By Richard Falk
This post is the full text of my presentation at an excellent conference “The Israeli Lobby: Is it good for US? Is it Good for Israel?” National Press Club, Washington, D.C., April 10, 2015.
The conference was sponsored and organized by the editorial leadership of the magazine Washington Report, which brings together some of the best writing on the Israel/Palestine struggle. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the full conference either at the YouTube website or the audio recording at http://www.israellobbyus.org Although there were many illuminating presentations during the day, and I would call particular attention to the memorable remarks of two highly informed Israelis, Gideon Levy and – another TFF Associate – Miko Peled.
There are no better texts for assessing the damage done to the role and reputation of the UN by the Israeli Lobby than to consider Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements boasting about the U.S. success in protecting Israel from criticisms arising from its non-fulfillment of responsibilities under international law and as a member of the United Nations. It should be understood that the lobby does not act in a vacuum, and its leverage is greatly enhanced in global settings to the considerable extent that its priorities overlap with the strategic and economic interests of the United States in the Middle East.
Despite the tensions with the White House associated with Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress, Kerry proudly informed an ABC TV news boradcast: “We have intervened on Israel’s behalf..a couple of hundred times in over 75 different fora.” [“This Week,” Feb. 28, 2015]. And then when addressing the Human Rights Council Kerry included a statement that could just as well been drafted by AIPAC or Israel’s ambassador to the UN: “It must be said that the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.”
And further, “we will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the UN system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel, not just in the HRC but wherever it occurs.” [Remarks, Palais des Nations, Geneva, March 2, 2015]
What is striking about these kinds of statements by our highest ranking government officials dealing with foreign policy is the disconnect between these reassurances of unconditional support and Israel’s record of persistent disregard of its obligation under international law and with respect to the authority of the UN. In addressing an AIPAC gathering a few weeks ago, Representative Lindsay Graham curried favor by telling the audience that as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I’m gonna put the UN on notice” that he would go after its funding if the Organization takes any steps to ‘marginalize’ Israel.
During my six years as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine I had the opportunity to observe the manner in which a group of international and national so-called NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are closely aligned with Israel give priority to deflecting criticisms of Israel and discrediting with the temerity to offer critical assessments of Israel’s conduct. I say ‘so-called’ because it is more revealing and accurate to regard these political actors as ‘quasi-government organizations’ (QGO) rather than NGOs.
These covertly aligned entities now hide behind the NGO label to claim a civil society identity for themselves, but in practice they devote their energies and secure their funding because of their singleminded dedication and dogged defense of a particular government’s interests, in this instance those of Israel.
There were two features of the campaigns waged within the UN by these QGO: attacks directed at discrediting critics of Israel and attacks directed at the UN as such, generally focused on particular organs of the Organization.
With regard to personal attacks, a reliance on repeated defamatory attacks on a particular person being targeted, as biased and even anti-Semitic whenever such a person is addressing some aspect of Israeli policy or is sympathetically reporting on Palestinian grievances. Coupled with this kind of personal attack is an avoidance of the substantive aspects with respect to whether the criticisms or grievances are well grounded in international law and human rights law.
The content of these toxic attacks, at least in my case, focused on a distorted presentation of my views on a variety of issues that were made in settings other than the UN and generally did not even pertain to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The intended effect was to shift attention from the message containing the issues about which the UN has a responsibility to consider upon to a controversy about whether the messenger is tainted.
With incredible persistence, UN Watch as the most aggressive of the QGOs, exclusively used the opportunity of ‘interactive dialogue’ in Geneva sessions of the HRC to give voice to their denunciation of my character and activities.
Afterwards UN Watch circulated in the form of an organizational letter these defamatory attacks to prominent international personalities, including high-ranking civil servants in the UN itself, such as the UN Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a variety of ambassadors of countries friendly to Israel. Characteristically, the letter ended with a demand that I be dismissed from my post as Special Rapporteur.
It was particularly disturbing to me that these defamatory attacks were treated as credible on their face by supposedly responsible prominent UN officials and government representative without the slightest effort to conduct an independent investigation or the minimal courtesy of checking either with me or with the sources that were being relied upon to put forward these defamatory assertions.
Instead, their endorsement by supposedly responsible public figures was damaging to my reputation, and helped to divert attention from fashioning appropriate responses to the substantive grievances of the Palestinian people, and hence also indirectly damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the UN. As might be expected the Fox News network took such attacks at face value as useful material in relation to their hostile coverage of the UN.
On more than one occasion the UN SG Ban Ki-Moon denounced me without making the slightest attempt to assess the accuracy of the views attributed to me in such UN Watch letters that referred in discrediting and misleading ways to material from my blog where I discussed in some detail the 9/11 attacks and the international context of the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon.
