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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Profile: Incoming U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

On Oct. 13, the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly appointed by acclamation (unanimous consent) former Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres as the organization’s next secretary-general. His five-year term as U.N. head begins in January 2017.

Career and Experience

Born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1949, Guterres was an academic before being elected to the Portuguese parliament in 1976 where he served 17 years. During that time, he served a two-year term as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and was also elected as chairman of the Committee on Demography, Migration and Refugees. Subsequently, he was elected as leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party’s parliamentary bench and became the party’s secretary-general. When his party won the 1995 parliamentary elections, Guterres became prime minister, a position from which he resigned six years later following his party’s disastrous defeat in the local elections.

Extremely active in Socialist International, a worldwide association of democratic socialist political parties, Guterres developed relationships with fellow members and Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Guterres served as the group’s vice president from 1992 to 1999 and as president from 1999 to 2005.

Guterres’ experience working with refugees was a major factor that led to his nomination for U.N. secretary-general: He served as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015. As head of UNHCR, Guterres led a staff of 10,000 operating in 125 countries. His experience may be helpful as the significant increase in refugees, particularly from the Middle East, has placed great strains on Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and several European Union member states, and threatens to undermine global security.

Views on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In his various political roles, Guterres has displayed a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—personally visiting Israel and the West Bank in 1993 and 2005.

In a July 1999 press conference with Palestinian Authority (PA) then-President Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Guterres reportedly said he would urge Israel to ease its economic policies towards the Palestinians, open a Portuguese diplomatic mission in PA-controlled territory, and contribute $2.6 million to rebuilding efforts in the West Bank.

Guterres also organized a 2001 meeting between then-Minister of Defense Shimon Peres and Arafat. The meeting was intended to be a continuation of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians; however, the outbreak of the Second Intifada precluded any meaningful steps to foster dialogue and peace between the two parties.

Guterres has also weighed in on the Palestinian refugee issue. During Operation Cast Lead—Israel’s 2008-2009 conflict with Hamas—as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, he declared that Israel should allow Palestinians to leave Gaza. “Those who are compelled to flee the Gaza Strip should be able to do so and to find safety and security in other countries according to international law.” He further said, “I thus urge that all borders and access routes concerned should be kept open and safe, and Palestinians endeavoring to leave Gaza should not be prevented from doing so.”

In a 2014 speech before the Arab League in Cairo, Guterres stated that Syria and Iraq represented the world’s “most challenging displacement crises.” In the same speech, Guterres said that the world’s refugee crises “pale in comparison to the desperate situation of the Palestinians, the largest protracted refugee situation in the world.” Guterres lamented the fact that Palestinian refugees in Syria were “being forced to flee for the second time,” and that it was “shocking” that Gazans “could not even flee to seek safety" from the recent conflict. "No one wants to be a refugee,” he continued, “but for the people of Gaza, not even that was an option.”

Israeli Officials on Guterres

Following Guterres’ selection as the next secretary-general. Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon congratulated him and expressed Israel’s wish that “the U.N. under his leadership will be a fair body in the spirit of its founding, which knows how to differentiate between good and evil, and which will end the obsession against Israel.” Danon added he hoped “that a change in leadership will lead to a cessation in the hostilities against Israel.” In addition, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor said, “There’s no record of him making any remarkable statement against Israel.”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a positive assessment of his Socialist International colleague, stating, “I am sure he will be fair.”

Former Minister of Industry and Trade Micha Harish, who served during Guterres’ tenure as the Portuguese prime minister, characterized the incoming secretary-general as being fair towards Israel. “He was friendly and was definitely not part of the extreme Left in Europe,” adding, “I don’t remember any anti-Israel comments by him. I think he will be more fair and less aggressive in the U.N. than his predecessors.”

Former Israel Ambassador to Portugal Colette Avital was instrumental in developing ties between the Jewish state and the incoming U.N. secretary-general. Avital said of Guterres, “He loves Israel. But he’s a very objective man, which means that he sees the whole picture…He won’t support anti-Israel moves at the U.N. But he will try to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. He doesn’t consider that to be anti-Israel.”

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