The World Health Organization and the Problem of Regionalization: Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean

By Anat Mooreville
Submitted to Session P4344 (Shaping International Governance: The League of Nations and UN in the Middle East (1920-1985), 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Israel;
19th-21st Centuries; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Foreign Relations; History of Medicine; Israel Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Transnationalism; World History;
In order to achieve its objective of promoting health and wellbeing on a global scale, the founders of the World Health Organization (WHO) espoused a principle of “regionalization” (or “decentralization”) wherein members states would form subsidiary organizations based on pre-determined geographic regions. Six resulting regions were constituted: Europe, America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Western Pacific, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The political impetus for this arrangement was to interrupt colonial relationships and to foster cooperation between neighboring countries that shared cultural, and more importantly, health concerns.

This issue of what “neighboring” countries were, however, was not self-evident, and perhaps most strongly affected Israel’s desire to remain in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where it was assigned in 1949. When the Arab League voted in 1951 not to attend regional conferences in which Israel was invited, Israel refused to switch to the European region, even with the prodding of WHO Headquarters. I will investigate the following thirty-five years of tension, particularly how debates over the “regional problem” represented two coexisting and competing forces that collectively shaped Israel’s development: a desire to operate on the world stage and a desire to secure a position within the Middle East. While Israeli government officials were adamant about not allowing Arab states to figuratively remove Israel from the Middle Eastern map, they often argued in private that Israel’s health concerns were more in line with European states. Using material from the Israel State and WHO archives, the research questions my paper would seek to answer are: How did Israel imagine itself to be part of the Eastern Mediterranean, and what were the diplomatic strategies employed to keep Israel within that region despite boycott from the Arab League? What were the practical health outcomes from this contentious regional relationship? Why did Israel no longer find being in the Eastern Mediterranean necessary and become part of the European region in 1985? I argue that Israel insisted on maintaining part of the Eastern Mediterranean in the WHO, even if in other spheres of diplomatic relations it shifted to a European orientation, partly because of the symbolic significance of medical expertise and aid as a neutral path towards acceptance in the region. By the 1980s, numerous debates over the health of residents of the West Bank and Gaza plagued the World Health Assembly, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry could not longer pretend that medical benevolence had any political meaning.