A session of the Human Rights Council at the UN European headquarters in Geneva
A session of the Human Rights Council at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. Photo by AP
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Israel will renew its cooperation with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council after a year and a half of boycott, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided on Sunday.

In light of the decision, Israel will take part in the periodical hearing regarding human rights in Geneva on Tuesday, a senior Israeli official said.

A team of Israeli diplomats and jurists is departing for Geneva tonight (Sunday) to prepare for Tuesday’s hearing.

Over the last few weeks, the Foreign Ministry has been preparing a special report regarding human rights in Israel and the measures taken by the Israel Defense Forces to prevent harm to innocent civilians in the West Bank.

The prime minster decided to renew ties with the UN Human Rights Council in light of pressure applied by the governments of America and Germany. On Sunday morning, Haaretz published the text of a letter sent by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to Netanyahu, saying that failure to appear at the hearing would cause severe diplomatic damage to Israel, and that its allies around the world would be hard-pressed to help it.

In recent weeks, Israel has been approached by a slew of nations including Australia, Canada, the United States, Spain, France and Germany, with requests that it participate in the hearing, according to a senior Israeli official. The issue was also raised during a discussion between Netanyahu and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York a few weeks ago.

“In light of the fact that we received appropriate recompense for agreeing to resume cooperation with the human rights council, it was decided that Israel will participate in Tuesday’s hearing,” said the official.

Israel has boycotted the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva since March 2012. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister at the time, decided to cut ties with the council after it decided to conduct an international investigation into settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The hearing scheduled for Tuesday, called Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, is part of the Human Rights Council’s system for periodically assessing the status of human rights in member nations. All UN member states undergo such a review once every few years, and this process is considered a cornerstone of international human rights.

If Israel had failed to appear at the hearing, it would become the first state to ever boycott the UPR. As a result, Israel would likely receive harsh criticism from the international community, and would be considered responsible for creating a precedent that would allow nations like Iran, Syria, and North Korea to refuse to appear at such hearings in the future.

In recent weeks, Israel has conducted negotiations with friendly Western nations aimed at creating the outline of an agreement that would allow it to return to the UN Human Rights Council, and take part in the upcoming hearing. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, who was appointed by Netanyahu to oversee the negotiations, listed Israel’s demands for such an agreement, and most were met.

Israel scored two significant diplomatic victories within the negotiations. The first was the limitation the use of Article 7, or the council’s charter, which stipulates that any conference on human rights would hold a separate discussion of human rights in Israel and the West Bank. Israel is the only nation subject to such a stipulation.

The second achievement was the commitment from the other Western nations to nominate Israel for full membership in the group of states in the UN Human Rights Council known as WEOG (Western Europe and others group). Today, Israel is not a member of any of the regional groups within the human rights council, a fact that makes it difficult for Israel to garner support for various diplomatic endeavors. The vote on Israel’s full membership is to take place in November, according to the agreement.

Senior officials in Israel pointed out that although Israel did not receive a final commitment from the group of Western states, participating in Tuesday’s hearing will increase the likelihood that those states that have expressed reservations regarding Israel’s membership will change their positions.

The renewal of ties with the UN Human Rights Council is a significant diplomatic achievement for Elkin, and Ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar, head of the Foreign Ministry’s international organizations department, who led the negotiations. A senior Foreign Ministry official stated that part of the credit also belongs to Lieberman. “Without his [Lieberman’s] decision to cut off ties with the human rights council, we would not have received this upgrade in status, and Western (countries’) understanding that discrimination against Israel in the council must be stopped,” said the official.