newsIsrael at War

‘There is a problem of deep rot at the United Nations’

A candid interview with Israeli U.N. envoy Gilad Erdan about the challenges faced by the Jewish state in the international forum.

Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East on April 14, 2024. Credit: Eskinder Debebe/U.N. Photo.
Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East on April 14, 2024. Credit: Eskinder Debebe/U.N. Photo.

The United Nations has always been an extremely challenging arena for Israeli representatives. During the six months of Israel’s war with Hamas, with pro-Hamas protesters flooding the streets outside and supporters of the terrorists aiding them inside the building, the difficulties have become immense. Yet, it seems that the past 10 days have been particularly intense.

It began last Thursday with an attempt to gain recognition for a Palestinian state at the Security Council. At the start of this week, as we celebrated the Passover Seder, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres once again downplayed the horrific sexual crimes committed by Hamas on Oct. 7, and which it continues to commit against the abductees. On the same day, an “independent commission of inquiry” into the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) involvement with Hamas essentially whitewashed the organization.

As if that weren’t enough, the situation in the United States, particularly in New York City—the host city of the United Nations—is far from promising regarding Israel. On one hand, the administration and Congress approved a massive aid package to Israel and repeatedly vetoed anti-Israel measures in the Security Council. On the other hand, pro-Hamas vandalism on campuses is reaching new heights, and the same Democratic administration echoes the allegations of “starvation in Gaza” and considers imposing sanctions on Israeli soldiers.

Amid all this and more, between Security Council meetings and U.N. debates, with the holiday in the middle, I spoke with Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan. We spoke twice, with midnight on his end and early morning on ours.

Erdan, a former Israeli Diplomatic-Security Cabinet member and for four years an ambassador in the toughest arena for Israeli representatives, is considered a serious public figure who goes into detail. At the beginning of his tenure, he simultaneously served as ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, and since then, he has been Israel’s most prominent figure in the American media. Today, by virtue of his U.N. role, he is in daily contact with the American U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, but much of what transpires between them and their delegations will be revealed only when the archives are opened.

These days, Erdan is writing a book about the lessons he learned from four tumultuous years of battles at an organization meant to bring peace to the world. His main conclusion is that after the war, Israel will need to redefine the rules of engagement with the UN, and do so using all the tools at its disposal, including potentially closing its offices and revoking permits for its personnel.

The diplomatic role has removed him from the political arena, where he has been active for decades. One can assume that if he does not return to the position of ambassador to Washington, he will resume his activities in the Likud, and there is every reason to believe that with the background and experience he has accumulated, he will eventually run for the leadership of the party and the premiership in the post-Netanyahu era. The rules, of course, currently prohibit him from discussing his future. What is certain, for now, is that there are far more pressing matters at hand.

Right at the start of his tenure in 2020, Erdan had to contend with Secretary-General Guterres (“Call me Antonio,” he told Erdan in their first conversation) evading any praise for the Abraham Accords. Instead of expressing joy at the outbreak of peace, the secretary-general voiced concern about the potential harm to the Palestinians as a result of the agreements. This was their first quarrel. There have been many more since.

At the start of the Gaza war in 2023, against the backdrop of Guterres’s support for Hamas and disregard for the crimes it committed against humanity, Erdan called for his dismissal. Even though he is a combative ambassador, the situation at the United Nations has hardly improved since, from Israel’s perspective.

Q: Why doesn’t Israel withdraw from the United Nations? After all, this organization causes us far more harm than benefit. As long as we’re members, we must abide by its rules and are bound by its decisions.

A: This is a valid question. I too ask it in moments of great frustration and anger, over the hypocrisy and double standards. But ultimately, I don’t think leaving the United Nations will cause countries to say, “Oh, Israel left, so let’s fix what needs to be fixed because it’s not here.” On the contrary, leaving would play into the hands of our enemies, and the arena would remain hostile. At the moment, leaving the United Nations is like boycotting the international media because it is against us. In the meantime, we have a platform to voice our opinions and try to persuade our allies, and we are using it. I agree with you that there needs to be a reform in the United Nations’ relations with Israel, regarding all its operations in the Middle East. But it needs to happen after the war. Only if we fail in it and all alternatives are exhausted will there be a need to consider that.

Q: The U.N.’s commission of inquiry into UNRWA’s involvement in terrorism, chaired by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, has published its findings. They claim that Israel did not prove UNRWA and its employees’ involvement in terrorism.

A: As soon as we saw who the secretary-general appointed, we knew it would be a whitewash. The U.N. Watch organization, led by Hillel Neuer, has already exposed the conflicts of interest of the commission’s members. It was clear that the secretary-general was orchestrating the whitewashing of UNRWA’s crimes through a commission whose findings were predetermined.

