UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Israel on Sunday evening for his first visit in his current position, with Israeli diplomatic officials saying that while Jerusalem is keen on discussing Hezbollah and the dangers presented by Iran in Syria, the UN chief will want to focus on the situation in Gaza.
Guterres is scheduled to meet on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to give Guterres the same message he gave Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, and which he sent to Washington the week before: Israel will not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria. In addition, he will raise the issue of Iran building missile factories in Lebanon.
The reason this message is important to pass onto Guterres is twofold, according to one senior Israeli diplomatic official.
On the one hand, the UN head meets regularly with world leaders and can relay this message on further; and secondly, because if Israel is forced to take military action in Syria, the chances are good that this would then go to the UN for condemnations and Security Council resolutions.
“His visit gives us an opportunity to with Guterres to focus on Hezbollah and the situation in Syria, Guterres is especially interested in the situation in the South, and while he will not travel to the northern border during his two-day trip, he is scheduled to go to Gaza on Wednesday, shortly before departing.
According to diplomatic officials, Guterres will not meet any political leaders there, but rather limit the visit to meeting with UNRWA officials and focusing on UN projects in the Strip.
While he will not travel to the northern borders, Guterres is scheduled to receive an in-depth briefing on the situation in Lebanon and Syria from the head of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi. Guterres will also receive a security briefing from Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.- Gen. Yair Golan, and from Maj.-Gen. Yoav “Poli” Mordechai, coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
In addition to going to Gaza, Guterres will also tour the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, and will be taken to a Hamas terrorist tunnel.
Characterizing Guterres’s visit as “very important,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said Israel is in the midst of trying to get the UN to update and strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate in southern Lebanon, and that it is clear to everyone that Hezbollah is violating the conditions of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. That resolution set the terms for the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and called for the disarming of forces in Lebanon.
UNIFIL, she said, has turned a blind eye to the arming of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and this “needs to change.”
Another issue that Israel will raise with Guterres, Hotovely said, is the anti-Israel bias of the world body. For too many years, she said, the UN has pointed a finger at Israel, while “ignoring the real problems in the region.”
She said the time has come to state clearly that if this does not end, the UN will not only lose its integrity, but also a big chunk of its financial support.
She said that the US is wagging the threat of withholding funds to the UN if its treatment of Israel doesn’t change. She said that this should provide Guterres with the necessary motivation to implement the changes toward Israel.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said that Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, has in general “tried to be objective” on Israel.
“We expect the secretary general to be objective; we don’t expect that he will support Israel,” Danon said. “When he took over the job he said he will treat Israel like all other counties in the UN. If he lives up to that commitment, that would be a great achievement.”
Danon said that the general sense in Jerusalem is that Guterres is trying to give Israel a feeling that it is being treated equally in the UN. Israel is not against criticism in the UN, Danon said, as long as it is “reasonable” and not “done in an obsessive manner, as is usually the case.”
Danon said that there was no doubt that statements about the UN from US President Donald Trump, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and some congressional representatives about the need to alter the UN bias against Israel has had an impact on him as well.
“Our position is that we are not against the UN, or that it should be closed,” he said.
“Our position is that it should be more effective. UNIFIL is a perfect example. We are not against UNIFIL; we welcome its presence. But it needs to do a lot more than it’s doing.”
In addition to meeting Netanyahu on Monday, Guterres will also meet President Reuven Rivlin, opposition head Isaac Herzog, and the families of the soldiers whose bodies are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In addition, he will go to Yad Vashem, as well as to Mount Herzl, where he will lay a wreath on the grave of Shimon Peres, with whom he was friendly, and of Theodor Herzl.
In the evening he is scheduled to take part in an innovation exhibition with Netanyahu at the Israel Museum.
On Tuesday, Guterres is scheduled to travel to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Wednesday, in addition to going to Gaza, the UN chief is also expected to deliver a speech at The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot that focuses on antisemitism.
Danon said that Guterres has made some comments over the last eight months in office that pleased Israel, and others that did not.
For instance, Guterres said at a World Jewish Congress gathering in March that “Israel needs to be treated like any other UN member state,” and that it has an “undeniable right to exist and to live in peace and security with its neighbors.” He added that “the modern form of antisemitism is the denial of the existence of the State of Israel.”
And in January, after a UNESCO vote in October expunged a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, Guterres said in an interview that it is “completely clear that the Temple that the Romans destroyed in Jerusalem was a Jewish temple.”
On the other hand, on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, he issued a statement saying, “This occupation has imposed a heavy humanitarian and development burden on the Palestinian people. Among them are generation after generation of Palestinians who have been compelled to grow up and live in ever more crowded refugee camps, many in abject poverty, and with little or no prospect of a better life for their children.”
He continued: “The occupation has shaped the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. It has fueled recurring cycles of violence and retribution. Its perpetuation is sending an unmistakable message to generations of Palestinians that their dream of statehood is destined to remain just that, a dream; and to Israelis that their desire for peace, security and regional recognition remains unattainable.”
Danon took issue with the secretary-general’s statement at the time, saying: “It is preposterous to blame terrorism and violence in the Middle East on the one true democracy in the region.”