Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

New Zealand takes its turn at the UN Security Council Presidency - with a Middle East-oriented agenda

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July 1 marked the start of a one-month presidency for New Zealand at the UN Security Council, an opportunity the country has no intentions of squandering. The small Asia-Pacific island nation has announced an ambitious agenda, one that includes tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and convincing the five permanent members of the Council to discuss surrendering their veto privilege.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully has said that his country's goal is simply to get the Israelis and Palestinians around the negotiating table again, not to impose a time limit on those negotiations. France is currently attempting to bring forth a UN resolution to not only restart talks but to reach an agreement within 18 months; that resolution would dictate many of the key outcomes of the talks, something Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu have argued would harm Israel's security.

"I think what they're really allergic to is the idea that the Security Council might start the process by imposing a whole lot of conditions, conditions in their view that would favour the other side," McCully said in a recent interview. "I think they're less allergic to the notion that the Security Council might try and bring the two parties together, and that's the sort of thing that we've got in mind."

This seems to represent a re-assessment of New Zealand's position earlier this year, when they appeared to be backing the French proposal, as Miriam Bell, AIJAC's New Zealand columnist, noted recently in the Australia/Israel Review. This is positive because, as Bell stated, New Zealand's goal of mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the UN presented a risk of "counter-productively furthering an openly declared Palestinian diplomatic strategy of avoiding negotiations and instead seeking to internationalise the conflict through international organisations."

The re-assessment by New Zealand presumably comes in the wake of McCully's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in June, when the Israelis would likely have made it clear to him that they strongly objected to the details of the French proposal and its inclusion of a series of parameters it demanded any peace deal contain.

New Zealand's plan to revive peace talks isn't a novel one; in the past, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served as a rather trendy issue to take up amongst eager ascendants in the international arena with revolutionary ambitions (see John Kerry, and his 2013 goal to broker a peace deal in 9 months after more than 60 years of stalemate.) The Kiwis also know that, given only four-and-a-half short weeks for their tenure at the head of the Security Council, they have no time to waste; McCully has spoken of "bring[ing] a sense of impatience to the council."

New Zealand policymakers doubtless believe that as a relatively neutral country on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have the potential to advance negotiations further than previous mediators from Washington, for example, or Cairo. Unlike other mediators who tend to be financially or strategically invested in the Middle East, New Zealand, a country more than 15,000 km from Jerusalem, ostensibly has nothing to gain or lose from either side.

Yet while New Zealand may believe this neutrality lends it legitimacy, this will not be of much use if its efforts are not well-informed about the realities of the actual barriers to peace. For instance, New Zealand's agenda to weaken the Security Council veto would not only be viewed as very problematic by Israel, but would almost certainly make peace more difficult to achieve.

On the veto issue, McCully said earlier this year, "The use of the veto or the threat of the veto is the single largest cause of the UN Security Council being rendered impotent in the face of too many serious international conflicts...whether we are talking about Syria or the Middle-East Peace Process, the veto's impact today far exceeds what was envisaged in the UN Charter - to the huge detriment of the council's effectiveness and credibility."

However, that veto, which the US has had to exercise more than 40 times on resolutions against Israel since 1972, has been one of the sole tools available to protect Israel at the UN from the entrenched biases built into the UN voting system and bureaucracy: The majority of UN member states belong to the Non-Aligned Movement (120 out of 193), which itself is influenced heavily by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. (Iran is the current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, and at its most recent conference in Teheran, Iranian President Khamenei used his opening remarks to condemn "ferocious Zionist wolves" and "the media networks which belong to Zionism.")

Indeed, together with the Soviet bloc, the Non-Aligned Movement worked to pass the infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution in 1975, arguably a watershed in anti-Israel institutionalisation at the UN. That anti-Israel structure still holds strong at the UN today: take, for example, the Human Rights Council, where none of the individual members are granted veto power and resolutions are passed by majority vote. Israel has been singularly condemned 61 times-more than all other countries combined in the Council's nine-year existence.

In addition, the UN has three bodies dedicated solely to advancing the Palestinian cause: the Division of Palestinian Affairs in the UN's Department for Political Affairs, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People. (As of this writing, no comparable UN committee to investigate Palestinian practices affecting the security of the Israeli people or prospects for a two-state solution has been commissioned.) Such a tilt toward the Palestinian cause, at the expense of another UN member state, has crippled any UN role in peacemaking, and damaged hopes of a two-state resolution via that body.

As a result, New Zealand's anti-veto proposal is essentially asking to remove one of the few checks on these biases, which, by extension, would arguably worsen an already significant barrier to Middle East peace.

Furthermore, the Kiwi narrative - that as a neutral, disinterested party, they can get productive talks going where others have failed - may be naive (or perhaps, as McCully calls it, "a 'glass half full' view.") In an interview last month, McCully suggested that the "big problem" in the peace process is that "they haven't sat in a room. They haven't had direct talks."

This is simply incorrect - for most of the past 20 years there have been direct talks of one sort or another. See former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told the Australian in 2009 about the second most recent such round of talks:

"From the end of 2006 until the end of 2008 I think I met with Abu Mazen more often than any Israeli leader has ever met any Arab leader. I met him more than 35 times. They were intense, serious negotiations... On the 16th of September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan... He (Abbas) promised me the next day his adviser would come. But the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said we forgot we are going to Amman today, let's make it next week. I never saw him again."

Just a few months earlier, Abbas described a similar narrative in an interview with the Washington Post:

"In our meeting Wednesday, Abbas acknowledged that Olmert had shown him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank -- though he complained that the Israeli leader refused to give him a copy of the plan. He confirmed that Olmert ‘accepted the principle' of the ‘right of return' of Palestinian refugees - something no previous Israeli prime minister had done - and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. In all, Olmert's peace offer was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton; it's almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further.

Abbas turned it down. ‘The gaps were wide,' he said."

Whether or not New Zealand's approach to this issue (one that has stumped the world for more than 65 years) can move things forward remains to be seen. What is clear now is that it may face more of a challenge than it anticipates if it believes that removing the Security Council veto - one of the only barriers to the entrenched biases of the UN - will bring lasting peace closer. It faces further obstacles if it fails to acknowledge that its solution, direct talks, has been tried before to disappointing results, and look seriously at the question of why.

Miriam Smallman

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