Israel on Wednesday welcomed the US decision to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in elections next month, even as some US Jewish groups were wary of the move. "It is a very good decision and a timely one," Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva Aharon Leshno Yaar told The Jerusalem Post by telephone. Given the strong lobbying powers of the US, he was hopeful that America could make much needed changes to the council that has routinely singled out Israel. But Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the US should have first sought to reform the council, and only after that objective had been achieved should it join. "There is no question that the US can play a decisive role in making UN institutions more effective," Foxman said. But, he added, "We remain concerned that the US decision to join the council before meaningful reforms are put into motion may not achieve this desired goal." Late Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said in a statement that they were seeking a seat on the council - boycotted by president George W. Bush over its repeated criticism of Israel and its failure to cite flagrant human rights abuses in Sudan and elsewhere - in order to "make it a more effective body." "We will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system to advance the vision of the UN Declaration of Human Rights," Clinton said. Rice added that the council needed to be "balanced and credible." The Americans are almost guaranteed a lock on one of the three open seats reserved for Western countries after New Zealand bowed out on Wednesday. "Frankly, by any objective measure, membership of the council by the US is more likely to create positive changes more quickly than we could have hoped to achieve them," New Zealand's foreign minister, Murray McCully, said in a statement. The US push for membership followed the Obama administration's decision to attend the council's meetings last month as an observer after human rights groups complained that it had sat out of the panel's discussions on the rights records of China, Russia and other countries that Washington previously criticized for abuses. It's seen as one more step by the Obama administration toward establishing a "new era of engagement." Three seats on the 47-member council are open to Western countries. Canada, which is eligible to run for another three-year term, has decided to retire from the council, along with Germany and Switzerland. Aside from the US, Belgium and Norway have declared their candidacy for the Western group in the May 12 secret ballot at the UN General Assembly in New York. If elected, these countries will join France, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands in making up the Western group. Other blocs cover Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are among the countries standing for renewal of their terms, set to end in June. The council was established in 2006 as a successor organization to the UN Commission on Human Rights. It was a body founded in 1946 that was widely seen as dysfunctional and discredited by its pre-occupation with Israel and the inclusion of countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, despite accusations of rampant human rights abuses against their own citizens. The current council has attracted many of the same criticisms, but is due for a review in 2011 - one factor that drove the US decision to seek membership now, Rice said. "Our view is that as a fully engaged member of the council, should we win election, we'll be working from within rather than standing on the sidelines," Rice told reporters during a conference call after the US announcement. "We do not see any inherent benefit as demonstrated by recent history of being outside the tent and simply being critical," Rice went on. She described the council's work since its inception in 2006 as "disturbing," saying there had been "too much focus on issues that don't merit that kind of time and attention." "Yes, of course we mean Israel," she said, when pressed by a reporter. According to Geneva based NGO UN Watch, out of the 32 resolutions the council has issued against individual countries in the last three years, 26 have dealt with Israel. Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who was a key architect of the Bush administration's disengagement from the international organization, told The Washington Post US membership in the council would "legitimize something that doesn't deserve legitimacy." The complaint was echoed by the Republican Jewish Coalition and by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said in a statement that US membership should be "conditioned on significant structural reforms to bar human rights violators form membership." Rice flatly rejected accusations that the US was sacrificing diplomatic leverage by being willing to join now, before reforms are instituted. She added that America's interest in joining the council did not legitimize its current record. "We don't view engagement or diplomacy as a reward," Rice told reporters. "It's a tool to advance our interests." Leshno Yaar said he hoped "the US will contribute tremendously to the work of the Human Rights Council. I think they have an enormous task of fixing the flaws of the council, which are huge and significant." Top among those flaws, Leshno-Yaar said, "is the council's obsession with Israel and the fact that the council systematically ignores human rights violations in other parts of the world." But he said there are other issues as well. The council has taken problematic stances on freedom of speech and religious freedom. US-based human rights groups applauded the decision, as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said in a statement that he welcomed the American participation on the council as a "concrete embodiment of the US commitment to 'a new era of engagement.'" B'nai B'rith International said US membership could be the last chance for the council to reform itself and become a body that strengthens "the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe." UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said that much attention has been focused of late on the need to change the text of the UN anti-racism conference, dubbed Durban II, set to meet in Geneva later this month. "Durban II is a fleeting one week conference, but the [council] is a permanent forum that meets year round. Whether we like it or not, it has global influence," Neuer said. While he hoped that the US could make changes to the council, he noted that it was replacing Canada, which had also been a stalwart supporter of Israel on the council. At that same time that it was likely to join the council, so was Saudi Arabia, he said.