U.N. chief recognizes history of Jewish temple in Jerusalem, pledges to treat Israel equally

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: Exclusive Interview by Benny Avni of Israel Radio, Jan. 29, 2017
Key Points

  • Palestinian leaders are angry at the new U.N. chief for stating the obvious when he said: “It is clear to me that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, it was a Jewish temple.”
  • Guterres pledged to treat Israel “the same as all the others,” with “exactly the same rights and obligations” and “without any form of discrimination.”
  • However, he dismissed the significance of the Jewish state being singled out as a modern form of antisemitism. “If one looks at European society, I don’t see that the most important manifestations of antisemitism, I don’t see them related in any way to the State of Israel or to what’s happening now in relation to the State of Israel and others.”

Full Transcript
Avni: How important is antisemitism at the current time?
SG: I have to say it’s much more important than the majority of the people think. I must say, I am deeply impressed by the revival of antisemitism, namely in European societies that I know better.
I’m told that in the United States there is a similar trend but probably not as intense as in other parts of the world, but of course the link with the past is particularly relevant in Europe. And I think that this is a very dangerous trend.
What worries me more is not the fact that in countries there is a rhetorical antisemitism, what is more worrying is the antisemitism directly impacting Jewish communities in countries, and that is to my mind particularly relevant today in Europe and a little bit in North America.
Other expressions of antisemitism are probably more linked to political situations at the moment but they are not related to the relations within a country within communities.
What makes me be much more worried is to see that people are attacked. To see that historic places are destroyed, at least damaged.
And to see that there is a hate speech and a proliferation of antisemitic attacks on the internet and in the social media, but very much linked to the fabrics of the societies, this is what makes me…
Avni: Holocaust denial in Iran?
SG: Holocaust denial is probably not as frequent.
Avni: But in Iran specifically?
SG: But I think the credibility of Holocaust denial is today very small.
But what I think is more frequent and probably more dangerous is the rewriting of history, is what I call Holocaust revisionism.
Especially when governments also act for the rehabilitation of officers that were linked to the Holocaust system and in which we have seen a recent trend of trying to rewrite history in order to rehabilitate their image in their own societies.
And this is I think extremely, extremely worrying and extremely dangerous. Because it has established a link between feelings that are undermining the society and potential actions of authorities.
Avni: One thing that a lots of Israelis and American Jews as well say about antisemitism is that its modern manifestation is singling out the one Jewish state for the kind of standard they ask for from nobody else.
SG: I don’t see that, if one looks at European society, I don’t see that the most important manifestations of antisemitism, I don’t see them related in any way to the State of Israel or to what’s happening now in relation to the State of Israel and others.
The most worrying are the ones that to a certain extent replicate 19th century trends and figures. And for instance, blaming the Jewish community for the global economic crisis, for the financial crisis and for things of the sort. And this is, I mean, progressing very strongly.
Even in the middle class of several European societies. And this in my opinion is linked to the phantoms of the past than to the realities, the political realities of the present.
Avni: The former U.S. ambassador, not the one you had lunch with today, Samantha Power. On the way out she said she’s very concerned about, at the UN specifically, the singling out of Israel.
There’s 20 resolutions every year about Israel, five about the rest of the world. And this is about the General Assembly, not talking even about the Human Rights Council and other places. Will you, is that the problem, for the UN and for…
SG: I think one needs to distinguish what is the Security Council from what is the General Assembly. From which is the Secretariat and from other different agencies. Some of them with great autonomy in that way they work, such as the UN High Commission for Refugees, that has an autonomy to formulate its own policies.
Others are totally dependent on the governing bodies which are the member states. And I think this is important to make this distinction. Because if we don’t make the distinctions then everything is messed up.
My position is that, from the point of view of the Secretary General and from the point of view of the Secretariat that Israel needs to be considered as a state as the same as all the others with exactly the same rights and obligations and without any form of discrimination.
Now the dynamics of member states are the dynamics of the member states, and there we know how things evolved in many aspects. In all states take a position in favor or against this or that aspect which takes place in relation to Israeli policies.
But for me it is very clear that from the point of view of the Secretary General, there needs to be a total respect for a perfectly equal nature of the presence of Israel in the UN and the presence of any other state.
Avni: How difficult is it for you as the Secretary-General in the environment at the General Assembly and other UN bodies, I noticed for instance today you mentioned in your speech the destruction of the temple by the Romans, UNESCO doesn’t even mention the temple as a Jewish place?
SG: But again, positions you refer to of UNESCO are positions of the governing bodies of UNESCO, they are not… I mean it is clear to me that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, it was a Jewish temple. As it is clear for me today that Jerusalem is today a holy city for three religions. These are the facts that nobody can deny.
Avni: So let’s talk about the organization itself. I mean we have two—you used to be the head of the UNHCR—we have two refugee agencies at the UN. One for the whole world’s refugees, and one for Palestinian refugees.
SG: Well, that’s for historical reasons. I know UNRWA was created before UNHCR, and it has a totally different character, it was created at a time when UNHCR came later.
Avni: Is it time to reform?
SG: Again, that would require a complete redefinition of the two agencies because they operate in completely different setups.

