That UN vote on Israel - the inside story. Why NZ did what it did.
By Richard Harman (author)
It was a two-year saga of diplomatic manoeuvring, pressure and sudden opportunities which saw New Zealand last December move a resolution at the UN Security Council opposing Israel settlements on the occupied West Bank.
It has led to criticism from Australia, including a direct confrontation with our Prime Minister bu Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and has seen Israel withdraw its Ambassador from Wellington.
A negative reaction is expected, but so far has not surfaced from the Trump administration i
In the first detailed, authoritative account of the events leading up to the dramatic vote last December, the Permanent Representative to the UN, Gerard van Bohemen, outlined the way the decision to move the resolution unfolded.
The decision has been attacked by pro-Israeli right wing blogs in New Zealand and was the subject of questions in Parliament this week from NZ First leader Winston Peters.
But what the blogs – and Peters – have failed to acknowledge is not only that the resolution contained no new policy on New ZXealand’s behalf but that we won widespread international support for the move.
Van Bohemen, speaking to a packed meeting of the Institute of International Affairs in Wellington, detailed how the resolution was the logical outcome of Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s desire to make New Zealand’s term on the Security Council relevant.
That two-year term ended last December.
He said that right from New Zealand's first days on the Council in 2015, McCully, had made it clear he wanted to see some Council action on restarting the Middle East peace process.
“He made it a test of the Security Council’s relevance,” he said.
“If it couldn’t do something on this long standing issue then what the hell is the point of the place?
"The fact that Mr McCully had been so clear about this and had kept talking to people in the region as well as on the Council, provided a platform for us to put forward a draft (resolution) and we did do so in the middle of 2015."
But that draft resolution never saw the light of day largely because (as POLITIK has reported) of American objections but also France was not in favour because it had its own peace proposal and other members of the Council were not enthusiastic.
Van Bohemen said the New Zealand resolution had tried to use language which would not be disputed, but the result was that it got opposed by the pro-Israel US and from the opposite end of the spectrum, by pro-Palestine countries.
“We got a very good reaction to the fact that we had out it forward.
"I got a lot of positive commendation from Arab Ministers, in particular, for our willingness to try, and encouragement to keep going."
But at the end of 2015 McCully and Van Bohemen agreed to abandon the resolution.
In September United Nations Secretary Generall Ban Ki-moon called for intensified efforts to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to “ change the current destructive trajectory of the conflict, which is heading towards a “one-state reality” rather than a peaceful resolution.”
“Unfortunately, we are further than ever from its goals. The two-state solution is at risk of being replaced by a one-state reality of perpetual violence and occupation,” he warned.
"The decades-long policy that has settled more than 500,000 Israelis in Palestinian territory is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state," he said.
“Let me be absolutely clear: settlements are illegal under international law. The occupation, stifling and oppressive, must end,” he said.
Speaking after meeting in November in Wellington with US Secretary of State John Kerry McCully said he agreed with Ban Ki Moon saying that it was clear that the two-state solution was under serious threat.
“Some form of reassertion of that principle is called for,” he said.
After meeting Kerry, McCully went to Jordan, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories and to attend the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi.
Hosted annually by the United Arab Emirates, the Forum is a leading venue for discussing peace and security issues in the Middle East.
McCully said that that his trip coincided with a revival of interest in New Zealand's Security Council initiative to try and get a resolution acknowledging the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
That led to Van Bohemen telling the monthly UN Security Council breakfast –at the beginning of December that New Zealand would be circulating a resolution on the Middle East.
He gave the resolution to the US, to Israel, to the Palestinian representative and then to all the other Council members.
“We got a lot of enthusiasm for the fact that we were trying.
“The Palestinian Ambassador got very excited, but his excitement went in two different directions.
"He was really pleased that someone was doing something, but he just didn't want that resolution.
“He wanted a different resolution focussing on settlements.”
The New Zealand resolution maintained support for the so-called two-state solution for Israel and Palestine but avoided strong language on Israel’s illegal building of settlements on the occupied West Bank.
“Now what happened over the next two weeks, I still don’t know the details of,” said Van Bohemen.
