U.N. debate targets Israel as tensions mount in Jerusalem

UNITED NATIONS, March 12 (JTA) — The international community stepped up pressure on Israel this week when the U.N. General Assembly called an urgent session to debate plans for construction in eastern Jerusalem. One speaker after another accused Israel of undermining the peace process by altering the “facts on the ground” and pre-empting final- status negotiations with the Palestinians. They called on the Israeli government to rescind the decision to build Jewish housing at Har Homa, referring to it by its Arabic name, Jamal Abu Ghenaim. Several also used the opportunity to criticize Israel’s decision to further redeploy from 9 percent of the West Bank as insufficient and a sign of bad faith. The debate by the 185-member assembly followed the U.S. veto last week of a Security Council resolution critical of the Israeli initiative in eastern Jerusalem. Speakers made it clear they believed that the United States had flouted international will, forcing them to take up the matter. The session was expected to last through Thursday and was likely to culminate in a non-binding resolution condemning the Israeli action. As diplomats from around the world vented their anger and concern here, Israeli leaders back in Jerusalem were struggling to cope with the damage. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s plans to convene foreign diplomats in Gaza over the weekend to discuss the peace process was a violation of previous agreements. He accused Arafat of creating a crisis in advance of crucial talks slated to begin soon on the final-status agreement. Meanwhile, at the U.N. General Assembly, the permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, opened the debate by terming the construction a “colonial settlement” that will isolate Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. He asked the body to call on Israel to refrain from taking such “illegal measures.” He said “the aggression” of the new Israeli government and its “retreat from the achievements of the peace process” had “only served to dash” the hopes raised by the Israeli redeployment from Hebron.
David Peleg, Israel’s acting permanent representative to the United Nations, responded by repeating Israel’s position that the United Nations is not “the appropriate forum for discussing issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians.” He said he regretted that the Palestinians had “fallen into a dysfunctional behavior pattern” by seeking redress for their grievances with third parties. He asked the international community to support the peace process. “But do not adopt one-sided positions that aim to prejudge and predetermine the outcome of our negotiations,” he said. After his formal remarks, he said in an interview that such international debate encourages Palestinians to take “more extreme negotiating positions.” For his part, the U.N. ambassador from Malaysia called the construction plan “a deliberate, provocative act intended to break the spirit of the Palestinian people and deprive them of a state of their own.” It is “not an act of statesmanship, but brinkmanship,” said Hasmy Bin Agam, who praised the Palestinians for exercising “utmost restraint” in the face of such flagrant action. The U.N. representative from Bangladesh, Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, said the construction was an attempt to “paralyze the peace process” and an indication that Israel intends to subject the Palestinians to “perpetual subjugation and occupation.” For its part, the United States declined to participate in the debate. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the U.S. position was already clear on the matter, evidently referring to the early Security Council veto. The United States, while on record opposed to the Har Homa building, said last week that the two parties should resolve their disputes directly. The U.N. debate angered American Jewish leaders. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the United Nations was a “platform for one-sided criticism of Israel.” He said the Har Homa construction was only “an excuse to mobilize international pressure on Israel and force concessions.” “There is a limit to what the Israeli political system can take, and I believe it is at its limit,” said Hoenlein, who recently returned from a conference mission to Israel. He said he believed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “won’t survive an attempt to reverse” the decision to build at Har Homa. Nor did it indicate it had any plans to do so. Foreign Minister David Levy reaffirmed Wednesday that Israel would continue to build in Jerusalem. He said the current government, as well as the previous one, had never made any commitments to the Palestinians not to build in the capital. “It is Israel’s right to build in Jerusalem,” Levy said. “That decision will not be changed, even if there is threatened violence.” The Palestinians have warned of an eruption of violence, if Israel goes ahead with plans to break ground for the new Jewish neighborhood, which will ultimately have some 6,500 housing units. Israeli officials said bulldozers could begin infrastructure work on the first phase, for some 2,500 units, sometime next week. Meanwhile, the United States confirmed that its consul general in Jerusalem, Edward Abington, would attend the gathering Arafat has called for Saturday in Gaza. In Washington, Democratic lawmakers called on the administration to reverse its decision to participate. In a letter to President Clinton sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D- N.Y.), at least a dozen lawmakers said, “It would be a serious mistake for the U.S. to participate in such a one-sided meeting.” Some Jewish groups also urged Clinton to reconsider. Another official who was invited, but decided to decline, was Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres. Peres advised the prime minister not to get too ruffled by the conference and proposed that Israel call one of its own for the next day. “So there will be an international conference on Saturday, and on Sunday, all the diplomats will gather for an international conference organized by Israel,” Peres said at a meeting of the Labor caucus. (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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