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Sticking Up for Israel

The new secretary-general is a breath of fresh air at the United Nations, but it’s going to take courage to bring real change.

By Robert Singer Feb. 24, 2017

In the U.S., Israel and the Jewish world, many have given up when it comes to the United Nations, and for good reason.

The UN has gained the notorious reputation of being an ineffective bureaucracy that has failed to get a grip on the serious challenges facing the world, becoming the mouthpiece for countries at odds with its very founding values. Moreover, far too many UN members are engaged in bashing Israel, the Middle East's only democracy.

Be it at the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, in the General Assembly and even the Security Council: For many, no decision can criticize Israel strongly enough, irrespective of the reality on the ground.

But in recent weeks, we have seen a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A new UN secretary-general recently took office: Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal with the necessary experience, integrity and courage to help reorient the UN's approach to Israel.

Alas, one needs courage at the United Nations these days – even just for stating the facts. Guterres, who recently made his first trip to the Middle East and affirmed his commitment to the two-state solution, has already shown that he has this courage. Prior to his trip, he declared that for several millennia, Jerusalem has been a holy city for the Jewish people; that the Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, stood there; and that today Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Stating this simple truth earned Guterres a vicious campaign by the Palestinians, who accused him of betraying UNESCO decisions which deny the Jewish ties to Jerusalem and fail to mention that the Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest place, making it look like it is only an Islamic holy site.

It was not surprising that few defended Guterres over his straightforward remarks. Most Western nations remained silent, as they so often do. Meanwhile, at the Human Rights Council and UNESCO, diplomats are already busy preparing new resolutions slamming Israel.

However, in the weeks since he took office, Antonio Guterres has indicated that he is serious about bringing about real change at the United Nations.

In our first meeting last September, before his appointment as secretary-general, Guterres expressed to me his concern over radical Islamism and the rise of anti-Semitism and conveyed his willingness to cooperate with the Jewish community.

A few days ago, he told Israel Radio that in his and the UN Secretariat's view, "Israel needs to be considered as a state as the same as all the others with exactly the same rights and obligations and without any form of discrimination."

It should sound like stating the obvious, but of course it isn't.

In order for the UN to play any constructive role in the Middle East, it must regain its credibility as honest broker rather than anti-Israel partisan. Guterres' remarks signify that such a change may be on its way.

Recently, touching on the Holocaust as the culmination centuries of hatred and discrimination against Jews, Guterres warned: "It would be a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis." He added: "Those like me who grew up in the post-war era never imagined we would again face rising attacks on Jews in my own part of the world – in Europe. Anti-Semitism is alive and kicking. Irrationality and intolerance are back."

Guterres is right, but he will face the Herculean task of internalizing this message at the UN. There is a glimmer of hope that Israel could get a better deal on his watch and that the false, anti-Semitic narrative which claims that all Palestinians are victims of Israeli aggression will be superseded by facts.

Guterres' appointment brought a breath of fresh air to a crusted and ineffective UN that is in dire need of reform and moral leadership. Let's hope he will succeed in galvanizing real change.

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