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U.S. Clarifies United Nations Position: Will Oppose Conference, Ombudsman

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The United States continues to oppose an international peace conference on the Middle East and will not support a pending United Nations resolution that could support that, Secretary of State James Baker said Thursday.

“Precisely because of our consistent position that we will not link the (Persian) Gulf crisis and the Arab-Israeli dispute, this is certainly not an appropriate time for an international conference,” Baker told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We are not now recommending that an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict be held, nor are we supporting a resolution in the Security Council that would seek to convene a conference,” he said.

Baker explained that the United States has “taken the position for a long time that an international conference, properly structured, at an appropriate time, might be useful. That has been the policy of the United States for a long time.”

The U.N. Security Council was also expected to vote Friday on a resolution concerning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the administered territories, and there is a fear among Israeli and Jewish leaders that the United States might not exercise its veto power.

The final resolution, which was still being negotiated Thursday, could include calls to send an ombudsman to the territories to study the situation; convening a meeting of the 164 signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention under which the rights of civilians living in occupied lands are laid out; and holding an international Middle East peace conference.

All these are propositions the United States would normally veto, given its historic ties to Israel, but the United States is trying not to antagonize members of its Arab coalition against Iraq.

There is also the sense that the Security Council, having punished Iraq for occupying Kuwait, must take similar action on the issue of Israel’s 23-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The United States claims there can be no linkage of the two issues, but this is not the view held by most others sitting on the 15-member Security Council.

In addition, one working paper being circulated among Security Council members calls for the convening of an international peace conference “in an appropriate time,” which might be viewed by the United States as vague enough to allow at least an abstention, if not outright support.

UNCLEAR ON FINAL RESOLUTION

Abstaining in a Security Council vote by a permanent member, such as the United States, does not automatically kill the resolution.

A top American Jewish leader said it remained unclear what the final resolution would be, and that Israel’s acceptance of a visit by the U.N. secretary-general’s personal representative should satisfy Security Council members.

“Our position is that the United States has to put an end to this series of resolutions and can’t accept a resolution that calls for a peace conference or Geneva convention or appointment of an ombudsman to the territories, given Israel’s acceptance of the visit by (Jean-Claude) Aime,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Aime’s visit, which Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he would schedule after the council finished deliberations on the resolutions dealing with Israel, was originally suggested by Israeli officials as an attempt to halt further discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli issue in the council.

In Santiago, Chile, where President Bush was visiting Thursday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said news reports that the United States would support such a U.N. resolution were “not true.”

John Bolton, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said Thursday that the United States opposes not only an international conference, but also a meeting on the Geneva Convention and a proposal to send a U.N. ombudsman to deal with the Palestinians.

NO DECISION ON VETO

The United States is trying to avoid having to veto a resolution that would contain those proposals. But Bolton told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that no decision has been made yet on whether the United States would use its veto to block any of the three proposals.

At a symposium marking the 15th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism, Bolton said that to agree to an international conference now would be a victory for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which have been trying to split up the international alliance against Iraq.

But he said the U.S. alliance partners understand this tactic, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Bolton stressed that once the Gulf crisis is over, the United States would return to trying to bring about an Arab-Israeli peace.

(JTA correspondent Aliza Marcus at the United Nations contributed to this report.)

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