign Ministry official would speak on record afterward to dissect the vote.
There are likely two reasons for this: firstly, Foreign Ministry officials very rarely want to single out specific countries on the record, worried that this could have negative diplomatic ramifications down the road.
And secondly, the ministry doesn’t want to give UN General Assembly resolutions more significance or weight than they deserve.
Because if Israel trumpets the success it had in a GA resolution against Hamas, how will it then be able to say that the hundreds of resolutions passed against it by that same body are meaningless. So better off to ignore it altogether.
In Schifter’s mind, much of the credit for getting 87 countries to condemn Hamas goes to the US.
“This has to do with the very active campaign under the leadership of [US Ambassador] Nikki Haley,” he said.
“The whole thing was her idea – she was troubled that Hamas was getting away with murder, literally, at the UN, and she really picked that issue to see if she could get something done.”
One of the keys to doing this, he said, was ensuring that the 28 European Union countries – including countries in Europe very difficult for Israel, such as Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Luxembourg and Malta – voted for the text, something that came about because the text was negotiated with them.
The French, according to one source, were “hostile” to the resolution at the beginning, unless some changes were made. But once those changes were inserted, the consensus was guaranteed.
Though this consensus is significant, the source added, “we should not be under the illusion that this is a significant change in the government positions” of some of those EU countries toward Israel.
A LOOK AT at how countries voted on this anti-Hamas measure, compared to how the world voted nine years earlier on a resolution accepting the Goldstone Report which slammed Israel much, much harder than Hamas after Operation Cast Lead, shows how things have shifted in the UN in less than a decade.
As opposed to Thursday’s measure, which passed 87 to 57, with 33 abstentions and 16 countries not voting, the resolution accepting the Goldstone Report in November 2009 passed by 114 to 18, with 44 abstentions and 16 countries not voting.
A look at the five regional groups shows that the biggest shift came in the Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries, where of the 33 countries, 26 – or 79% – changed their votes in a positive direction toward Israel. This region has been one of the main areas of Netanyahu’s diplomatic outreach.
Fully 14 of these countries – including Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico – went from voting against Israel to voting for it. Another three countries – such as Colombia – which abstained last time, voted with Israel last week.
Another group that showed a considerable improvement was the 29-member Western European and Others Group, where 76% of the countries moved in Israel’s direction – largely because of the EU decision to vote as one for it. Eighteen countries that abstained in 2009 voted for Israel this time, and four countries – Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland and Malta – that voted against Israel in 2009 flipped their votes this time.
In the Eastern European Group some 60% of the countries voted more favorably for Israel than in the past, again largely because of the EU consensus on the matter. The negative exception was Russia, which in 2009 abstained on the Goldstone measure, but voted against the anti-Hamas resolution. One diplomatic source said this could be related to the incident involving the downing of the Russian spy plane in Syria in September.
In Africa, 17 of the continent’s 44 non-Arab League states shifted their voting for the better. All 22 Arab League states – including the Persian Gulf countries now warming toward Israel – voted against condemning Hamas. One senior Israeli diplomatic official said Israel had hoped at least one of them would simply not vote, something that would have sent a message.
Seven African countries – Rwanda, South Sudan, Eritrea, Malawi, Liberia, Lesotho and Cape Verde – supported the resolution, while 10 abstained and another 10 did not vote. Among those that abstained, however, there are a number of disappointments, especially Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. And perhaps the biggest negative surprise was Togo, a country that was set to host an African-Israel summit last year, until it was canceled at the last minute, and whose foreign minister is considered very close to Israel. Togo did not show up for last week’s vote.
The region with the smallest percentage of positive movement was the Asian-Pacific Group, where only one-third of the countries shifted their votes in Israel’s direction. But among those were two that stand out – Singapore, which moved from voting against Israel to voting for it, and Mongolia, which moved from voting against to abstaining.
The Asia-Pacific Group includes three countries that in 2017 were the biggest markets for Israeli arms: India, Azerbaijan and Vietnam. While India abstained – a continued reflection of a change in the way India has moved from reflexively voting against Israel for decades to now abstaining or even voting in favor – Azerbaijan and Vietnam voted against.
Their votes, according to one source, illustrate the complexity of relationships, and how voting patterns are just one part of a much bigger picture.
Regarding Azerbaijan, which is a strategic Muslim-majority country that has close ties with Israel, the source said Baku was telling Jerusalem, “‘We are going to work with you 99% on intelligence cooperation and defense deals, but give us this 1% because we still have a street we have to deal with, a neighborhood we live in, and organizations – such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – that we belong to.”
The same argument is true of Vietnam. There, the source said, defense deals are booming, trade reached over $1 billion in 2016, so a number of boxes have been checked. But the voting pattern is one box that is still empty.
“Our expectations need to be in check,” he said “Change is glacial, and won’t happen at the speed we like.”
Still, as any interpretation of last week’s vote showed, change is taking place – maybe not with everyone or as much as might be expected, but it is happening.
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