Avni: That’s great. You had a lunch with the new ambassador to the United Nations. I’m sure you heard, at Congress, especially after resolution 2334 passed in the security council many are calling to cut budgets for the UN if they don’t change their ways. They don’t know those distinctions you made but they say if they don’t change their ways then we’ll cut budgets to the UN. You saw stories, 40% and so on and so forth, do you think that is something that may happen?
SG: Look, my position is that I should do the right thing. And to do the right thing for the Secretary General of the United Nations is to be independent, impartial, and to treat everybody equally. And this is what I will do, whatever happens.
I am a strong believer that a constructive engagement with the American administration and with the American Congress can allow for the development of a positive relationship. And I will do my best to guarantee it, and I think that people have a much better knowledge of how the UN works than sometimes we think, so I am not pessimistic about this.
Avni: But that’s not the question, the question is that Congress is the one that allocates money in the US and…
SG: Yes, and I have been in dialogue with members of congress about this, and I am sure that that dialogue can lead to positive results.
Avni: But it’s not a secret that in the US there’s much more sensitivity to an impression of singling Israel out at the UN than there is in other countries in Europe, and places like that. So do you think that the UN needs to do something in order to change that impression, beyond your job but…?
SG: As I said, as Secretary-General it is my duty to be fully impartial. And I will do it, I will do my best also for the UN to work in a way in which all member states are treated equally, as I said. But of course, I don’t control member states, and this is also beyond the secretariat.
There is an intergovernmental dimension that is absolutely essential, the Security Council is the body that has a number of very important competences defined by the Charter, and the Charter needs to be respected.
I cannot, I cannot, go over the Charter. I am not the boss of the UN. I am the chief of the office of the UN and at the same time with the capacity to use my good offices in order to allow for this organization to be perceived as positively as possible by all member states.
Avni: What about Israel and Palestine, do you plan anything as the Secretary General to look at the process at all?
SG: I have no initiative planned. I am a strong believer in the two-state solution. In my past capacities I have followed very closely the conflict. I have many old relations with Israel. I was a good friend of people like Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Rabin and…
Avni: Ehud Barak, I saw a tweet the other day…
SG: Yeah, Barak, also a good friend. Of course when I started in the government it was with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. I remember once during Sharon’s government that Shimon Peres and Arafat wanted to meet, but for any reason they couldn’t meet in New York.
And they came to meet secretly in my office in Lisbon. And I have always been totally at disposal of both Palestinians and Israelis without any agenda but to help for what I believe is necessary is that the two parties come together and find an agreement to have peace.
Avni: Should the Palestinians become a member state? Should Palestine become a member state of the United Nations? A full membership.
SG: That as you know depends on a full decision by the Security Council… [laughter] …and you know what’s to be expected of the Council in the present situation.
Avni: As the Secretary General, would you like to have Palestine as a full member?
SG: This is an area for Member States to decide. What I want is to have peace between Israel and Palestine.
Avni: Thank you very much for your time.
SG: Thank you very much.

UN Watch