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BEHIND THE HEADLINES New Israeli ambassador to U.N. hopes to accentuate the positive

NEW YORK, Sept. 14 (JTA) – The Israelis plan to accentuate the positive this year at the United Nations when the General Assembly”s 54th session begins next week. The Sept. 20 opening comes two weeks after Israel and the Palestinians signed the latest peace accord, following nearly a year of stalled negotiations. Israel”s incoming U.N. ambassador,Yehuda Lankri – who replaces Dore Gold in November– has already called for Israel to take a more open, less defensive approach to diplomacy at the world body, reflecting the progress on the peace front. The Palestinians, too, recognize the “positive atmosphere” created by recent developments as a reason to abate hostility toward Israel at the international forum, according to their U.N. representative. Moreover, the United States, under newly appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has renewed its commitment to strengthen Israel”s beleaguered position at the world body. Still, coming on the heels of what was seen as a brutally anti-Israel year in the General Assembly, there is no guarantee that the United Nations will eliminate the negative when its comes to Israel. Tension mounted at last year”s opening when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly for the first time since 1974. He was expected to announce plans to declare a Palestinian state on May 4, 1999 – when the five-year interim period of the Oslo peace accords ended – but stopped short due to international pressure. The lowest point of last year”s proceedings came in July, when – at the request of the majority of the General Assembly”s 185 member-states – a historic international conference convened in Geneva to discuss Israel”s management of the “occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem.” This year, Israel is anticipating being confronted with what has become an annual list of “anti-Israel” resolutions, among them calls for: * an end to the annexation of eastern Jerusalem; * Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders on the Golan Heights; * granting Palestinian refugees the rights to their property in Israel; * Israel”s denuclearization; * renewing the mandate of the committees and initiatives designed to keep the “Question of Palestine” in the forefront of U.N. concerns. Israel is also preparing to defend itself against a challenge to its credentials by a bloc of over 100 U.N. member-states. Though in the past the effort, spearheaded by Arab countries, challenged Israel itself, last year it shifted its strategy to question Israel”s right to represent Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the developments on the peace front have not cleared this year”s U.N. agenda of the resolutions targeting Israel, the Palestinian observer to the United Nations said the current “positive atmosphere” in the peace process may lead to less confrontational language. Dr. Nasser al-Kidwa also said in an interview that a resolution voicing support for the Middle East peace process might return to its original language. Such a resolution passed each year from 1993 until 1996. In 1997 and 1998, a similar resolution failed because Israel and the United States objected to the insertion of what they saw as inflammatory language about Israel. Despite more positive wording, however, the essence of the annual resolutions will not change, al-Kidwa said, until the peace process is put into effect on the ground. “I don”t think, where we stand now would cause miracles at the U.N. at this stage.”
Statehood and full U.N. membership remain the Palestinians” “central goals,” he said, but the Palestinians would not “take further steps in this regard” until September 2000, when a final agreement is expected to be signed. Israel and the Palestinians launched talks regarding a final settlement on Monday. Now the Israelis are calling for both parties to the peace negotiations to adhere to “a code of conduct” at the United Nations that would ensure the resolution of outstanding issues through bilateral negotiations, as prescribed by the peace agreements. Last year”s conference of parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention was unquestionably a triumph for the Palestinians on the question of Israeli settlements. The Israelis, however, saw it as an example of the Palestinians” working outside the peace talks to sway international opinion. The meeting request came out of an “emergency special session” of the General Assembly – the first such session to be held in 15 years – convened to discuss Israeli settlement activity since 1997, when Israel decided to start construction in the Har Homa neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. The conference, held on July 15 in Geneva and lasting less than an hour, was the first meeting since the inception of the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949. The treaty covers the treatment of civilians during wartime. Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia did not attend. A statement issued from the meeting, unanimously approved, said that the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable to settlements in the West Bank. The signatories in attendance also agreed to reconvene within six months. Despite these shadows, Israel is planning to take a new, less defensive approach to U.N. business from now on. Lankri, Israel”s incoming ambassador, told Israel Radio in August that to build upon Israel”s improved standing in the region, it should “move from a defensive approach to one of more openness towards the family of nations.” Lankri, a former Knesset member and ambassador to France, said Israel should focus on “advancing central issues and not get down in marginal ones.” Still, many Jews have taken offense at the General Assembly”s decision to open its formal debate this year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Ambassador Gold, as well as leaders of some Jewish organizations, protested the U.N.”s scheduling decision. The U.N. is closed on major Christian and Muslim holidays. In a letter to the president of the American Jewish Congress, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed “sincere regret for the discomfort that the decision of the General Assembly may have caused you and members of the Jewish faith around the world.” He said, however that the calendar was the assembly”s responsibility. Replying to Gold, the General Assembly”s current president, Didier Opertti of Uruguay, said the date would not be changed. Because of the conflict with Yom Kippur, President Clinton has refused to deliver the opening address for the assembly”s two-week general debate, as the leader of the host country would normally do. He is scheduled to speak instead on Sept. 21 Ambassador Holbrooke, who is Jewish, told a recent meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group, that he would not attend the U.N. opening. Israel is counting on America”s friendship during the session through the person of Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state, known for his role in negotiating the Bosnian peace accords in Dayton. “Holbrooke represents a new U.S. commitment to ratchet up American activism on Israel”s behalf in the U.N., especially with respect to the anomaly that Israel is not a member of a regional group,” Gold said in an interview. Such membership is essential for eligibility to participate in important committees, including the Security Council. Israel is the only U.N. member state excluded from membership in the groups. The United States is often Israel”s sole supporter in important votes, but many observers believe that America”s influence at the U.N. is being crippled by its delinquency in paying hundreds of millions of dollars in U.N. dues. That “obviously affects America”s ability to repair Israel”s unequal standing in the U.N.,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. In making his annual rounds of U.N. diplomatic missions, Harris said he has seen “the profound resentment of many U.N. member states regarding America”s debtor status.” The world body, he added, “whatever its faults and flaws, remains essential to American and global policy. We cannot have it both ways as a nation: failing to pay our arrears and at the same time expecting to wield undiminished clout.” Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B”nai B”rith and a proponent of U.N. reform, said, however, that some U.N. actions – such as endorsing a Syrian resolution calling for Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders, in contradiction to other resolutions – “makes it harder for people like myself who support payment” to argue for it in Congress. Still, Gold sees Holbrooke – who paid one of his first courtesy visits to Gold at home – as a crucial ally in Washington and at the United Nations. “It”s good to know we have a friend here,”” Gold said.