Nikki Haley champions Israel at the United Nations, irritating America’s allies

President Donald Trump will chair a United Nations Security Council meeting Wednesday where he is expected to denounce Iran. But many eyes – particularly those in Israel - will be on his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, who is given much of the credit for holding Israel’s bitter foe accountable.

While she is expected to take a backseat to Trump at this week’s U.N. General Assembly, Haley will receive lots of attention in New York as the administration’s most visible and outspoken fighter against what she describes as the “anti-Israel bias” in the United Nations.

“She speaks about Israel a lot, more than Susan Rice and Samantha Power did,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, speaking of the last full-time U.S ambassadors. “She’s a great champion of Israel in the Security Council.”

The Trump administration has made defending Israel at the United Nations and abroad a pillar of its foreign policy. Against the wishes of most Western allies, Trump moved the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and criticized the Obama administration for failing to block a resolution against Israeli resettlements.

But critics argue the United States, under the guise of defending Israel, has undercut key international human rights work and, whether the administration appreciates it or not, Israel deserves scrutiny for violence against demonstrators on the border and ongoing expansion of settlements into Palestinian territories.

Israeli officials say Haley, who is expected to join Trump at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been key to carrying out the administration’s pro-Israel priorities. But the ambitious politician has also never been afraid to speak her mind and leave her own mark.

Haley has been credited for leading efforts to cancel all U.S. funding of the United Nations aid program for Palestinian refugees and called for a sharp reduction in the number of Palestinians recognized as refugees. She has repeatedly criticized the United Nations for targeting Israel instead of condemning others, such as Hamas and Iran for their role fueling violence and sponsoring terrorism.

“We look favorably at her work in the United Nations, implementing the president’s policy in the UN,” said an Israeli official who spoke anonymously because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about U.S. policy. “Her support of Israel is unwaveringly evident in her numerous pro-Israel speeches in the Security Council itself and in various different U.N. forums.”

Israeli and U.S. officials say it’s also evident in many additional actions. Those include advocating for reform at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, which U.S. officials said had “an entire agenda item dedicated to bashing Israel” and ensuring Iran, Israel’s longtime enemy, was part of the much-anticipated Security Council discussion that Trump will lead on Wednesday.

“America has no better friend than Israel, and it is critically important that we support our friends when they are unfairly attacked,” Haley said in a statement to McClatchy.

During bilateral talks with President Trump Wednesday, Netanyahu showered Trump with praise for his support for Israel against Iranian aggression and called the American-Israeli alliance stronger “than ever before under your leadership.”

“I want to thank you for the extraordinary support that you have shown for Israel in this building in the UN,” Netanyahu said. “No one has backed Israel like you do and we appreciate it. “

Haley says dozens of resolutions against Israel demonstrate what the administration sees as the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias, including a 2016 resolutions that passed 14-0 that said Israeli settlements violate international law. The United States, under the Obama administration, chose to abstain from voting to stop the resolution, a rare moment of division between the U.S. and Israel.

Supporters, including in the United States, also note the U.N. world heritage body’s recognition of the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian world heritage site, angered Israelis.

After a rocky eight-year relationship with President Barack Obama, Israel has savored the Trump administration’s warmth. Trump has refrained from criticizing Israeli settlement activity and carried out two of Netanyahu’s biggest requests, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

In the process, the administration has increasingly alienated the Palestinians. The administration cut American funding to the Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This month, the administration closed the Washington offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization to try to pressure the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table of a US-sponsored Middle East peace plan.

In his speech Tuesday before the United Nation’s General Assembly Tuesday, Trump criticized the human rights council for shielding human rights abusers and bashing America and its allies.

“Our ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, laid out a clear agenda for reform, but despite reported and repeated warnings, no action at all was taken,” Trump said. “So the United States took the only responsible course: We withdrew from the Human Rights Council, and we will not return until real reform is enacted.”

Some analysts argue claims of anti-Israel bias are exaggerated. It’s not that Israel doesn’t get some scrutiny, but Israel is shielded from most critical resolutions by the United States, said Louis Charbonneau, the director of the United Nations program at Human Rights Watch.

Charbonneau said one issue is that other nations don’t receive enough attention, such as Russia and Syria, not that Israel is unfairly targeted.

“To say that everything in the UN system is stacked against Israel isn’t accurate,” Charbonneau said. “Because when it comes down to it in the key UN bodies, such as the security council, the United States is basically a protector of Israel and it’s preventing the Council from putting the kind of pressure on Israel in getting the policy makers to rethink some of their abusive approaches to things, whether it’s the excessive use of force against demonstrators on the border of Gaza and the settlements.”

It’s been long standing U.S. policy to defend Israel at the United Nations where there “is unquestionably a history of anti-Israel bias and unfair and one-sided criticisms,” said Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration.

But Shapiro said there are limits to what the United States can do no matter how strongly it pushes the policy because of those “built-in sympathy” for the Palestinians.

Shapiro said Haley has been a strong advocate for Israel but he said it’s unclear what tangible impact they’ll have on changing the views of Israel at the U.N.

“The policy is basically the same policy,” said Shapiro, who is now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “But sometimes that strong and emotional expression of it wins a lot of appreciation, at least among Israel and Israel supporters. Whether it’s a big change in the overall standing and kind of flow of anti-Israel resolutions, I don’t think we’ve seen that yet.”

But Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the messaging matters. Haley, he said, has made clear that the United States will “no longer tolerate mindless bigoted attacks on American allies.”

“Now countries have become much more reluctant to attack American allies mindlessly and falsely and with impunity the way they did before,” Klein said. “Now there are consequences.”

Abrams said the changes Haley has brought to the administration are mostly about tone, but tone is important. For the Obama administration, it was felt as a “burden” defending Israel but were compelled for electoral reasons.

“What you’re getting out of Haley is a completely different attitude,” Abrams said. “It’s that, ‘I love being here to defend Israel. It’s the reason that we’re in the UN.’ It’s a very different attitude.”

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez