In Reversal, U.S. to Join U.N. Rights Council

The United States will seek to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing its policy of shunning the council and prompting concern among some Jewish groups.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced it would participate in May elections for a seat on the 47-member council, “with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights.” The Bush administration had withheld U.S. membership from the Geneva-based council for its failure to confront human rights abusers and its singling out of Israel for condemnation.

“The United States helped to found the United Nations and retains a vital stake in advancing that organization’s genuine commitment to the human rights values that we share with other member nations,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement announcing the decision.

“Those who suffer from abuse and oppression around the world, as well as those who dedicate their lives to advancing human rights, need the Council to be balanced and credible,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said. “The U.S. is seeking election to the Council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Since its creation in 2006 to replace the widely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the council has passed 32 resolutions; 26 have been critical of Israel, according to UN Watch. More than half of the council’s members fall short of basic democracy standards, according to Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. And in the past two years the council has moved to eliminate its country-specific special experts investigating human rights abuses in Darfur, Congo, Cuba, Belarus and Liberia.

The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern about the Obama administration’s decision.

“There is no question that the U.S. can play a decisive role in making U.N. institutions more effective, but the Human Rights Council has deep systemic flaws,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “We remain concerned that the U.S. decision to join the Council before meaningful reforms are put into motion may not achieve this desired goal.”

The World Jewish Congress echoed that sentiment. “There are so many players on the Human Rights Council that do not have our interests at heart that I think it will mobilize against the things that the United States is going to fight for,” said Betty Ehrenberg, a spokeswoman for the WJC. “I’m not sure at this moment that the Human Rights Council is free enough of its past and present difficulties and complications to make this effort fruitful at this moment.”

The executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, said he welcomes the U.S. decision, “but only if it’s to vigorously push back against the world’s worst abusers.” He added, “The council is worse than ever before, pathologically obsessed with scapegoating Israel, while turning a blind eye to millions of human rights victims around the world.”

Danger Lurking in U.S.-Israel Linkage

Israel and the United States have more in common than ever as both nations fight the terror scourge. That’s good news, but Jewish leaders would be wise not to get smug about it.

True, this growing commonality may lead to a new understanding in Washington of the difficult decisions Israeli leaders have had to make for years. But linkage also has some big potential downsides.

The war in Iraq could produce a sharp public backlash against U.S. involvement — in that particular conflict and in a region that is hard on traditional American naivete. And that backlash could taint U.S.-Israel relations if the public links failed U.S. policies with Israel.

This is dangerous territory, because so many chronic Israel bashers have made a cottage industry of blaming pro-Israel forces for U.S. involvement in Iraq, from former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who recently pointed the finger at a cabal of Jewish neocons he said wanted the war to help Israel.

That kind of linkage is inflammatory nonsense.

Polls show U.S. Jews were less supportive of the Iraq venture than Americans in general before last year’s invasion, and that skepticism has remained constant since President Bush prematurely declared "mission accomplished." Almost no major Jewish groups expressed any public views on the war, and few privately lobbied in favor of it.

Still, there is a persistent perception — last echoed by Hollings — that a group of Jewish neoconservatives somehow manipulated a gullible administration into the war to serve Israel’s interests. That kind of warped thinking could become more prevalent and more dangerous as the American people tire of the rising body count and the unending financial drain of the war.

A different kind of linkage is taking place, because of the obvious similarity between U.S. and Israeli policies in their respective wars against terror. The nightly television images tell a powerful story: U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same things Israeli troops have been doing for years in Gaza and the West Bank — maintaining an occupation against an enraged population, inflicting unintended civilian casualties in bitter urban warfare and holding large numbers of terror suspects without trial.

That commonality will make it harder for the United States to criticize Israel for tactics the United States is employing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what happens if U.S. public opinion turns sharply against the war?

Israelis can’t afford the luxury of turning their backs on a terror threat that is an everyday part of their lives, but very few Americans, so far, have been affected by our confrontation with this menace. We could turn our backs on a fight we could come to loathe — and on those who are still fighting it.

A backlash against the war isn’t inevitable, but it will become increasingly likely if the United States cannot work out an effective transfer of power in June and if the current violence deepens. It could accelerate if the prison abuse scandal intensifies — a scandal that seems to suggest that Americans, too, can get sucked into the vicious irrationality of that part of the world.

And that backlash could rub off on Israel, increasingly seen as the United States’ partner not just in the war on terror but in the controversial means used to wage it. While there is no antidote to such a backlash, Jewish leaders can work now to minimize it.

They can avoid gloating over the fact that the United States has adopted may Israeli tactics it previously criticized. That may feel good today, but it could come back to haunt the pro-Israel movement, if the Iraq venture continues to go sour.

They can continue to make it clear that whether Bush’s decision to make Iraq the second battle in the war on terrorism was correct or not, it had nothing to do with a desire to protect Israel.

They can react sharply and with hard facts to those politicians who express their loathing for the war by blaming it on Israel, on pro-Israel organizations or on cabals of Jews, not on the president who was apparently determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein from day one of his administration.

Hollings’ comments last week could have been a teaching opportunity for Jewish groups to remind reporters that Jews are just as divided about the war as Americans in general. Instead, Jewish groups, with the exception of the Anti-Defamation League, were mostly mute.

It’s one thing to say this nation and Israel are involved in a common struggle against international terrorism; it’s something quite different to say that the terror war somehow justifies all of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies.

The United States and Israel are partners in this global fight, but the leaders of both countries have linked other agendas to that war. That multiplies the possibility that the new linkage may ultimately undermine U.S.-Israel relations.

Palestinian Angst

Despite its propaganda success in the United Nations General Assembly, where 134 countries last weekend denounced Israeli construction on the disputed Har Homa site in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is in despair over the stagnant peace process.

Despite the fact that the United States was one of only three countries voting against the U.N. resolution (the others were Israel and Micronesia), Palestinian officials still recognize the Clinton administration as their best bet to bring Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom they accuse of dictating his own terms, back to the table.

The American Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, is expected to