Behind the Headlines: Israeli Foreign Minister Decries Critics, Stands Firm on Jerusalem

Foreign Minister David Levy made it clear this week that Israel would defy international pressure to make concessions in the wake of deadly riots and gun battles sparked by the opening of an ancient tunnel next to Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

Levy made plain the stakes of the now-diplomatic conflict when he called any challenge to Israel’s decision to open the tunnel a challenge to Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.

On this, there can be “absolutely no compromise,” he told Jewish reporters at a briefing here Monday.

“The only reason for the outcry we heard is to undermine Israel’s position in Jerusalem,” he said. “That is the true struggle.”

In a new twist, he also said Israel had reason to believe that the clashes were “premeditated,” the result of “coordinated action by the Palestinian Authority, the Arab nations and some of the European states.”

The purpose, he said, was to pressure the new Israeli government and to “isolate Israel” during the opening of the 51st session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Indeed, the conflagration erupted while the diplomat was in New York for a week’s worth of meetings with foreign ministers who were here for the opening of the session.

Levy’s visit, which was slated to culminate in a speech Thursday before the General Assembly, was to be an important test of the new Likud government’s reception by the international community.

As it turned out, it became for Israel a test of strength in the face of widespread condemnation and for the United States a test of loyalty toward its ally after an action that took it by surprise.

Over the weekend, the Security Council adopted a resolution that called indirectly for the tunnel closure. The approval of the measure followed a long debate that was often sharply critical of Israel.

The vote was 14-0, with the United States abstaining.

Although Levy did not say so, the U.S. abstention was a disappointment to Israel, which had sought a U.S. veto or a vote against the resolution, which the foreign minister deemed “totally unbalanced.”

Some sources believe that Israel’s political, economic and diplomatic gains from the peace process over the past few years may now hang in the balance.

But if Levy felt under siege here, he deflected it by going on the offensive. He told reporters that Israel would refuse to give in to those who sought to put it on trial and indicated that he was relatively unconcerned about damage to Israel’s international profile in light of the current conflict.

“If we have to choose between our image and Jerusalem, they should know we’ll choose Jerusalem,” he said, adding that any concessions in the wake of the clashes would precipitate “a never-ending cycle of violence.”

Days earlier, Levy struck the same note before the Security Council, calling the resolution initiative an “orchestrated attempt to place blame on Israel and to portray her as the sole responsible party for the bitter harvest of blood.”

But other diplomats here for the General Assembly session were expressing worry about the deteriorating climate in the region, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

In recent days, the AJCommittee met with scores of foreign ministers, including those from Germany, France, Russia and Oman.

Harris said there had been very little focus in the meetings specifically on the tunnel issue.

Instead, he said, “what we heard again and again is concern” about the “degree to which the new government is committed to a dynamic peace process” and “concern that the architecture of the peace built over the last several years is rapidly crumbling.”

Harris said that in response to these foreign ministers, he held out hope that this week’s summit would “get the train back on track” and that “the international community would not lose sight of the responsibility of the Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, for contributing to the exacerbation of tensions.”

“What’s striking is there really is a significant reservoir of goodwill toward Israel, unlike in the ’70s or ’80s,” said Harris.

For his part, Levy has sought to emphasize the Israeli government’s continuing commitment to the peace process.

But he told reporters that Israel’s efforts consistently had been “minimized” and that it had “been attacked from all sides” since the Arab summit in Cairo, which came after the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel has been under sustained pressure to “commit itself in advance to the outcome of the negotiations between us and the Palestinians,” he told the Security Council.

In a clear allusion to Syria, he said Israel would refuse to be intimidated.

“On other fronts, steps have been taken and troops redeployed as a means of sending a message warning Israel that if she does not adopt one specific path,” he said, “then the situation in the region will deteriorate, and the blame will be placed squarely at Israel’s feet.”

Levy took pains in the media briefing to acknowledge the intensive efforts by the United States to intercede at the Security Council and soften the language of earlier draft resolutions circulated by Arab nations.

Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, repeatedly urged restraint during the council debate, cautioning that rhetoric “encourages extremism.”

Nevertheless, Canadian, European and Asian foreign ministers reportedly joined the Arabs in citing Israeli responsibility for provoking the violence.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was quoted as calling the clashes a “direct result” of the new government’s policies, which, he said, “virtually put a stop to the peace process.”

The final resolution called for “the immediate cessation and reversal of all acts which have resulted in the aggravation of the situation and which have negative implications for the Middle East peace process.”

It also called for the “safety and protection of Palestinian civilians to be ensured.”

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