There is a problem of deep rot at the United Nations, and it is not only due to its political structure, where there are almost a third of Islamic states and an automatic majority against Israel. The distortion is also in the U.N.’s supposedly non-political mechanism, and there is no shortage of evidence for this.

For example, Martin Griffiths, who is the under secretary-general in charge of OCHA [the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], said that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Why? Because only the Security Council has the right to declare terrorist organizations. Hamas and Hezbollah have not been declared terrorist organizations because Russia or China have not allowed it to happen. This is one of the insane distortions.

Here is another example. At one point, while attending the Security Council meeting, I showed a stone that had been thrown at an Israeli in the West Bank and injured him. I did this because the U.N. reports refuse to count stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails as acts of terrorism. They report on every graffiti and olive tree that is cut down [by Jewish settlers], but not on stone throwing. That’s how the Security Council gets a completely distorted picture of what is happening.

Israel can prevent this and simply not allow U.N. personnel to enter the country, revoke the permit of UNRWA and other U.N. institutions in Israel until things change. “You won’t report the truth? You won’t be allowed into the country.” This is how we should act on the day after the war. We must not blink. There must be a complete change in the way we deal with all U.N. agencies. It would be wrong to continue allowing the United Nations to operate in Israel and the Palestinian Authority without establishing completely new rules for reporting and activities.

Q: Why wait until after the war, and not shut down UNRWA’s offices in Israel now?

A: Philippe Lazzarini [UNRWA’s commissioner general] sat next to me at the Security Council, and I called him a liar in front of everyone. But whether we like it or not—and I don’t like it—if we bring down UNRWA and there is no alternative when it comes to the scale at which UNRWA can operate, it could jeopardize U.S. support for us.

That was the perception at least until UNRWA’s involvement in the massacre was exposed, leading to the halt of U.S. funding for the agency. They pressured us not to act or speak against it. Even within our security establishment, there were such voices. That didn’t stop me from saying what needed to be said, but you can see how much the U.S. protected UNRWA at all costs.

Q: Where does the issue of replacing UNRWA stand?

A: From the beginning of my tenure here, even before the war, I worked to persuade countries to stop supporting UNRWA. Unfortunately, even within Israel, there were those who opposed it, including within the security establishment. Now we are doing everything to present alternatives. But as long as the current Secretary-General continues the hysterical campaign to save UNRWA and convince countries that there is no alternative, we will have to continue fighting against significant forces.

In the meantime, we need to continue exposing the extent of Hamas’s infiltration into UNRWA, strengthen the alternative and be prepared for the day after the war. As I said, we need to revoke the visas of UNRWA employees and close down its compounds in the country.

Q: Last week, a report by the U.N. secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict was released. The report did not include Hamas on the blacklist, despite the grave evidence of what its members did during the Simchat Torah massacre, yet it mentioned allegations of sexual crimes committed by IDF soldiers in detention facilities.

A: It turns out there is no low that the secretary-general is unable to stoop to. We thought that at least on this issue they would not turn a blind eye. Even the meetings of his representative, Pramila Patten, who spoke in Israel with abducted women who were sexually assaulted, did not prevent the report’s false equivalence between the crimes Hamas undoubtedly committed and the unproven allegations about what allegedly happened in our detention facilities. This is yet another proof of how rotten this body is, and we need to change the rules of the game on the day after.

Q: Some claim that the Biden administration is against us.

A: The Americans are not against us. I don’t agree with claims of antisemitism in the administration. President Biden simply loves Israel, and he wants what’s best for it and its security. But one cannot escape the feeling that the campaign managers…or that there is a lot of politics involved here, because of the criticism he is receiving here in the United States for supporting Israel—and he is being criticized. But he knows the truth.

I identified very much with what you wrote about the “starvation” in Gaza, as if Israel is deliberately doing something. What the world demands of us are things that have not been and will not be demanded of any country engaged in war with a terrorist enemy entity right next door. They know the mechanisms [of food entry into Gaza] because they are in constant contact with us, and we count the trucks day by day. I brought the head of COGAT and other officers here. They know the facts. Even if there are issues with distribution and pace, no one familiar with the reality can accuse Israel of deliberate starvation. So these statements are irresponsible. Not everyone in the administration speaks this way, but irresponsible statements are made that severely harm Israel and have consequences.

It will also make it harder for the Americans to support us in the future. Because if Israel is purportedly using starvation tactics, then AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the…Squad will pounce on these statements and wage a delegitimization campaign against us, which will have implications for bipartisan support in the future.

Q: Perhaps these are not just “campaign statements” and there is a more serious problem here? Because the administration itself talks about starvation, and now it is considering sanctions against IDF soldiers. These are actions and statements that encourage de-legitimization and antisemitism against Israel.

