March 26th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

Just weeks before his passing in 1997, Chaim Herzog, a towering figure in Israeli politics and diplomacy, and father to Israel’s current President, Isaac Herzog, was in London promoting his newly published memoirs, “Living History.” Herzog’s career was marked by significant contributions to Israel’s stature on the world stage, notably serving as its sixth President from 1983 to 1993, after a distinguished tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1975 and 1978.

During Herzog’s short visit, I had the privilege of interviewing him for my daily radio show on London’s multiethnic Spectrum Radio in his suite at the Langham Hotel, located directly opposite the iconic BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House on Portland Place. The opportunity for this interview, facilitated by my late father who knew President Herzog personally, allowed for a rare glimpse into the thoughts of a man who had navigated the complexities of international diplomacy with acumen and integrity.

Our conversation spanned various aspects of President Herzog’s life, including his revered father, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, Israel’s first chief rabbi, and his grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman, the powerhouse scholar who headed London’s rabbinical court for twenty years before retiring to Palestine, where he opened the Ohel Torah institute, to train a new generation of superlative rabbinic leaders.

The discussion eventually turned to Herzog’s tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, a period marked by his memorable protest against the U.N.’s “Zionism is racism” resolution on November 10, 1975, when he tore up the resolution after finishing his speech at the podium of the general assembly. Herzog’s powerful denunciation of the resolution as “based on hatred, falsehood, and arrogance” and “devoid of any moral or legal value” is one of the most evocative moments in the history of Israel’s troubled relationship with the United Nations.

When I broached the subject of the United Nations’ effectiveness, questioning whether its systemic corruption and failures warranted its dissolution, Herzog offered a pragmatic perspective. He argued that dismantling the U.N. would likely lead to the creation of a similar organization soon afterwards, and he suggested that it was more practical to engage with and try to reform the existing body despite its shortcomings. “Better to work with this one, with all its flaws, than to start again from scratch,” he remarked, questioning the likelihood of achieving a better outcome with a new iteration of the United Nations.

After the shockingly one-sided U.N. Security Council resolution this week, that called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza without calling out Hamas for initiating the hostilities, and without making a ceasefire contingent on the return of Israeli hostages, I recalled my conversation with Chaim Herzog, and wondered if he would still feel the same way today as he did when we met in 1997.

I was also reminded of the pithy observation about the U.N. by Herzog’s brother-in-law, Abba Eban, who also served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations during a crucial period in Israel’s history: “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”

Eban once noted that “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Honestly, I sometimes wonder if that’s true. In any event, what is the use of behaving wisely once the proverbial train has left the station and the damage is already done?

Perhaps the most shocking element of this week’s Security Council vote was the abstention of the United States, to date a stalwart supporter of its ally Israel, always ready to veto a Security Council resolution that contains even a hint of bias against Israel. It was the U.S. abstention that paved the way for this resolution to pass.

Hamas and its allies consider this an unprecedented diplomatic victory. In Teheran for a visit, the Doha-ensconced Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh told journalists that Israel is experiencing “unprecedented political isolation,” and that “although this resolution came late and there may be some gaps that need to be filled, the resolution itself indicates that the Israeli occupation is experiencing unprecedented political isolation.” Well done, America!

What is so curious about this U.S. diplomatic faux pas is that it vindicates the fears voiced by an icon of American foreign policy a century ago, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924). From the outset of modern international politics and diplomacy, many U.S. lawmakers harbored a cautious, if not ambivalent, relationship with the concept of global governance. This cautious approach was epitomized by the 1919 decision not to join the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, which was founded on the ashes of the First World War with the noble aim of preventing future conflicts.

Lodge was the primary mover behind American skepticism regarding the League of Nations. A prominent Republican Senator from Massachusetts, he was a historian by training, and one of the most significant figures of American politics during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a speech to the Senate, Lodge told fellow senators: “I have loved but one flag, and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.”

America’s refusal to join the League of Nations was not merely an isolated act of foreign policy but a profound statement about the nation’s skepticism towards entangling its sovereignty within a framework that, it feared, could be manipulated by competing national interests.

Fast forward to the present, and this skepticism seems so prescient, as the United States finds itself compromised within the U.N. Security Council, forced to navigate a labyrinth of conflicting interests that have diluted its position and undermined its principles. The decision to abstain from this week’s crucial vote is a stark reminder that Lodge had a valid point: namely, that complete dissociation from inherently flawed international institutions may be preferable to reluctant engagement.

The U.N. Security Council resolution underscores this perennial dilemma: does one engage with such a flawed international body or should one stand apart? For Israel, and indeed any nation that values its sovereignty but nonetheless understands the necessity of global dialogue, the path forward is fraught yet clear. Engagement must never imply acquiescence, nor can it lead to comprising core values and principles.

As Chaim Herzog noted, Israel must continue to navigate these waters – but always with a firm grip on the dual oars of principle and pragmatism: advocating for reform within, while steadfastly upholding its right to security and self-determination.

This week’s abstention by the United States is undoubtedly a diplomatic setback. Yet, it also presents an impetus for Israel and like-minded nations to push for a more balanced, fairer framework within the U.N. – a framework that respects the sovereignty and security concerns of all nations equally. We must believe that it is not too late, and that the train has not quite left the station yet.

The future lies not in withdrawal, but in proactive, robust participation. In this way, Israel and the United States can help steer the global community towards a more just and equitable order – by never giving an inch, and by turning every challenge into an opportunity for reform and progress.

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