A planned trip by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to Israel and the Palestinian Authority is unlikely to yield significant developments but may help relieve tensions in a strained relationship.
The United Nations has not announced any official excursion, though “the secretary-general intends to visit Israel and the P.A. quite soon,” an Israeli diplomatic source told JNS.
Guterres originally aimed to go in August but decided to bump the trip until after the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, a U.N. source with knowledge of the matter told JNS. The source expects the meeting to take place at the end of the month or in early October.
The P.A. and its allies “are happy and delighted that we are in the stage of preparing for this visit with the secretary-general to take place as soon as possible,” Riyad Mansour, the P.A. envoy to the United Nations, told reporters in an Aug. 22 briefing.
The prior day, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russian U.N. chargé d’affaires, spoke in a meeting of the U.N. Security Council of a “pending visit” by Guterres to the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict zone.”
Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told JNS that he doesn’t expect any major developments. Danon, who is a Knesset member and part of the Likud ruling party, joined Guterres on a 2017 visit to Israel and accompanied U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a trip in 2016.
The United Nations invests heavily in the area with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
“The secretary-general visits many countries during the year, and he felt it’s important for him to come,” Danon said. “We welcome his visits.”
‘No significant role since 1967’
Danny Ayalon, the former Israeli deputy foreign minister, told JNS that Guterres could present some grounds for cooperation despite Jerusalem’s general mistrust of the United Nations, coupled with recent tensions between Israel and the secretary-general.
“If there’s any importance placed on his visit, it would be on a humanitarian basis,” Ayalon said.
The diplomat cited potential efforts to broker a deal with Hamas, the terror organization that controls the Gaza Strip, and holds two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two deceased Israel Defense Forces soldiers as hostages. Leah Goldin, the mother of the slain IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, recently met with Guterres to enlist his help.
“Other than that, the U.N. is not very much involved in the geopolitics of the Middle East, and they have had no significant role since 1967 when they pulled out their peacekeeping force in the Sinai,” Ayalon said.
Israel could highlight its breakthrough food and water development, as well as its security technology, which aligns with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
“He can have a full agenda here, but I don’t think that he can do much except calling for calm. Maybe one of the things that Israel will ask of him is to have a more robust response from UNIFIL against all the provocations of Hezbollah,” Ayalon said. “He might visit his peacekeeping forces, whether it’s UNDOF in the end in the Golan Heights or UNIFIL.” (UNDOF is the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.)
Danon thinks it could be productive for Israel to focus Guterres on Hezbollah’s provocations on Israel’s northern border. The Israeli government and IDF often take visiting diplomats to the area to show how closely terror groups operate near Israeli civilians.
“The understanding of the proximity of the conflict is something which is very hard for us to convey because Hezbollah has been there for many years,” Danon said. “People actually can get used to the fact of their presence on the border.”
But the information that Israel has is very worrisome about Hezbollah’s potential to do harm. “That’s something we will make sure that the secretary-general will be aware of—not only the capabilities but also the intentions of Hezbollah,” he said.
Relations between Jerusalem and the secretariat are chilly at the moment following Guterres’ harsh comments on the Israeli counterterrorism operation in Jenin in July.
Neither Ayalon nor Danon expects any carryover of that sort of rhetoric during Guterres’s visit.
“Secretaries-general have always been kind of harsh on Israel when it comes to self-defense—always accusing us of using excessive force or disproportionate force—but I think this can be overcome,” Ayalon said. “It’s not something he will repeat, certainly not here.”
‘It’s very hard to gain trust’
Danon rejected the comparisons secretaries-general or other U.N. officials sometimes make between Israelis and terrorists. “There is no place for equivocation, and we have to make it very clear that we are fighting terrorists,” he said.
In Ramallah, Guterres should expect that the P.A. will “continue to play the blame game, and instead of seeking ways to help the Palestinians, they will continue to blame Israel and to gain points at the U.N.,” Danon predicted.
“That’s part of the game that they’ve been playing for the last 75 years,” he said. “They’re very good at it.”
Guterres might also look to present a stronger showing by U.N. leadership in the region.
Nickolay Mladenov, the former U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process, was widely viewed as a respected, proactive problem-solver by an array of regional representatives. His successor, Tor Wennesland, isn’t generally seen as carrying the same weight, a number of diplomatic sources told JNS.
Danon, who worked with Mladenov for five years, said the two often cooperated.
“There was an open line, and he was very active,” Danon told JNS. “With the current representative, I think sometimes the statements he made were not acceptable in Israel. Many times when you see that somebody is attacking you and not trying to mediate, it’s very hard to gain trust and to actually be effective.”