The Israeli Who Has a Say Over the UN Budget

Yotam Goren tells Haaretz how UN-Israeli relations aren’t all strife. In fact, Jerusalem gets to instill its spirit of entrepreneurship to the developing world.

Israel Fisher
Israel Fisher
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Yotam Goren, a member of the UN General Assembly's important Fifth Committee.
Yotam Goren, a member of the UN General Assembly's important Fifth Committee. Credit: UN / Mark Garten
Israel Fisher
Israel Fisher

The Israeli delegation to the United Nations has the not-so-simple task of representing the country in an often hostile environment. But there’s more to the job. Israeli diplomats can harness the country’s entrepreneurial spirit to promote projects in developing countries that one day might vote in Israel’s favor on vital issues.

At 32, just four years after he completed the Foreign Ministry’s training course for diplomats, Yotam Goren is a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. He says his colleagues are very supportive and don’t look askance at his relatively tender age.

Goren is Israel’s representative in the General Assembly's Fifth Committee, which is responsible for budgetary and administrative matters for the organization as a whole, including peacekeeping forces. Goren, among the youngest members of the panel, was recently appointed to a subcommittee that oversees the logistics division. That’s the United Nations’ largest division, housing 600 translators and supervising the organization’s day-to-day work.

“From the standpoint of logistics, I’m also responsible for the General Assembly agenda. I hold meetings with the undersecretary from Ethiopia. It’s a spot where Israel never had a presence,” says Goren, who was born in Israel, spent his childhood in the United States and came back to serve in the army.

“Every day you learn something new. I don’t take it for granted that I’m here. Speaking on Israel’s behalf is a source of great pride.”

As part Israel’s efforts to improve ties through economic means, Israel passed a resolution in 2012 to promote entrepreneurship in the developing world. “In the Third World, entrepreneurship is a new thing,” Goren says.

“The easiest thing is to hand out a million dollars and wish them well. Our approach is welcomed by the countries of the Pacific and Africa. These folks very much appreciate our work.”

Agricultural tech

Goren notes that Israel is more hands-on, for example, in bringing in agricultural experts and working from the bottom up. Last year Israel passed a resolution on agricultural technology, a field that could greatly benefit poor countries in Africa and Asia.

“The United Nations is a huge market that purchases $15 billion in goods and services a year — from first-aid kits and pens to desalination equipment and solar panels,” Goren says. “We promote Israeli exports to the UN. We have excellent contacts with the procurement division and have brought in more than 20 companies.”

The United Nations is greatly interested in Israeli companies in fields such as water, technology and medicine, Goren says. It’s hungry for Israeli entrepreneurship and know-how. It wants to see more Israeli firms competing in public tenders.

The budget committee, which has representatives from all 193 member countries, must approve new spending. “If, for example, the Security Council decides to send a new force to the Central African Republic, the decision must reach the budget committee. The major discussions deal with how to reach a decision together on the scope of the force to be sent,” Goren says.

“The budget committee is known as the toughest at the UN. Everyone is familiar with the Security Council and the General Assembly, but the Fifth Committee, which doesn’t generate headlines, is perhaps the most important, along with the Security Council. Whatever is decided, the budget is the on-off switch.”

Budgets for peacekeeping forces have skyrocketed over the past decade; last year the number was $7.5 billion and could reach $9 billion this year, Goren says. The name of the game, he notes, is reaching a consensus; otherwise the Western nations, which provide most UN funding, won’t be able to further their interests.

“There is the Western bloc to which Israel belongs; it’s the major funder of the UN budget. Opposite it is the developing world, which uses the UN budget. Those countries push for an expansion of the budget and they have a majority — 135 countries," Goren explains.

"The Western bloc, for its part, can shut off funding and the recipient bloc can push for a vote, so they need to reach a consensus. This year, for example, it was difficult to come to that. The West wants to streamline the budget, cutting the fat. The developing world seeks as much of a budget as possible, so it was hard to find a balance.”

Hefty funding to the UN

The United States is the top funder of the United Nations, paying 22% of the budget, followed by European countries, which collectively approach 37%. Then comes Japan at 11% and China at a little over 5%.

Israel accounts for just under 0.4%, not bad when considering the size of its economy. Russia, by contrast, funds 2.5% of the organization’s operations and India funds only 0.7%.

Israel ranks 33rd in the size of its funding to the United Nations, Goren notes. “We’re in the same league as Ireland, Singapore and New Zealand. It’s part of the approach that ambassador Ron Prosor is leading. In part, it’s taking the offensive,” he says.

“We want to show that the Israeli contribution is clear. The UN forum is wonderful and makes it possible to show that we’re about more than the [Mideast] conflict. We not only pay, but we do so on time and in full,” Goren adds, noting that most countries pay late.

Jerusalem’s UN delegation is also trying to encourage Israelis to join the UN staff, he says. “As a foreign ministry, we want more Israelis in this organization in every field — development, human rights, environmental know-how. The UN needs quality people and we think we have something to offer. The UN is calling on Israelis. The knowledge of Israeli [army and police] officers, for example, is something that’s very much appreciated here.”

Goren notes Israel’s campaign to win jobs for army and police veterans at UN headquarters in New York. The organization deals with lots of humanitarian, human-rights, environmental and desert-related issues — all part of Israel’s expertise.

“We know that we have adversaries and countries that don’t like us. That’s not news,” he says. “The point is that the [Israeli] delegation doesn’t only combat these things but also expands the agenda where possible to accomplish things on Israel’s behalf, showing its beautiful side, its capabilities. We’re not just putting out fires.”

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