Mideast Commentary: U.S.-Israel Multilateral Cooperation

June 23rd, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

The Washington institute for Near East Policy is one of the more important American think tanks on Middle East Affairs. Generally seen as pro-Israeli, indeed founded in the 1980s by AIPAC, the unique candlepower of WINEP made it a natural venue for Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer for her speech on “Multilateral Cooperation between The United States and Israel.”

Brimmer runs the State Department bureau tasked with quarterbacking American relations with the UN. Her speech is rich with important content, but I’ll focus my analysis on two salient points.

First, the UN is and will remain the only game in town.

It has a well-deserved reputation for discriminatory behavior toward Israel only partially ameliorated over time. Nevertheless, senior Israeli diplomats with whom AJC is in regular contact agree with Brimmer’s point that “multilateral tools and levers at the UN …have been essential for the United States in achieving our foreign policy goals, enhancing our security, and advancing our values.”

Brimmer notes that “Israel wants to play a larger role globally, multilaterally, and at the UN. It does not want to be viewed solely through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is a profound truism and it is encouraging that it is clear to senior staff at the State Department.

Brimmer provides examples of successful US efforts toward this end, examples that Israelis generally appreciate and honor. Like the United States, whatever the exasperation and often downright bigotry directed at it by UN organs, there is no alternative to the UN’s “multilateral tools and levers” for Israel either.

Brimmer is deeply worried about the American responses to the upcoming Palestinian attempt to bypass negotiations via an initiative at the UN General Assembly. Indeed, some in Congress make clear they may respond by refusing to pay UN dues. Brimmer seeks to head off such a result by pointing to a great truth.

“One constant we hear from Israeli counterparts is how much they appreciate the administration’s efforts and U.S.-Israeli cooperation at the UN and multilaterally,” says Brimmer. “In order to sustain these efforts, the United States must maintain the strongest position it can at the UN, and that means paying our bills on time and in full.” Brimmer was signaling Israel’s friends in Washington that even when outraged by abuse of Israel, do not sever ties with the UN. You will only cause harm to the US and Israel.

Second, the president’s commitment should not be taken for granted. Brimmer hints at negative repercussions for Israel in its relationship with America if Congress withdraws support for the UN as a result of the Palestinian September initiative. Suggesting catastrophic harm from possible American nonpayment of dues, she asks, “How would it impact the president’s commitment to a shared security with Israel?”

Surely even posing such a question contradicts another statement of the president that she also quotes: “The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable — and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.”

Brimmer’s point illustrates tension in U.S.-Israel bilateral relations as much as it seems an expression of “preemptive frustration” with Congress. It turns her speech into an exercise in carrot-and-stick that may prove counterproductive. We may assume that Israeli analysts, not to mention congressional staffers, noted the point about the president becoming somehow less committed to “a shared security with Israel.”

Will they treat it as a cautionary note, a bluff, or more likely a thinly veiled threat? Given a Republican House of Representatives and the much weakened influence of this U.S. administration among the Israeli public, it seems an open question whether this unfortunate formulation will fill any positive role in attaining Administration goals regarding the UN.

Finally, it is interesting to speculate how this reads from a Palestinian perspective. Brimmer seems to imply that not only can the Palestinian initiative succeed in delivering its primary goal of a propaganda victory with possible international legal ramifications. It could provoke a congressional response that will further weaken the U.S. in Turtle Bay and lead to undercutting Israel’s recent gains in the world body.

One wonders whether that’s a message Brimmer intended to send. An American and Israeli defeat at the UN could quite possibly “impact” the president’s commitment to Israel’s security? When viewed from a Palestinian or anti-Israeli perspective (as the old expression goes): “What’s not to like?”