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Geneva conference set to open as diplomatic efforts fail to halt it

WASHINGTON, July 14 (JTA) — Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity on both sides of the Atlantic, the United Nations was set to open a conference in Geneva on Thursday to criticize Israeli settlement activity. Organized at the request of the U.N. General Assembly, the signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of civilians during wartime, planned to meet to discuss Israel’s management of “occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem.” The conference is the first meeting of the parties to the convention for any reason since the treaty was adopted in 1949 as a measure to protect civilians from the kinds of force, intimidation and transfer of populations that characterized Nazi expansionist aggression. The session comes as Ehud Barak meets with President Clinton for the first time as prime minister to discuss ways to move the peace process forward. Although Israel and the United States repeatedly criticized the meeting as a political manipulation of humanitarian law aimed at forcing Israel’s hand on the issue of settlements, the Palestinians refused to budge on their insistence that the meeting take place. Despite pressure to cancel the conference, by late Wednesday the session was still on. Israel, the United States, Australia and Canada were boycotting the meeting. But what kind of meeting it would be remained subject to negotiations even at the 11th hour, as Palestinian, Arab and European officials went into all-night talks in Geneva. The Palestinians, while agreeing to an abbreviated session without prolonged debate over the issue, were refusing a European Union demand to adjourn without setting a specific date for returning. In Geneva, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, met with 15 ambassadors, seeking their opposition to the conference. “Realistically, we were in the business of damage control,” Harris said in a telephone interview from Geneva on Wednesday. “It was unrealistic from the start to believe the General Assembly resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, would be repudiated by the same majority who voted for it.” Harris, whose meetings included two with Arab ambassadors whom he refused to identify, tailored what he termed “realistic” messages to the individual ambassadors, depending on the positions of the country, he said. At a minimum, Harris said he asked the ambassadors to send a low-level representative and to support an adjournment with no set date for reconvening. In Washington, AJCommittee President Bruce Ramer laid out a plan for reversing what he called the “unfair treatment” of Israel at the United Nations, which includes a call on U.S. diplomats to intensify their efforts against any discriminatory measure. “It is essential that the U.S. diplomatic machinery, from the highest levels to the lowest, be directed to continue and intensify its vigorous efforts to resist and seek to alter discriminatory measures against Israel in the U.N.,” Ramer said in testimony at a House International Relations Committee hearing Wednesday on Israel’s treatment at the United Nations. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for international organizations, said the United States opposed the Geneva conference on “legal and policy grounds.” Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, criticized U.N. member-states for acting “as though there had never been an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.” The states “continue to allow the flow of anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly,” Lauder testified. At the congressional hearing, which recounted dozens of instances of U.N. attacks on Israel, U.S. officials further criticized the General Assembly for scheduling its opening session this year on Sept. 20, which is also Yom Kippur. Welch told the House panel that Clinton would not address the General Assembly on its opening day, which is customary, and will instead speak on Sept. 21 “in recognition of the sanctity of Yom Kippur.”