When Nikki Haley finishes her tenure as United States ambassador to the UN at the end of the year, the Trump administration will lose a vocal spokesperson who often gave it undue credibility. Ambassador Haley remained notably scandal-free among the president’s inner circle, and took the White House’s erratic policy and sold it with a charismatic and intelligent voice, and nowhere was she more vocal than on Israel and the Palestinian conflict. Mainstream American Jewish organizations that were lukewarm on Donald Trump praised Haley’s eloquent defense of the Israeli government — and the administration’s Middle East policy. But however articulate a speaker she was, Haley never challenged the substance (or lack thereof) of what she was promoting. Her actions were sometimes forceful and well-meaning but ultimately as hollow as the international institutions the United States lashed out against throughout her ambassadorship.
Two notable episodes are illustrative of Haley’s overall performance in the ambassadorship: her vocal defense before a hostile General Assembly of the administration’s new Jerusalem policy, and the United States’ withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council.
Last December, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the controversial relocation of the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and official U.S. recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.
In her rebuttal before the General Assembly, Ambassador Haley promised, in a not-so-veiled threat to other member states: “this vote will be remembered.” As usual, the president was more explicit: “let them vote against us, we’ll save a lot of money [on foreign aid].”
Some pro-Israel pundits lauded Haley for taking a hard line. But her approach wasn’t really groundbreaking. Voting patterns at the UN were a factor in American financial assistance before Trump, and the United States has long been monitoring votes, especially pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since 2004, the State Department has been legally obligated to keep a separate listing of UN General Assembly resolutions dealing specifically with Israel in order to keep track of the body’s notoriously anti-Israel bent. The State Department’s 2016 annual report on Voting Practices in the United Nations shows just how few countries vote alongside the U.S. in matters related to Israel, especially with regards to the Palestinian conflict. That year, just four countries (including Israel) voted in lockstep with the American delegation on every relevant resolution.
That vote fit well into the UN’s pattern of disproportionate focus on Israel. The diplomatic circus that ensued saw serial human rights offenders like Syria and Iran lecture the United States and Israel over a symbolic, if counterproductive policy. But in rebuking an American policy on Israel and not an Israeli action, the affair underscored the degree to which the administration had upended Washington’s overseas relationships.
State Department reports only highlight the countries voting in concert with the United States on anti-Israel resolutions. However, after the Jerusalem vote Ambassador Haley chose to host a party thanking 64 nations for “opposing” the resolution — only the U.S. and eight other countries voted against the Jerusalem resolution (including Israel), so the confab artificially inflated the degree of support the Trump administration had in the UN by including countries that abstained or skipped the vote altogether. A significant bloc of countries, mainly U.S. allies, already tend to abstain from votes on Israel, so what Ambassador Haley celebrated as an achievement was really just par for the course. Of course, such a distortion of reality is only fitting under the current administration.
Then there was the American exit from the UN Human Rights Council. Ambassador Haley rightly admonished the Human Rights Council, whose membership — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Venezuela, and Cuba, among others — hardly reflects its name. The Council voted in 2006 to make reviewing the situation in Israel and the occupied territories a permanent agenda item, ensuring the Jewish state faces inordinate attention. For a few years before Trump took office, Western member states were already boycotting debates under that stipulation. But the complete U.S. withdrawal, which took place under Haley’s watch, ensures that there is one less country to hold the line against the Council’s bias. Moreover, the move was undertaken outside a constructive process, ensuring that it would receive no outside support except from Israel itself. Israelis understandably resent being treated like a pariah in the Human Rights Council while rogue states receive relative amnesty. The U.S. could have leveraged this, using a potential exit from the Council as a carrot in exchange for serious progress from Israel, such as an explicit recommitment to a two-state solution or a settlement freeze east of the security barrier. Such a tough position could have been best defended by a more conservative United States administration, and it just might have won the backing of some American allies who also support the peace process.
No matter how tough her rhetoric on the UN’s endemic problems, Haley was ultimately toeing the Trump line, though she did it in less vulgar terms than the president. Her charisma lent a false sense of legitimacy to the Trump administration’s most ill conceived and extemporaneous policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the U.S.’s sudden slashing of all funding for UNRWA and USAID projects in the Palestinian Territories, and obstructing moderate Palestinian ex-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s bid to be UN envoy to Libya. Nikki Haley gave a veneer of normalcy to an abnormal presidency and did her best to stand apart from the parade of White House scandals. But her resignation is likely a signal of higher ambitions, not a retreat from the political scene, and when she returns to the public stage, the entirety of her record should be remembered for what it was: strong rhetoric, short on effective action.