Israel boycotts UN rights council in unprecedented move

image captionThe Israeli authorities refused to co-operate with a fact-finding mission investigating settlements

Israel has boycotted a regular review by the UN Human Rights Council, the first time any country has done so.

The move was expected as Israel has long been angered by what it claims is unfair criticism from the body.

A decision last year to investigate Jewish settlements in the West Bank prompted Israel to announce it would no longer co-operate with the council.

Meanwhile, the US has suggested the outcome of Israel's election may revive hopes of peace with the Palestinians.

Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she believed the election "opens doors, not nails them shut" during a "global town hall" meeting at which she took questions from internet users and broadcasters.

Right-wing and centre-left blocs won a roughly equal share of seats in Israel's Knesset (parliament) in the vote a week ago. Talks to hammer out a ruling coalition are under way.

'New territory'

Following the no-show by Israeli representatives at Tuesday's meeting of the UN human rights council in Geneva, the meeting was suspended and a response is being decided.

"After a series of votes and statements and incidents we have decided to suspend our working relations with that body," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Financial Times on Tuesday.

"I can confirm that there is no change in that policy."

Council spokesman Rolando Gomez told the Associated Press that Israel's unprecedented absence had put the council in "new territory" because attendance of the Universal Periodic Review was mandatory.

Haitian representatives failed to appear before the council in 2010, but on the basis that their country had suffered a devastating earthquake. Otherwise, so far all countries - even Syria and North Korea - have attended.

Israel's action has prompted concern that it might undermine the UN's human rights work, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

Human rights experts fear other countries facing awkward questions might follow suit.

Even Israel's biggest ally, the United States, had urged Israel to take part. The big question now is what - if anything - the UN can do about Israel's refusal to participate, our correspondent adds.

A joint statement by eight Israeli human rights groups said: "It is legitimate for Israel to express criticism of the work of the council and its recommendations, but Israel should do so through engagement with the Universal Periodic Review, as it has done in previous sessions."

In her comments on the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Mrs Clinton - on one of her final public engagements before stepping down from US President Barack Obama's administration - struck a positive note.

She said in the elections a "significant percentage" of the Israeli electorate had indicated they believed "we need a different path than the one we have been pursuing, internally and with respect to the Middle East peace process.

"So I know that President Obama, [and] my successor, soon-to-be Secretary of State John Kerry, will pursue this, will look for every possible opening," she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu alliance took the largest single share of parliamentary seats in the poll, but its tally of seats was down by a quarter.

Yair Lapid's newly-formed centrist Yesh Atid party surprised observers by coming second with 19 seats.

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