Former U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro on U.S. Efforts to Counter Anti-Israeli Sentiment in the International Community, S. Daniel Abram Center

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for the invitation and opportunity to speak here at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.  Thank you, Dr. Barry Feinstein, MK Nachman Shai, Ambassador Gabi Shalev, and Professor Arye Naor.  It’s an honor to speak with representatives of an organization that continues to work tirelessly in pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors.  The Center’s promotion of peace and strategic dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians helps us keep our eye on the ultimate goal – ensuring that one day, a secure, Jewish, and democratic State of Israel lives side by side with a viable Palestinian state established through direct negotiations—two states for two peoples, living in peace and security.

Today, we are focusing on another issue that concerns us all: ensuring that Israel gets fair and equal treatment at the United Nations and other international organizations, with all the rights and responsibilities of any other UN member state.  Our policy is clear: the Obama Administration has consistently and forcefully opposed unbalanced and biased actions against Israel across the UN system.  President Obama has pledged to continue U.S. efforts to combat international attempts to challenge the Israel’s legitimacy, including and especially at the United Nations.

Please permit me to retell here an anecdote that Susan Rice, our Ambassador to the UN, recently passed along – it’s about one of the U.S.’s most distinguished UN Ambassadors, Adlai Stevenson:

The year was 1961. The Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and a diplomat from Ireland were sitting next to each other in the United Nations General Assembly, watching Ambassador Stevenson defend the Kennedy Administration’s actions at the Bay of Pigs. Explaining the Bay of Pigs to the General Assembly wasn’t easy, and Stevenson was having a rough time. He squinted over his glasses and started in on a particularly overwritten section about why Castro’s sins had justified the operation. Stevenson declared, “I have already told you about Castro’s crimes against man. But now let me tell you about Castro’s crimes against God.”  Then, Stevenson peered down at his notes and stammered a bit: “Castro has—Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.”  And at that, the Israeli Ambassador Michael Comay looked over at his Irish friend and said, “I always knew that, somehow, we would be blamed for this.”

Now all countries come under scrutiny now and then at the United Nations, including the United States.  But what Israel faces is something very different: an ugly and unrelenting campaign in the UN designed to single out Israel for criticism and even to question its very legitimacy.   President Obama has insisted that the United States be clear and consistent: the treatment Israel receives across the UN system is unacceptable. Efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy have been met with the unflinching opposition of the United States.  There are literally hundreds of people in our government – in Washington, in New York, in Geneva, in Vienna, in the Hague, and wherever international organizations are based, who spend a considerable amount of their time carrying out the strong U.S. opposition to all efforts to delegitimize Israel.

Here are a few examples of US leadership in opposing anti-Israel initiatives and in rallying like-minded countries in defense of Israel.

  1. The U.S. stood firm with Israel by walking out of the first Durban conference in 2001, the only country to do so.  The original Durban Conference and the follow-up conferences in 2009 and 2011 were billed as anti-racism conferences.  Combatting racism is a worthy goal, but unfortunately, anti-Israel activists hijacked these gatherings – particularly the notorious 2001 conference — and turned them into a platform to equate Zionism with racism.  Since the first Durban conference, the number of countries opposing this forum has grown, thanks in large part to U.S. leadership.
  2. When the deeply flawed Goldstone Report was released, an outgrowth of a biased process in the UN Human Rights Council, the U.S. unequivocally rejected the findings as unfairly biased toward Israel.  The basic premise of Goldstone was unbalanced, precluding an unbiased investigation of the facts, and the events preceding Operation Cast Lead.  The U.S. insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket and terror attacks on its citizens and maintained that Israel’s democratic institutions could credibly investigate any possible abuses.
  3. In 2010 we rallied our partners and defeated a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference that singled out Israel’s nuclear program for rebuke.  And when the same resolution was considered in 2011, its sponsors, anticipating another defeat¸ preemptively withdrew their proposal.  Our efforts have helped keep the world’s attention properly focused on Iran’s illicit nuclear program and the imperative to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
  4. When the UN Human Rights Council turns session after session to Agenda Item Seven on Israel, the Council’s only standing agenda item on any single country in the world, we fight hard on principle to end this glaring, structural bias.  And by making our voice heard, we have rallied others to join us in defending Israel, and have helped shine the light on serious human rights abuses in Iran and Syria.
  5. When the Human Rights Council last month voted to establish a Fact Finding Mission on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the United States voted “no.”

As you know, the United States does not support the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, but we oppose all actions that will make it harder for Israeli and Palestinians to sit down together and negotiate their differences face to face.  Our only veto in the UNSC was to block a resolution on settlements.  The creation of one more biased mechanism at the Human Rights Council, at the behest of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, makes a mockery out of the meaning of human rights, and does nothing to advance the cause of peace.

It is understandable that Israelis are profoundly frustrated by the treatment Israel too often endures at the UN.  We are too.  But I hope we never let that justified frustration blind us to the real good the UN does—from imposing unprecedented sanctions on Iran and North Korea, setting the stage for even tougher actions against Iran, to saving untold thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar Qaddafi, or protecting victims of genocide in Darfur, to providing food and health care to some of the world’s most destitute people.  Some people suggest simply giving up on the United Nation. But, for all the UN’s flaws, doing so would deeply harm the values shared by the U.S. and Israel — and it would leave Israel alone against continued international scrutiny.

