Forget for a second the long-term significance and potential ramifications of the latest UN move to refer Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory” to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.
It was clear once the resolution was brought to the UN it would pass, the only question was by how large a margin. For most people, all of these anti-Israel resolutions, after a while, seem the same and fade into the generic haze of “the UN is against us.”
However, what is interesting in the vote that took place Friday that Israel lost – and the Palestinians won – by a vote of 87-26 with 53 abstentions and 27 no-shows, is that it provides a snapshot of who Israel’s friends are in the international arena at this particular moment.
If one were making vacation plans based on the attitude of various countries toward Israel, this vote would provide a good gauge. Pretty good, but not perfect, because “friend” is a complex concept.
Azerbaijan, for instance, is a Shi’ite country with whom Israel enjoys good diplomatic ties, which just opened up an embassy in Tel Aviv and is one of Israel’s best markets for arms. Yet it voted against Israel on this vote. There are all kinds of explanations, the most prominent being that it is a Muslim country and does not want to set itself apart from all the other Muslim lands, which, with just a few exceptions, voted against Israel. Still, should Jerusalem expect more?
What determines whether a country is a 'friend?'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes, or at least he used to believe, that it should. In his last term, he put chipping away at the automatic, anti-Israel bloc at the UN as one of his top priorities. He spoke of it publicly in 2015, saying the time has come for the friendship and cooperation of countries with good bilateral ties with Israel to be reflected in votes in international bodies.
Or take a country like the UAE, with whom Israel has a flourishing relationship, which also voted against it on Friday at the UN. Is the UAE not a friend? Here the explanation given for this vote is that it is something the Emiratis have to do for the Palestinians to show that, despite having signed an agreement with Israel, they have not abandoned the Palestinian cause. Nobody in the Muslim world wants to be seen as abandoning the Palestinian cause.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the vote was “evidence of the whole world’s support for our people and their inalienable historical rights.”
Really? The whole world?
Forty-five percent of the world body’s 193 members voted in favor of the Palestinians on Friday. Fifty-five percent of the UN countries either voted against, voted to abstain or just did not show up to vote.
Beyond that, it is not only the quantity but also the “quality of the states” that Israeli officials always say should be considered when looking at these votes. Who has the moral majority – meaning the world’s democratic countries – on their side?
For instance, of the 87 countries that voted for the Palestinians, some 43% are classified in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index as being authoritarian regimes, with another 21 being classified as hybrid regimes, which are states with authoritarian and democratic features, such as Mexico, Armenia, Turkey and Pakistan. Only a quarter of the states that voted for the Palestinians were either full or flawed democracies.
By contrast, 62% of those countries who voted for Israel were democracies, and only 19% were authoritative or hybrid regimes. Beyond that, looking at the list of countries voting for and against Israel reveals some interesting trends.
Take Ukraine, for example
When the preliminary draft of this resolution was first voted on in November, Ukraine cast a vote against Israel, infuriating many. Why should Israel help Ukraine with anything, some argued, while they voted against it at the UN? The Ukrainian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear Israel’s displeasure over the matter.
Something sunk in, because on Friday, Ukraine did what it has often done in the past regarding Israel-related votes: it just didn’t cast one. It was absent when the General Assembly in 2012 voted to give the Palestinians non-member observer status in the organization, and again in 2017 when it voted to condemn then-US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Poland is also an interesting case study
A few years ago, Poland was grouped with the other Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – as having carved out a special relationship with Israel among the EU countries. These countries could be counted on to vote with Israel in international fora.
No longer. The angry disagreement between the two countries over Holocaust memory has left its mark. This time Poland voted against Israel rather than abstaining as it did in 2017 on the Jerusalem vote or in 2012 on the issue of Palestinian UN membership.
Poland joined six other EU countries in voting against Israel at the UN – and the vote of the EU countries is always looked at carefully because of Europe’s importance and the fact that these are democratic countries.
The other EU countries that voted against Israel included the usual suspects: Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Malta, Luxembourg and Slovenia. The first five countries in the above list are the most critical toward Israel in the EU – and have been in that position for years. Slovenia, however, moves back and forth depending on elections and changing governments there.
For years, Sweden was also in that camp – in fact, a leader of that camp most critical of the Jewish state. It should no longer be grouped in that same category, as its abstention on Friday indicated. It now has a three-party Center-Right coalition influenced heavily by a far-right-wing party. Its policies on Israel, as reflected in its voting in international fora, are not what it was just a few years ago.
The EU countries that voted for Israel were Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Romania. The United Kingdom, no longer a member of the EU, also voted for Israel.
Austria’s vote is interesting from a historical perspective since a decade ago it could be counted on to vote against Israel, as it did in 2012 when it voted to grant non-member observer status in the UN to the Palestinians. Right-wing governments there changed the country’s attitude toward Israel, which is reflected in how Austria now consistently votes. A similar dynamic is now at work in Italy, which last year’s rule voted in a far-right prime minister.
Cyprus and Greece, whose relations with Israel have gotten extremely close over the last 15 years, both abstained – which is par for the course, and far better than what they used to do two decades ago, when they could always be counted on to vote against Israel and were considered among the most anti-Israel countries in the EU.
Another country that has gone from reflexively voting against Israel to abstaining is India, which did just that on Friday. This process began in 2014 with the ascension to power of Narendra Modi and has continued ever since.
Brazil also abstained, continuing a streak of favorable votes on the Israeli/Palestinian issue that will surely end now as veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, inaugurated on Sunday as Brazil’s president, takes over from right-wing Jair Bolsonaro.
Israel’s situation in Latin America is not as good as it was when Netanyahu went there in 2017. Since then, governments have changed, and with them so have changed policies on Israel. Colombia, which long had a positive voting record on Israel, voted against on Friday, as did Mexico, a country Netanyahu visited in 2017 and invested considerable energy in cultivating ties.
He also cultivated ties with Africa. Only four Sub-Saharan countries voted for Israel on Friday – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia and Togo. Another 18 voted against, and countries with whom Israel has strong ties such as Ethiopia and Rwanda were among another 10 who abstained. A further 14 counties did not vote. Interestingly, however, 10 of those who did not vote on Friday voted for the Palestinians when they sought a seat at the UN in 2012, a sign that things are changing.
“What I’m about to say is going to shock you: Israel has a bright future at the UN,” Netanyahu said at the UN in 2016. “When it comes to Israel at the UN, you’d probably think nothing will ever change, right? Well think again. You see, everything will change, and a lot sooner than you think. The change will happen in this hall, because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the UN.”
Friday’s voting showed that, yes, while things in the UN are changing, that change is more gradual and less dramatic than Netanyahu envisioned at the time.