The Mitvim Institute conducted a preliminary research that examined voting patterns in UN institutions regarding Israel. The research focused on the voting patterns of 35 countries in 16 votes that were significant to Israel between 2009 and 2017 at the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council.¹ The majority of the countries chosen were visited by the Israeli Prime Minister in recent years. We examined whether Israel’s efforts to strengthen its bilateral ties with these countries have also led to a change in their voting patterns in major international forums.
The examination was limited in scope and covered only a specific aspect relating to Israel’s global standing. However, it provides a comparative overview of Israel’s current standing in the UN. The findings are not sufficient to draw conclusions about all the votes in all UN institutions or about Israel’s ability to influence votes in other international forums (such as other UN bodies, the EU, the World Trade Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or FIFA). They also do not reflect Israel’s influence on other political and procedural processes that take place behind the scenes and not through voting (such as influencing the wording of draft resolutions and postponing the raising of a particular topic for discussion or voting). Furthermore, the research is not an index to assess Israel’s efforts to strengthen bilateral relations. Rather, it says that if indeed a certain relationship is strengthened, it has yet to yield results in respect of important resolutions voted in UN institutions.
The findings showed that in important UN voting on the Palestinian issue, Israel continues to be isolated, where out of 193 UN member states, it usually enjoys the support of only the US, Canada and a number of small island states. This has been the case for the past eight years. It is evident from the examination that in votes that do not relate to the Palestinian issue, there is a greater number of abstaining countries. This has been manifested throughout the years in the vote on the “Syrian Golan” proposal, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, with almost 60 abstentions in 2016 and in 2017 (a similar trend was observed in previous years, although in 2015 only eight countries abstained). Another example is the Security Council vote on Resolution 1701 (August 2006), which dealt with the conditions for ending the Second Lebanon War and was unanimously adopted, in accordance with the position advanced by Israel.
A certain change in favor of Israel can be discerned in the series of votes held by the UNESCO Executive Board in April and October 2016 and in May 2017 that condemned Israel over the Jerusalem issue and objected its municipal policy in that regard. The proposal was tabled for voting several times, with minor changes each time, and there was a diminishing trend in the number of countries supporting the proposal (from 33 countries in April 2016 to 22 in May 2017). A number of countries (including France and India) moved from support to abstention, and in May 2017 there was a slight increase in the number of opposing countries, from six countries in October 2016 to ten. The US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Lithuania opposed in all the votes. Estonia opposed both votes in 2016 and abstained in 2017. In May 2017, Greece, Italy, Paraguay, Togo (the only one in Africa that did so) and Ukraine moved from abstention to objection. The voting results are influenced by Israel’s diplomatic moves combined with the Trump government’s efforts (led by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley) to change UN voting patterns against Israel, and internal election processes that took place within UNESCO for key positions, including that of the Secretary General.
On the other hand, Russia, India, China, African countries, and South and Central American states, consistently vote in the UN assembly in support of the Palestinian position and against Israel (apart from Paraguay, which in recent years has chosen to abstain and Mexico that abstained in a recent vote). This is also the case regarding Israel’s allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Cyprus (which in fact express greater support for Israel in other forums, including in the EU). The Vishgrad countries – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – are traditionally closer to the Israeli position. This can be seen, for example, in the way these countries voted in 2009, when they opposed the Goldstone Report, in support of Israel’s position. However, this is not their usual voting pattern, and in many of the votes that have been examined since then, these countries also supported Palestinian positions against Israel.
Voting patterns in the UN are not only a reflection of the bilateral relations between Israel and the other states. They are influenced by many different considerations, including political and economic interests, perceptions of justice and identity, tradition and regional decisions. According to former ambassador, Eviatar Manor, who served until August 2016 as Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, the decision of a country to vote one way or the other, is also based on regional voting. The EU, for example, sometimes decides to vote as a collective, and member states are expected to vote accordingly. The African continent has a similar mechanism for coordinating regional voting, but it is less binding than the European one, and countries can be persuaded to deviate from such a decision. Therefore, he says, Israel should attempt to influence the voting decision by regional multi-national bodies before it is formed, since after a decision has been made it is difficult to influence the voting in the UN institutions of the member states.
According to Manor, Israel should determine how it relates to UN resolutions based on their practical implications. In cases where a specific resolution contains operative clauses (such as imposing sanctions, setting up investigation commissions and referral to the International Court of Justice), it is important to make political efforts in order to transform the resolution into a declarative one. In general, Manor argues that Israel must also conduct political efforts aimed at reducing the number of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN institutions and increasing the number of countries that oppose or abstain in voting on such decisions. The smaller the majority that resolutions against Israel receive, the more firmly can Israel argue that such resolutions are illegitimate. And if more liberal democratic countries vote with Israel, Israel’s moral argument will be stronger when facing anti-Israeli resolutions.
In conclusion, the voting patterns in the UN institutions vis-à-vis Israel do not represent the complex reality in the global political arena and the complexity of Israel’s foreign relations. Rather, they underscore the challenging relations that Israel has with the international community. Israel’s Prime Minister recently asserted that the change in the attitude towards Israel in international forums may take several more years, but our understanding is that without progress with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the chances for a real breakthrough in this regard are slim.
Israel’s policy on the Palestinian issue is central to Israel’s foreign relations and has a negative impact on Israel’s standing in the world. Past experience shows that a “diplomatic renaissance” – like the one that Netanyahu recently claimed that Israel is currently enjoying – occurs only when Israel shows a genuine commitment to advancing peace and takes steps in this direction. We experienced this in the 1990s, when the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords led to much more significant achievements than the decision of countries to abstain in a vote on a resolution against Israel at the UN. Progress in the peace process opened many doors for Israel in the region and in the world. Israel’s bilateral relations greatly improved, and the attitude towards Israel in multi-national forums had undergone a real shift. These are the real achievements that Israeli foreign policy should aspire to.
¹ Not all countries included in the research are members of all the international forums whose votes were included in the survey. The full information appears in the [Hebrew] data file accompanying this report. The research was featured in Itamar Eichner, “Despite PM”s foreign trips, Israel remains nearly isolated in UN,” Ynetnews, 27 December 2017.
Dr. Roee Kibrik is Director of Research at the Mitvim Institute; Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of the Mitvim Institute