Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Enhanced Status at U.N. Reflected at 50th Year Festivities

This week’s celebration of the United Nations’ 50th anniversary saw a flurry of diplomatic activity by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and American Jewish groups involved with international affairs.

Some insiders said the countless meetings at or nearby the U.N. headquarters along Manhattan’s East River were more or less routine because the sheer volume of dignitaries forced everyone to run a “diplomatic treadmill.”

But, at least for Rabin, the unprecedented convergence of more than 140 heads of state or governments provided a singular opportunity to advance Israel’s enhanced stature in the international community.

“Today one feels in the U.N.’s hallways a changed relationship to Israel on the part of many new and old members,” he said.

Rabin held bilateral meetings with leaders of Jordan, Qatar, China, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Belarus, Austria, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Costa Rice and Turkey, among others.

“The list of countries reflects global representation, signifying we are definitely in the mainstream of the world community, which is where we should be,” said Avner Tavori, press secretary for Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. “We are no longer an outcast.”

In each of the meetings, Rabin focused on explaining the importance of the peace process to the Middle East and to the world and the need for nations to lend their active support to it, Tavori said.

“He explained regional economic development is key to the success of the peace process,” said Tavori, adding that Rabin encouraged the wealthier countries to participate in next week’s Middle East economic development conference in Amman, Jordan.

In his meeting with Chinese President Jiang Ze Min, Rabin was told negotiations between Iran and Beijing over nuclear reactors have been halted and that nuclear reactors have been halted and that nuclear reactors threatening Israel will not be built in Iran, according to Israeli sources.

Ze Min also reportedly said Chine would require Iran to commit itself to refrain from transferring nuclear information or devices to third parties.

In another meeting, Costa Rica’s President Jose Figures assured Rabin that his country would not bow to pressure to move its embassy from Jerusalem, sources said.

The anniversary celebration also offered Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat the chance to return to the United Nations after a 21- year absence to trumpet and consolidate his political gains after signing the 1993 Palestinian self-rule accord with Israel.

Whereas in 1974 he boasted of bearing both an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun, this time he spoke only of the olive branch.

“I come to you with a heart filled with love and peace, with the olive branch hoisted over the peace of the brave,” he said.

Arafat also called for economic aid to the Palestinians.

While prominent American Jewish leaders met publicly with Arafat at a meeting of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council on Monday afternoon, that evening the Palestinian leader was ousted from a city-sponsored New York Philharmonic concert at Lincoln Center at the request of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, sources reported.

For some Jews, the U.N. celebration was marred by the failure to include a specific reference to the Holocause in a special resolution passed by the General Assembly last week marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

But the omission did not seem to surprise anyone.

Indeed, in his address before the assembly on Tuesday, Rabin recalled the mixed relationship Israel has enjoyed with the world body, from its 1947 partition resolution endorsing the creation of the Jewish state, to the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism and its recision in 1991.

He also appeared to take pains to redress the General Assembly’s omission by paying solemn tribute to Holocaust victims.

“I come here today in the name of the 6 million whose lives were turned into ashes, whose souls ascended to heaven in burning flames. We will never let them be forgotten,” he said.

In his address, Rabin also thanked the international community for its support for the peace process and pledged to pursue it “until we have brought peace to the region. For our children and our children’s children. That is our mission. We will fulfill it.”

Rabin also urged the United Nations to resist complacency and fight terrorism, which he called “the world’s cancer.”

“Don’t fool yourselves. Even if you ignore terror it can enter any of your homes. Terror must be defeated.”

The prime minister also asked for help locating Israeli MIAs and POWs.

Rabin voiced the same concerns in a private meeting last Friday with U.N. Secretary General Boutros-Ghali.

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations active in international affairs used the U.N. anniversary as an opportunity to step up their work.

Officials of the American Jewish Committee, for instance, held 27 private diplomatic meetings in the three weeks since the opening of the General Assembly session.

Although the number of dignitaries in one place at one time is unprecedented, the meetings reflect “our extensive ongoing relations with dozens of countries on every continent” rather than anything new or groundbreaking, said David Harris, AJCommittee executive director.

The discussion focused on the AJCommittee’s ongoing priorities, including the peace process, Israel’s international diplomatic standing, anti-Semitism and human rights, Harris said.

Harris said AJCommittee met in recent days, for instance, with the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Italy, China and other nations to discuss weapons development in Iran as well as Iran’s support for international terrorism and the need for stepped up international pressure to “stem this ominous trend.”

For its part, the World Jewish Congress has held more than two dozen meetings in recent weeks with international officials to advance Jewish interests, such as matters of restitution with Eastern European leader.

The WJC also scheduled a meeting Tuesday night with Cuban leader Fidel Castro to discuss human rights.

And the agency has been “working to strengthen the Jewish institutional presence in the nongovernmental community” at the United Nations, said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.

For Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International, the celebration was an ideal time to talk to diplomats about one of his most urgent concerns – reform of the Security Council, the U.N.’s strategic center and site of decisions about peacekeeping, sanctions and international security.

Talk of reforming the Security Council was on nearly everyone’s lips during the anniversary, but Schoenberg was concerned that the focus was almost exclusively on proposals to expand its membership beyond its five permanent seats and the 10 nonpermanent ones rotated among countries based on regional groupings.

Schoenberg wants to see the discussion broadened to include finding new ways to decide membership in the council that would enhance its credibility and effectiveness.

He has also joined others in pressing for Israel to have the opportunity to vie for a nonpermanent seat on the council, which it is denied as a result of its exclusion for political reasons from any U.N. regional grouping.

Meanwhile, U.N. Watch, a nongovernmental organization with U.N. consultative status and affiliated with the World Jewish Congress, praised Libya’s recent withdrawal of its candidacy for one of the 10 nonpermanent seats on the Security Council.

“Libya’s membership in the U.N.’s highest body would have been an embarrassment to the U.N. in its 50th anniversary year,” said Ambassador Morris Abram, chairman of the Geneva-based group.

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