For Israelis the United Nations is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are fully aware of the anti-Israel sentiment that the United Nations perpetuates, but on the other hand they want to be part of it and to have their voices heard. This stance is understandable. But it produces positions which sometimes directly contradict Israel's clear interest.
Observe: During a recent conference titled, "Hijacking Human Rights: The Demonization of Israel by the United Nations," Daniel Carmon, Israel's deputy permanent representative at the United Nations stated that "We [Israel] encounter hypocrisy and cynicism on the one hand, and we are all witness to that when we walk into the building, but we are also trying with relative success to identify how, within the existing mandate, [to find] parallel paths of working with the world body." Reflecting this problematic and paradoxical Israeli stance, Mr. Carmon urged the approximately 200 conference participants to state that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East) was "doing a good job" providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the Palestinian territories.
The matter of UNRWA perhaps above all others illustrates the difficulty of the Israeli position on the United Nations. Israeli officials well tell you that if UNRWA does not take care of Palestinian needs then these will become Israel's responsibility. And despite UNRWA's well-documented terrorist ties, Israel prefers not to bear this burden.
This position produces a situation in which Israel itself ends up forming one of the factors blocking the way to the dismantling of UNRWA. UNRWA, in turn, is a central factor blocking a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue — which is one of the central factors preventing the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Understanding the way that UNRWA helps perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem requires taking a closer look at the way that the agency functions. Doing so reveals the workings of a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
While Palestinian refugees benefit materially from UNRWA, the agency benefits in return from the refugees. The refugees are the organization's raison d'etre. And bureaucracies tend to dislike dissolving themselves. So, like any good bureaucracy, UNRWA has zero incentive to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem if it is to continue to exist. Ending the refugee problem would render UNRWA obsolete.
Instead, UNRWA finds a hundred and one ways to perpetuate Palestinian dependency. The interests of the refugees and UNRWA are fatally intertwined; UNRWA is staffed mainly by local Palestinians — more than 23,000 of them — with only about 100 international United Nations professionals. Tellingly, while the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) avoid employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, UNRWA does not make this distinction. Terrorism does not exclude one from being a part of UNRWA. In fact, quite the opposite is true: UNRWA-overseen hospitals and clinics routinely employ members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Employing Palestinians for decade after decade and providing them with subsistence-level food aid and rudimentary education are a far cry from giving them usable skills and a positive attitude about creating their own independent economy and viable civic institutions.
In addition, the Palestinian agenda (and sympathy for the Palestinian cause) have infiltrated every aperture at Turtle Bay. UNWRA has spent decades keeping this single issue, key to the organization's survival, at the forefront of the U.N. agenda whether it belongs there or not. It has engendered Arab and Western support for the delegitimation of Israel, and facilitated comparisons between Nazism and Zionism — a false linkage that bolsters Palestinian claims of oppression. When former Secretary-General Kofi Annan appeared at a U.N. "Palestine Day" event which astonishingly featured a map of the Middle East that conspicuously omitted Israel, it was emblematic of the way in which the United Nations has transformed itself into a propaganda machine for such thinking. UNRWA has no parallel in the U.N. system. UNRWA is dedicated solely to providing assistance to Palestinian refugees; no other group of refugees, whatever their circumstances, warrants this much attention.
As we look toward the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the United Nations as a member of the Quartet has a special obligation to uphold the commitment outlined in the 2003 "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. In an effort to insulate good works from terrorist infiltration and exploitation, Washington should stand ready to help the United Nations live up to this obligation by funding an "Office of Competent Standards" for UNRWA and similar agencies.
It's also in the interest of Israel to support such an initiative. As it stands, the self-perpetuating bureaucracy of UNRWA is one of the central factors offering day jobs to members of terror groups, propping up Palestinian dependency and perpetuating the myths and falsehoods about Israel which help prevent a solution to the conflict.
Asaf Romirowsky is the Manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum. Jonathan Spyer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel.