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Behind the Headlines: for Israel, New Season at the U.N. Full of Promise As Well As Pitfalls

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Though Israel and its supporters have learned that optimism tends not to pay when it comes to the U.N. General Assembly, many say this year’s session could contain unprecedented opportunities for diplomatic progress for the Jewish state.

The Arab nations, who are Israel’s most formidable U.N. opponents, are arriving at the Sept. 18 opening session of the General Assembly in tremendous disarray, chiefly because of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

The crisis touched the United Nations directly this week with the resignation of Clovis Maksoud, who has served as the Arab League’s representative to the world body for 11 years. His resignation followed that of the league’s secretary-general, Chedli Klibi.

The Arab disarray is compounded by the fact that the credibility and prestige of the Palestine Liberation Organization have hit an all-time low, thanks to its support and sympathy for Iraq.

“Many countries are now convinced that the PLO is not a partner for any peace. It has shown its hand by supporting the goals of Saddam Hussein,” said Johanan Bein, Israel’s acting ambassador to the United Nations.

The PLO’s reduced prestige is unquestionably helpful to the Israelis. Some of the fiercest diplomatic battles that Israel and the Jewish community have waged at the United Nations have been against efforts to upgrade the status of the PLO delegation to that of a member nation in the General Assembly and other U.N. agencies.

U.S. MAY SOFT-PEDAL REPEAL EFFORT

But the new situation is a double-edged sword, and Israeli representatives here are far from relaxed.

Arab efforts to reunify their forces could result in even more anti-Israel rhetoric than usual during the assembly, if their enmity to Israel becomes the only thing they can agree on.

The Israelis are also watching closely to see whether the United States, Israel’s traditional defender and ally in the United Nations, will find it necessary to soft-pedal any partnership with Israel.

This would have its most significant impact in the continuing U.S.-Israeli effort to repeal the 1975 General Assembly resolution denigrating Zionism as a form of racism.

Senior State Department officials have indicated that, while the United States remains committed to the resolution’s repeal, it may be temporarily put on the back burner, since both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, key players in the alliance against Saddam Hussein, oppose any move to rescind the resolution.

The United States and Israel have worked together over the past year to muster support for repeal of the resolution. The campaign, which was announced last December by Vice President Dan Quayle, has met with a degree of success.

Several nations that voted in favor or abstained when the resolution it was originally adopted have indicated a change of heart, and it appears that Israel could achieve a narrow margin of victory.

“There’s been movement especially in the new democracies of Eastern Europe and Latin America,” John Bolton, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said in a telephone interview. “Our count indicates the vote would be close, but the position of many countries is still unknown.”

Before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Israelis and the Americans had been determined, if not to bring the repeal to a vote during this session, to continue to lay the groundwork through intensive lobbying of member nations.

Officially, the decision on whether to move for a vote during this General Assembly session has not yet been made.

Israeli Ambassador Bein said that before the issue would be brought to a vote, Israel would want “a comfortable majority” of U.N. member nations in its camp. “At this time of crisis, it’s hard to see if the circumstances will be ripe during this General Assembly,” he said.

OVERCOMING THE ROUTINE

Israeli officials have been cautiously optimistic that they will encounter a more positive attitude toward the Jewish state in the corridors of the United Nations this year. There is now widespread recognition, they say, of Israel’s need to normalize relations with the Arab states, not just the Palestinians.

But this is expected to have little effect on the routine obstacles Israel must overcome during each General Assembly session.

“The enemy of Israel is the routine. We hope that countries will be brave enough this year to pull themselves out of the routine,” said Bein.

The first act of the annual ritual occurs when Israel has its credentials for membership in the United Nations challenged. Each year, Israel’s right to continue as a member nation is contested by one of the Arab countries, and one of the Scandinavian nations moves to stymie the vote.

Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told a group of American Jewish leaders this week that while there were 95 votes in support of Israel during the credentials challenge last year, he expected at least 100 during this session.

Once the credentials vote is over, Israel is expected to face the usual plethora of anti-Israel resolutions that come up in various committees and constituent bodies of the United Nations.

MORE ‘CRAZY RESOLUTIONS’ EXPECTED

Dr. Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International, said he expected “the hostile pattern against Israel to continue.”

“Similar problems to the Iraq situation have happened in the past, and they have had little effect,” he said. “I think all these crazy resolutions will be adopted again.”

An early sign that the anti-Israel efforts have not abated is the fact that a subgroup of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva late last month, condemned Israel at length and paid more cursory attention to Iraq’s behavior in Kuwait.

Jay Lefkowitz, a member of the U.S. delegation to the Human Rights Commission, said that the vote was a sign that “while a lot has been done in the past two months to rejuvenate the United Nations, most of the improvement has been at the Security Council level and has yet to filter down to any of the specialized agencies, particularly in the human rights arena.”

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