In fact, it’s because the U.S. supports and believes in the UN’s mission that we stand with Israel in opposition to these initiatives.  When countries bring forth proposals in the UN designed exclusively to malign Israel, it undermines the credibility of the entire institution.  We’re talking about UN institutions that are instrumental in uncovering acts of genocide and war crimes, deploying essential peacekeeping missions in conflict zones and caring for those in need.  Yet the UN’s mandate cannot work when some members use these bodies for their own political ends.  The U.S. is focused on building a consensus of countries that are opposed to such biased resolutions in order to protect Israel from unfair recriminations, and to preserve the UN’s moral authority.

The U.S. is doing far more than just playing defense. We have also racked up important wins that support Israel as it struggles to assume its rightful place among its fellow nations:

  • When terrorists recently struck at Israeli diplomatic personnel in India and Georgia, we led the Security Council in unanimously condemning the attacks “in the strongest terms.” It was the first Security Council statement supporting Israel against terrorism in seven years.
  • Israel is also proudly showing the world how much it has to offer. In January 2010, with U.S. support, Israel became Chair of the Kimberley Process—an important conflict-diamonds certification initiative. Israel will join the board of UNICEF this year. And just last month, Israel won its first-ever seat on the executive board of the United Nations Development Program, which Israel’s Deputy UN Ambassador called, quote: “a milestone in Israel’s integration into the global agenda of the United Nations.”
  • US logistical cooperation has included supporting the Israeli humanitarian response and peacekeeping in Haiti (14 police), Israeli membership in OECD, and Israeli participation at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) – the first in an Arab country (the UAE).

Now, when it comes to anti-Israel initiatives in the international community, we try to distinguish between the motivations and actions taken by countries at the UN and the Palestinians’ push for recognition within UN institutions.

Make no mistake, we oppose both.  The former seeks to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy.  The latter is a misguided attempt to achieve Palestinian statehood by circumventing direct negotiations.  Both initiatives produce negative results; the first unfairly targets Israel and weakens our international institutions, while the second undermines efforts to reach a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the only lasting solution to this conflict.  We have, and will continue, to oppose both kinds of initiatives.

Some argue that prematurely extending international standing to the Palestinians will facilitate peace, but we have seen that in reality the exact opposite is happening.  Palestinian leaders are reluctant to return to the negotiating table, in part, because they believe that achieving recognition in these various UN bodies will afford them a platform from which to pressure Israel into making concessions.  This will not work.  Israel will not be bullied into making concessions in pursuit of a two-state solution.  This approach only breeds mistrust, and succeeds merely in driving the parties further apart.

So what do we do?  The U.S. remains committed to opposing Palestinian statehood efforts in the UN, while also urging them to return to the negotiating table.  Our approach cannot be simply to discourage the Palestinian’s diplomatic efforts in the UN without also encouraging them to return to negotiations.  The Quartet has called for the parties to return to direct talks without preconditions, on the basis of the principles President Obama articulated in May 2011, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has extended such an invitation.  Both sides should avoid unilateral actions, whether provocative settlement construction or appeals to the United Nations, which run counter to the goal of achieving a lasting peace agreement that meets the needs of both sides.  Returning to direct negotiations remains the only way to achieve the Palestinian’s legitimate goal of statehood.  And we should continue to support Prime Minister Fayyad’s program of developing the institutions of a future Palestinian state, to be arrived at through negotiations.

In the meantime, the U.S. remains vigilant on the Palestinians’ bid for UN membership. This past year, we sent a clear message to the Palestinians, through our diplomatic efforts, that a majority of the UN Security Council members do not support unilateral Palestinian statehood recognition, thus precluding a need for a U.S. veto.  But we are prepared to use that veto, if necessary.  This message remains in effect; there is no shortcut to statehood. Tough issues can only be solved through direct negotiations between the parties, while efforts to circumvent negotiations are a step in the wrong direction.  We have been consistent and clear on this.

The Palestinian push for membership in UNESCO is a case in point.  The recent decision to admit Palestine as a member to this organization has forced the U.S., under our laws, to withhold our UNESCO funding.  This funding supported valuable UNESCO work, including its valuable Holocaust education program.  Loss of U.S. funding at UNESCO sends a clear message that we will not be a party to Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations and undermine the peace process.  But it also inadvertently undermines many important programs that the United States believes in.  In the end, Palestinian membership in UNESCO has only succeeded in damaging an important UN organization and hampering the Palestinian Authority’s statehood aspirations.  A Palestinian move for recognition at the General Assembly could cause similarly negative outcomes.

The ongoing fight for Israel at the United Nations is just one part of a much larger mandate from President Obama.  His guidance to me has been crystal clear: to strengthen and deepen America’s special and enduring relationship with Israel — a relationship rooted in common interests and common values.

We’ve come far.  But we’ve got far more to do. And in that work, let there be no doubt. America remains deeply and permanently committed to the peace, security, and legitimacy, of the State of Israel. That commitment starts with President Obama, and it is shared by us all.

Thank you very much.