A: Even when the president says more food needs to be allowed in, perhaps his surroundings are misleading him, unfortunately, about who is to blame for the aid not being distributed and so on…I give them credit that it comes from a worldview, but I think there is a fundamental issue here that hovers around and leads me to call the United Nations and the secretary-general Hamas collaborators.

This is also part of the inherent distortion at the United Nations. The fundamental problem is that apart from Hamas, no one provides data from Gaza. Because U.N. workers there are threatened: “If you report the truth or condemn the rocket fire—we’ll slaughter you.” So all the data coming out of Gaza, whether about food or the number of casualties—as far as I’m concerned, it’s an absolute lie. But there is no other data. Israel doesn’t know how to present it. And so the United States, too, is fed by the U.N.’s data because of their attitude towards the United Nations. So I don’t think they [the administration] are antisemitic. They have a naive worldview that I strongly disagree with.

Q: But you also say that they hear from you and COGAT the data, and yet they still say different things.

A: They don’t know how to deal with the U.N.’s data. When all the heads of U.N. agencies, some of whom are American and Western, speak the same language, they [the administration] all quote the United Nations. The root of the problem is the United Nations. Therefore, in my opinion, Israel should strive in the coming years to convince leaders around the world that the United Nations does more harm than good, and work to have countries cut their support for it, or for it to undergo significant internal reform.

The United States gives about $19 billion a year to the United Nations and its agencies, and it grows every year. What does it get in return? It is undermining its own values because the Russia-China-Iran axis currently has a majority in the United Nations on most issues.

Behind closed doors

Israel’s work at the United Nations is particularly challenging due to its structure, that automatically grants an enormous majority to anti-Israel states. In this reality, Erdan and his team try to minimize the damage, and yes, also achieve some successes here and there.

Q: Have we returned to a situation where the whole world is against us? Because these are the United Nations and the administration and allies who are lying to us.

A: “The whole world is against us” is a superficial slogan. Certainly, their statements cause us significant harm, but I don’t think they’re lying intentionally. I’m not naive, and I don’t think the situation is good; the situation is very complex and problematic. But I am encouraged and optimistic [regarding] what I hear not on the podiums, but in private conversations and behind closed doors. There, it doesn’t sound the same.

Q: What do you hear in the closed rooms?

A: Some countries know that Hamas endangers them. But they toe the line publicly…because they fear internal uprisings. Without naming Arab leaders, in private conversations they speak differently about the need to remove Hamas so that it does not rule the Gaza Strip. Note that factually, no country has severed ties with Israel, the Abraham Accords have not been canceled and even the Saudi crown prince has not taken normalization with Israel off the table. The point is that not only in Israel do politics influence players’ statements, but in every country. One must understand that even friendly countries find themselves caught between two sides. Canada, for example, lost a seat on the Security Council a few years ago for supporting us at the United Nations. That’s politics at its ugliest.

Q: Given the unfavorable situation you describe, what needs to be done here regarding the war to ease the political pressure?

A: I cannot say from my position how to conduct the war. My approach is to continue to convey that we will not stop until Hamas is destroyed and removed as a ruling force.

Q: Some argue that Israel should now state what it wants “on the day after” and that this will ease the pressure.

A: This has indeed been raised and greatly concerns most of the countries I speak with. Just today, I met with officers from West Point. They, too, asked if Israel intends to occupy the Strip. Because this is the campaign our enemies are waging here, and they are quoting [Finance] Minister Bezalel Smotrich and [National Security Minister] Itamar Ben-Gvir. These are the demons they are using.

Q: And how do you respond?

A: I give the formal government response, which is broadly that we have no intention of staying there, but we also have no intention of committing suicide. Therefore, until it is clear who the ruling force there is, who will ensure that Israel will not be attacked again and there will be no threat…I explain the Jewish saying “Depart from evil and do good.” First, depart from evil.

Even when the Allies fought Nazi Germany, there were ideas and conferences, but it was not clear what would happen on the day after the Nazis’ defeat. In my view, there cannot be a complete and orderly plan now. Ideas can be raised, but for me, for example, it is clear that no Arab state will publicly say now that it is entering Gaza, because that way it challenges Hamas. When Hamas is gone, when we remove the absolute evil, as Biden called them—then opportunities will open up, and we can go into detail.”

‘The Palestinians are treacherous’

Last Thursday, Israel faced another dramatic moment when Algeria proposed unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the Security Council. Recognition was blocked by a U.S. veto.

Q: What did we give in return?

A: Unequivocally nothing. This move by Algeria, backed by the Palestinians, proves yet again how treacherous and ungrateful the Palestinians are. Even toward this administration, which is so concerned about the Palestinian Authority and tries to prepare it in all sorts of creative ways so that it can rule Gaza on the day after. This is an administration that renewed support for UNRWA (before the war), and they did many [other] things.

Originally published by Israel Hayom, this interview has been edited for length.

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