"We were proceeding openly with meetings with the other members of the Council on our resolution.
"We made some adjustments, and we signalled a willingness to keep the conversation going.
“But we continued to feel a sense that there wasn’t full engagement going on.
“In fact, people started saying to us ‘what about that other resolution'.
“And we knew that the Palestinians had prepared a resolution and they had given it to the Egyptians.
“But there was no overt action on that front; it was just our resolution going forward.
“By the beginning of the third week, which was New Zealand’s second to last week on the Council, I had to tell the Minister that the chances of our resolution getting up were basically not there.
“There wasn't enough support for the approach in our resolution.
“Some wanted to make it more ambitious; others said it should be about settlements, others wanted it more focussed, more narrow.”
then suddenly, two days after he had called McCully, Van Bohemen got tipped off that the Egyptians were about to table a resolution at the Security Council and the Council would vote on it the following day.
“So I called the Minister again and said we are going to get a Middle East resolution.
"It just isn't actually our one, but it's not a bad resolution.
"In fact, on language it was entirely consistent with New Zealand policy.
“On settlements it was strong but it used strong language from previous Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice.
“It used strong but previously authorised language.
“There was no basis not to support it and I received an instruction overnight that I could support it and indeed, if it is available to us, you can co-sponsor it.
“So the first thing we did that morning was let the Egyptians know that we were co-sponsors.”
But as the morning moved on, the New Zealand mission got the word that Egypt was not going to proceed with the resolution.
"It has come out since that Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and President-elect Trump had called Egyptian President Sisi.
At two Security Council social functions, Van Bohemen found himself under pressure to take up where Egypt had left off.
So he once again rang McCully and also sent him a written brief.
“We said, we don’t know the reactions, but we can assume that the reactions from Israel and the incoming US administration may be strong.”
Nevertheless, overnight Wellington sent approval to Van Bohemen to move the resolution.
The criticism that has been levelled at McCully has been that he did not have Cabinet approval to do this.
But it is clear from Van Bohemen's account that events unfolded rapidly --- in less than 48 hours on the Thursday and Friday before Christmas after Parliament had risen. Even if the Prime Minister had wanted to call a special Cabinet, it would have been all but impossible in the time available.
As the Prime Minister has made clear in an interview with POLITIK he saw no need seen to call a special Cabinet meeting because the resolution contained only proposals that New Zealand had previously supported in other resolutions at the UN or which were part of our long-standing policy on the Middle East.
After Van Bohemen had moved it, the resolution not only got the support of 14 members of the Security Council but for the first time the US, abstained rather than casting its veto on a resolution which was considered to be critical of Israel.
This has led to speculation (again, ion the right wing blogs) that Kerry and McCully cooked the whole thing up at their November meeting in Wellington.
But Van Bohemen said he never asked Kerry what the US position would be.
“I had a pretty good hunch that they would not oppose it if this was going ahead, but I didn;’t know for sure.
"It went through; it was a very momentous vote, there hadn't been a resolution on settlements for 20 years.
“it reaffirmed the position of the UN in very clear terms and in my view it was a very significant resolution and the fact that New Zealand was involved with it was also very significant."
He said that if New Zealand had not moved the resolution, given that it had already been named as a co-sponsor, it would have undermined a lot of the work that New Zealand has done over the previous two years and would have been inconsistent with what we had been saying about the need for Council action on the Middle East.
The Israeli Prime Minister had spoken to McCully before the resolution was passed and had predicted a strong reaction if New Zealand continued to support it. That happened on Saturday when Israel recalled its Ambassador from Wellington.
However, Van Bohemen was reluctant co comment when a questioner asked him why the Australian reaction to New Zealand’s move had been so severe.
"All I would say is that we vote differently from Australia on Middle East resolutions in the General Assembly.
“They are one of a handful of countries that votes with the US and Israel on those resolutions, and it is clearly a strong domestic issue there."
The whole incident has overtones of the ANZUS rift with New Zealand taking what it considers an essentially moral stand but finding itself offside with Australia (and now probably the US).
What has been remarkable about this whole business is that it happened under a National Government.