News Analysis: Israel and the U.N. — two steps forward, one step back

NEW YORK — Advances in the Middle East peace process have improved Israel's bilateral relations in the international community, but collective anti-Israel trends persist at the United Nations.

This is a fact that Israeli officials acknowledge but tend to minimize in favor of emphasizing the improvement in Israel's standing at the U.N. General Assembly since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords in September 1993.

The historic 50th session of the General Assembly was celebrated here last fall with great fanfare as diplomats and statesmen from around the globe, including the late Yitzhak Rabin, paid tribute to the contributions of the United Nations.

But after the session's conclusion in December, Ambassador Morris Abram, the chairman of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based independent monitor of the international body, issued a report charging that there had been "virtually no change in the 19 perennial United Nations resolutions castigating Israel."

Exposing the United Nations' continuing anti-Israel discrimination is the crusade of Abram, whose organization is associated with the World Jewish Congress.

At a recent meeting at the WJC in New York, Abram, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pointed to the resolutions as well as Israel's exclusion from a regional grouping as evidence that the United Nations remains a repository of "political anti-Semitism."

Israel is the only country excluded from membership in a geopolitical grouping, which means it is not eligible to serve on the Security Council, the Human Rights Commission and countless other U.N. bodies.

A brief prepared for U.N. Watch found, "The significant harm and discrimination suffered by Israel as a consequence of its exclusion from the geopolitical groups constitutes a violation of the principle of sovereign equality, the primary organizational principle of the U.N."

The exclusion has also "made it easier for Israel's enemies to proactively cultivate international hostility towards Israel at the G.A.," the brief said.

Abram has been pushing for Israel's membership in the Western European and Other States Group as "the only reasonable way to remedy this ongoing illegal discrimination against Israel."

The push, in which other Jewish organizations also are engaged, recognizes that Israel cannot take its logical place in the Asian group due to unremitting opposition by member-states such as Iran and Iraq.

The Israeli government has been working since 1993 toward its inclusion in the Western grouping, but publicly has put a much more upbeat face than Abram does on Israel's current treatment at the United Nations.

Officials, including Gad Ya'acobi, Israel's outgoing U.N. ambassador, choose to emphasize Israel's improved standing at the General Assembly in light of the peace process.

In their public documents chronicling recent U.N. trends, they point out that since 1992, Israel's credentials have been accepted by consensus, after 10 years of having to wage annual battles for such acceptance.

They also point to the decline in anti-Israel resolutions from 29 in 1992 and the first-time passage in 1993 of a resolution supporting the peace process without any criticism of Israel.

And they cite Israel's increased participation in U.N. activities, including its operation of a field hospital in Rwanda and the appointment and election since 1993 of Israelis to U.N. posts and committees.

Prior to that, no Israeli had been appointed or elected to a committee since the 1960s.

During last fall's 50th anniversary festivities, Rabin noted Israel's thorny relationship with the body that helped give birth to his nation and then turned against it.

Rabin said he had come "to praise the change in the relationship between Israel and the international community and the United Nations."

He was assassinated four days after he returned to Israel from New York. The General Assembly held an unusual commemorative session for him Dec. 5.

Ya'acobi's deputy at the United Nations, David Peleg, said at the recent meeting of the WJC that he agreed with Abram that "there is a long way to go" in eliminating the anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.

But he urged patience, noting that the body is a slow-moving bureaucracy.

"We look at it as a mixed bag," he said, underscoring that there are fewer anti-Israel resolutions and the texts of those that remain have been softened to be less "condemnatory" than before.

But Abram warned against complacency.

"I don't care if the resolutions are pared down to almost nothing," he said. The fact that they continue being passed says that "Israel and the Jews are fair game."

He pointed to a now-routine resolution last passed Dec. 3 by a vote of 133-1, which declared Israeli jurisdiction over Jerusalem null and void.

Another professional U.N. watcher, Harris Schoenberg, said he falls somewhere between Abram and Israeli officials when it comes to assessing Israel's standing in the international body.

"There have been substantial, visible and demonstrable changes, but there is still a long way to go, particularly in the General Assembly," said Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B'nai B'rith International.

Schoenberg said Abram's dim view likely is colored by his base in Geneva, where the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission meets.

He said the commission is "in a time warp, as if it is the height of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict."

For its part, the Israeli government seems to give higher priority to the peace process and bilateral relations than to fighting anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, he said.

Abram is not alone in his grim assessment, however.

At a dinner last month at the United Nations sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, there was a tribute to some of those who fought against the United Nations' infamous 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

One of the honorees was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who declared that the United Nations is out of step with developments in the peace process.

"The time of peace is at hand," Moynihan said, "but this institution has to understand it has done nothing to bring it about and it better change."

And a March 12 New York Times column pointed to the fact that the recent series of terror attacks against Israeli civilians prompted the U.N. Security Council to issue a condemnatory statement, rather than a vote, which has more teeth to it.

To many, wrote reporter Clyde Haberman, "this imbalance in the way outrage is expressed shows that Israel is still not playing on a level field at the United Nations, which has historically held Arab interests closer to heart."