After the first of these attacks by the UN SG I tried to find out why as someone working without salary on behalf of the UN was not given the opportunity to at least explain my views. When I tried to probe the matter by seeking an explanation, I was told somewhat apologetically by a close associate of the SG that the failure to take account of my actual views was due to the fact that ‘we didn’t do due diligence.’
He added that at the time the UN felt ‘under pressure from the U.S. Congress to show that the Organization were not hostile to Israel.’ It was a sensitive moment as Ban Ki-Moon was seeking U.S. support for reappointment to a second term.
In a similar vein, the U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, and later Samantha Power, denounced me as biased, and deserving dismissal. When I sought some explanation from Ambassador Rice my overly polite letter remains unanswered. This experience of mine is important as it illustrates the readiness of public officials in this country and at high levels of the UN to condemn persons accused of bias toward Israel without bothering to find out whether the complaint against the is justified.
The Israel Lobby’s basic premise is that any criticism of Israel at the UN is on its face evidence of bias and anti-Semitism, and this is exactly the approach taken by these officials connected with the UN and representing the U.S. Government. The QGOs serve as gatekeepers, signaling to those associated with global policy that it is time to act in support of Israel.
What I am trying to explain by reference to my experience is the degree to which these pro-Israeli QGOs stir up trouble for those who are doing their best to document Israel’s flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards.
A major purpose of these tactics in response to well-evidenced documentation of Israeli state crime is to mobilize opposition on the part of government officials, especially in the U.S., but also Canada, UK, and Australia, and induce the pro-Israeli media to focus on controversies involving critics, rather than the criticisms, emanating from UN activities.
One result of these repeated personal attacks along these lines is, by their mere repetition, useful in making the UN generally, and the Human Rights Council in particular, seem to be arenas dominated by individuals biased against Israel, and even anti-Semitic.
I can report that in my experience at the UN, including the Human Rights Council, the Organization has consistently leaned over backward to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. The official reports that I prepared on Israel’s occupation of Palestine over my term were based on essentially uncontested documentation of allegations of severe violations of international humanitarian law, as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention and on other authoritative norms.
In my opinion, anyone possessing professional integrity would arrive at the same, or similar, conclusions to mine with respect to the legal implications of the continuing occupation of Palestine. What is worth noticing is that this pushback by Israeli lobbying organizations reflects their apparent judgment that it is best to avoid engaging in any form of substantive debate. Undoubtedly, character assassination is proving more persuasive and effective.
It is also relevant to point out that my predecessor, John Dugard, a distinguished South African jurist and globally respected scholar, was also subjected to similar defamatory attacks during his period in the HRC as Special Rapporteur on Palestine.
This style of defamatory QGO behavior has arguably weakened the role of the Special Rapporteur, which provides the Palestinian people with their only truly independent and potentially influential voice within the UN.
My successor was explicitly chosen in 2014 to be Special Rapporteur for Palestine on the perverse rationale that he was more qualified than other candidates because he had no expert knowledge of the subject-matter and was not even shortlisted by the consultative committee of ambassadors that is charged with advising the President of the Human Rights Council on the qualifications of the candidates (it is amusing, although sad in its effects, that lack of qualifications became a crucial qualification in the UN selection process).
The person chosen further demonstrated his suitability for the job by expressing a willingness in advance to make every effort to get along with Israel while discharging his office. The results of making this appointment have so far been much less attention to the grievances of the Palestinian people.
Even with this corrupting process Israel has still not been willing to cooperate with the UN so as enabling the HRC to carry out the mandate. At present, the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine continues to be denied entry to Palestine, a situation that has existed ever since I was expelled in 2008. Even in the face of this refusal to allow the Special Rapporteur access to Palestine, the UN is sufficiently intimidated by Israel and the U.S., that it makes only pro forma protests.
I should also point out that the experience of Special Rapporteurs for Palestine is not a departure from a broader pattern of defamation of UN initiatives perceived as critical of Israel.
When Richard Goldstone, a lifelong Zionist, prominent in Israel, and a respected international civil servant, submitted a report on behalf of a fact-finding inquiry into the Cast Lead 2008-09 attacks on Gaza, he was so savagely attacked by these QGOs, as well as by the top Israeli leaders, that he was induced to back down and retract the most serious allegations concerning Israel’s behavior in Gaza, a reformulation that none of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group supported.
It should be noted that Goldstone, as in the case of Dugard and myself, undertake these UN roles as unpaid volunteers, which does allow us independence and allows us to be sharply criticized without being dismissed.
I can also report that I was privately frequently complimented for the objectivity and persuasiveness of my reports by important UN officials, but were on the defensive in public because the Organization is deemed dependent on U.S. support.
These tactics of seeking to destroy the reputation of the UN as an arena is illustrated by an article prominently published in the NY Times a while ago written by the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, bearing the provocative title “The U.N. War on Israel.” on March 31. Ambassador Prosor contends “this once great global body had been overrun by the repressive regimes that violate human rights and undermine international security.”
