In March last year Israel became the first country ever to sever ties with the UN Human Rights Council. The decision came after the body decided to investigate Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
It began in January 2012. Israel, which has long claimed that the UN treats it unfairly, boycotted the UNHRC review. At the time, spokesman Rolando Gomez said that Israel's absence put the council in "new territory" because attendance of the Universal Periodic Review was mandatory. It was feared that Israel's unprecedented decision could undermine the UN's human rights work across the board, by encouraging other countries facing awkward questions to follow suit and refuse to attend. Even the US, Israel's biggest ally, urged the nation to attend the review.
In March, when the council decided to go ahead with its investigation of the West Bank, Israel cut all ties to the international body. The foreign ministry – which was at that time headed by ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman – told its envoy in Geneva not to co-operate with the council, or with the UN Human Rights Commissioner. It also made moves to prevent a UN team from entering Israel to assess the effects of settlements on Palestinian rights. In a statement, Israel alleged that the only aim of the mission was "to satisfy the Palestinians' whims and to harm future chances to reach an agreement through peaceful means".
Now, 18 months after ties were cut, it has been reported that Israel is in the middle of negotiations to renew cooperation with the UNHRC. Ambassadors of western states on the council are to vote on an agreement which would bring Israel back into the UN body. The Haaretz newspaper correctly notes that "if the outline of the accord is passed, it would represent a significant diplomatic victory for Israel".
Why is this? Well, the plan for Israel rejoining includes some fairly major conditions. The first is that Israel would join the permanent group of western states in the council. These include the states of western Europe, Turkey, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. At the moment, Israel is not part of any regional group, which makes it difficult to form diplomatic alliances.
The second clause is a far bigger sticking point. It would limit the use of the council's "article 7". This article stipulates that any conference on human rights would hold a separate discussion of human rights in Israel and the West Bank. Israel points out that it is the only state in the world subject to a separate discussion, and argues that this is evidence of bias. Palestinian groups argue that it is a vital opportunity to highlight ongoing human rights abuses in the area and that the long-term nature of the occupation justifies the separate item on the agenda.
If the agreement is passed and Israel rejoins the council, western European states would agree not to make any speeches at article 7 discussions for the next two human rights conferences, which would take place over the next two years. For this limitation to be ended when the two year period is over would require a unanimous vote, which would be difficult to achieve.
In the session in March this year, the EU expressed a preference for discussing Israel under the general heading (article 4), and that it would "like to avoid a proliferation of reports and mechanisms under Item 7". Since certain states are already backing away from article 7, then Israel's conditions for rejoining the council should not be too much of a problem. However, the decision is not just up to the EU: Turkey has yet to agree to allow Israel to join the western European grouping. A few other states, including Ireland, Iceland, and Lichtenstein, have expressed concerns about not being able to speak during article 7 discussions.
A senior Israeli foreign ministry official was confident that the agreement would pass, telling Ha'aretz: "It's all done, and we're waiting to get an official decision from the Europeans". Certainly, the UN has a clear interest in getting Israel back onto the council. If the country stays away from this year's Universal Periodic Review – a second boycott – it would cement a precedent that would allow nations like Syria, Iran, and North Korea to refuse to appear at such hearings. The irony, of course, is that the review system was explicitly developed in response to concern from Israel and other countries about UN objectivity. The mechanism depends on the equal participation of all 193 member countries, and the agreement that all will submit themselves to scrutiny. The thinking behind it is that improving human rights across the world is in everyone's interest.
As Israeli columnist Jonathan Ger puts it in Ha'aretz: "Paradoxically … by refusing to cooperate with the review procedure, Israel has actually chosen to do harm to the only process that is equally binding on all UN member states and that subject them to international scrutiny on the issue of human rights."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.