(June 4) - The decision last week to include Israel in the UN's West European and Others Group (WEOG) is cause for cautious celebration. For while Israel is finally on its way to fully joining the family of nations, this is still something of a foster family, whose embrace will take time to warm.
Under UN rules, regional groups decide who fills the 10 rotating seats on the Security Council and other key UN committee assignments. Israel had been the only one of the UN's 189 members not to belong to a regional group, because Arab nations repeatedly blocked its admission to the Asian Group, where it belongs geographically.
Out of sympathy for a Barak administration perceived as pro-peace, and no doubt anticipating the unfairness of a future Palestinian state gaining immediate access to the Asian Group while the Jewish state languishes in exclusion, the WEOG members decided to admit Israel temporarily, for a renewable four-year term. Meanwhile, it must continue pressing for admission to the Asian Group.
There are further restrictions: Israel cannot run for the most influential UN seats, including on the Security Council, for at least three years. And it is excluded from the European caucuses in Geneva, the UN's European headquarters, and the UN centers in Vienna and Nairobi. Geneva is particularly important, as the UN Human Rights Commission (a perennial critic of Israel) and several important UN agencies meet there.
Understandably, Jerusalem took four days' deliberation before accepting the WEOG deal. Behind the decision was the determination of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the US administration to put a higher priority on a full role for Israel in the UN - and actualizing this in patient stages if necessary.
Theirs was a wise compromise, not least because there was a window on the WEOG deal. Reportedly Israel was told that, if it accepted the offer, the US ambassador to the UN in Geneva would push to have it included there; but if Israel faltered, the offer could be withdrawn due to some unforeseen event in the Middle East or Europe. Indeed, in making their offer the WEOG nations resisted pressure by various Islamic countries that wanted Israel's membership conditioned on its satisfying Palestinian and other regional demands. Given the infamous fickleness of Europe toward Israel, WEOG's decision could well have gone the other way.
Before lamenting the apparent penuriousness of the WEOG terms, it's worth recalling how recently it was that the UN seemed a monolith of anti-Israel sentiment. Only in 1991 did the General Assembly finally reverse its notorious Zionism-is-racism resolution of 1975, and as late as 1998 the Security Council was debating Jerusalem expansion plans, its condemnative style reminiscent of a previous generation.
Indeed, Annan himself noted last December that,
"It sometimes seems that the United Nations served all the world's people but one: the Jews."
Having taken up the opportunity for new international integration, Israel should now work on two fronts - cultivating its new European ties and striving for acceptance into the Asian Group.
Though Israel is not part of Europe proper, its various affinities with the continent are well-established. Along with Israel's associate EU status, which took effect last week, these ties provide a foundation for WEOG membership. Europe accounts for 75% of Israel's international trade and, more importantly, offers a political model to emulate. Shimon Peres has likened his envisioned "new Middle East" to the postwar European Union, and critics of the various gaffes of Israeli government are wont to point across the Mediterranean at the "proper countries" where such things wouldn't happen.
UN Ambassador Yehuda Lancry summed up the widespread view about Israel joining WEOG by saying, "We were out for more than four decades of the spheres of influence," and adding, "The opportunity was rare and the decision had to be made - and we made it." It is to be hoped that membership in a regional group - even if not the ideal regional group - will give Israel access to a fuller role in UN affairs, and an opportunity to better secure its place in the family of nations.
© Jerusalem Post, 2000