He argues that this pernicious influence is made plainly evident by the extent to which Israel is singled out for harsh criticism. He relied in his speech on UN Watch, which he blandly identify as “the Geneva-based monitoring group” to mount his diatribe, singling out the appointment of William Schabas a few months ago to head a commission of inquiry into the Israeli 2014 onslaught against Gaza as indicative of a disqualifying bias.
Schabas resigned his post under a barrage of unfair criticism directed at the fact that he had once prepared a short technical report as a legal professional as to whether Palestine was qualified to be a party to the Rome Treaty governing the International Criminal Court. The fact that Proser’s inflammatory article was published in the NY Times, a venue respected for its objectivity and balance is itself reflective of the unhealthy degree of leverage wielded by Israeli lobbying groups.
In my experience, the UN rather than being subject to what Prosor calls “the tide of hatred aimed at Israel” is a result of American influence within the Oraganization, is increasingly unable to play a constructive role in relation to Israel or by rendering protection to the Palestinian people who have been denied their most fundamental rights for far too long.
It is relevant to remember that the ordeal of the Palestinians people, unlike that of any of the other terrible situations afflicting people throughout the world, is one for which the UN has a significant share of past and present responsibility. The UN took over the role played by colonial Britain that had administered Palestine since the end of World War I, after colonial Britain and the League of Nations had encouraged Zionist hopes in 1917 by issuing the Balfour Declaration that looked with favor on the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people.”
We need to recall in this connection that the initial partition proposals for historic Palestine in 1947 came from the UN in GA Resolution 181 without any effort to consult the wishes of the then resident population of Palestine, and thus in direct denial of the right of self-determination and against the tide of invalidating colonialist claims. It needs to be remembered that much of the Palestinian tragedy is a direct result of this UN abandonment of the principle of self-determination in relation to Palestine as aggravated by the long record of Israeli defiance associated with its obligations under international law.
Rather than the UN reflecting the supposed hostility of oppressive regimes to Israel, the UN has increasingly been neutralized in any effort to produce after more than 68 years a sustainable and just peace for these two peoples, and the realities on the ground have moved relentlessly in defiance of international law in the direction of an outcome that denies elemental rights to the Palestinian people.
It is notable, yet hardly surprising, that Prosor makes no attempt to address the substantive charges of human rights and international humanitarian law abuses attributed to Israel, and does not even deny their accuracy. The fault of the UN, according to the lobby and its compromised diplomats, is with the UN as a prejudiced arena, and whatever the crimes of Israel may be, they should be treated as unworthy distractions from this overarching truth.
Palestine may be winning the Legitimacy War being waged throughout the world and at the UN to obtain popular support for the Palestinian cause with the peoples of the world, but it is losing the parallel Geopolitical War. Both wars view the UN as a strategic battlefield.
The recommendations of the Goldstone Report were never implemented. If indeed the new fact finding commission on Gaza appointed to investigate Protective Edge delivers an appropriately strong report that condemns Israel’s tactics in its military operation of last summer, it is almost certain that its findings and any recommendations will be buried in the bowels of the UN bureaucracy.
Israel, with strong U.S. backing, has persuaded the UN to hold a conference later in the year on the dangers of anti-Semitism, which seems almost certain to make the kind of arguments made by UN Watch and NGO Monitor that justifiable criticism of Israel should be dismissed without further consideration as a virulent form of anti-Semitism because it delegitimizes the state of Israel.
From an Israeli perspective these tactics of deflection makes sense as anyone familiar with the facts and law would certainly hold views that are critical of Israel’s policies and practices, and the UN endorsement of such a conclusion clearly adds weight to the global solidarity movement that is influenced by persuasive findings that confirm the illegitimacy of Israel’s policies and practices in relation to the Palestinian people.
The Israeli settlement project has been almost universally condemned, the separation wall built on Occupied Palestine has been declared unlawful by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice, the severe and continuing collective punishment of the people of Gaza is unconditionally prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the annexation of a unilaterally enlarged Jerusalem defies the international legal consensus to name just a few of the salient issues of substance that Israel wants the world, and especially the UN, to ignore, while with the help of the United States, shifting as much attention as possible to issues of bias and anti-Semitism in relation to the UN and those who represent it.
In conclusion, I would say that the QGOs along with Israeli and American diplomats have managed to intimidate and neutralize the UN as a foundation of support for the justifiable grievances of the Palestinian people.
In so doing, rather than overdoing its emphasis on Israeli violations of human rights and international law, the UN has increasingly allowed itself to be used by geopolitical actors to shield Israel from criticism and to deflect such stronger initiatives as sanctions designed to produce a just and sustainable peace for the two peoples.
Israel on its side has adopted a pragmatic dual approach to the UN, complaining in public settings about bias and disproportionate emphasis, and behind the scenes using its direct and indirect leverage to influence the selection of personnel bearing on its interests and to push the agenda in directions that correspond with its worldview.