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Israel’s status at U.N. to change?

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NEW YORK, April 25 (JTA) — After years of lobbying and disappointment, Israel may be on the verge of erasing its status as the only United Nations member shut out of a regional group.

Israel moved one step closer to membership in the Western European and Others Group on Monday, when U.N. ambassadors from the 15 countries that comprise the European Union agreed that Israel should be accepted to WEOG as a full — albeit temporary — member.

Israel’s logical place is within the Asian grouping, but Iraq and Iran show no sign of ever welcoming in Israel. Israel sees its next best choice as the 26-member WEOG, which also includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Analysts say the group has dragged its feet on admitting Israel because of its concern about increased competition among others members of the group and its fear of angering its allies in the Arab world.

Membership in one of the U.N.’s five regional groupings is more than symbolic. An enhanced status for Israel would mean a stronger voice in U.N. affairs, though exactly how strong a role it could play would depend on any conditions that may be placed on Israel’s membership.

The development comes as Israel, which has often felt isolated and unfairly singled out for condemnation in the world body, has expressed concern that it may be a target at the U.N. conference on nuclear nonproliferation, which is taking place this month in New York.

Israel is one of four countries that has not signed the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, nor has it officially admitted to having nuclear capabilities. The other non-signatories are Cuba, India and Pakistan.

The WEOG development also comes in the wake of Israel’s formal announcement that it would comply with the 1978 U.N. resolution that calls on it to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

It is not clear whether either of these issues will affect — positively or negatively — WEOG’s decision to accept Israel.

But as Portugal’s ambassador to the United Nations put it, “Everything is political in these delicate issues.

“The atmosphere is always more favorable in the minds of politicians if positive steps are taken” in the Middle East, said Antonio Monteiro, the ambassador from Portugal, the nation currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union.

As a result of Monday’s meeting, the European Union was to recommend Israel’s full membership to WEOG on Tuesday, said Monteiro.

“The E.U. now has a unified position,” Monteiro told JTA on Tuesday. “We realize we could not delay this anymore. Israel naturally belongs to the Asian group, but since conditions do not exist, the principle of exclusion should not prevail.”

Israel’s membership in WEOG would be temporary, he said, with the ultimate goal of getting Israel accepted by the Asian group.

The momentum clearly favors Israeli membership, but negotiations are far from over.

The devil will be in the details, say observers, or in this case informing Israel of what WEOG calls “modalities.”

Monteiro described them as the various practices and mechanisms designed to avert clashes between WEOG members big and small, Northern and Southern.

Monteiro went to lengths not to refer to modalities as “conditions,” but that is exactly how they are viewed by Israeli and American Jewish officials.

Indeed, in light of the fierce competition for appointments to key WEOG and U.N. committees, these officials express concern that Israel may be allowed in only if it agrees to forsake certain posts and other rights entitled to all other members.

But Israel believes such conditions would remain an injustice and continue to violate the U.N. charter, which holds that each U.N. member is equal.

“We have said all along — we do not want to substitute one anomaly for another anomalous situation,” said Aaron Jacob, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

“We are willing to accept certain temporary limitations, but we are not willing to accept restrictions that will render our membership meaningless.”

Another diplomat close to the negotiations, who requested anonymity, said the modalities may also be an effort to appease the Arab and Muslim states in the United Nations, who constitute a huge, influential bloc.

No European member wants to be seen as “the one that allowed in Israel,” said the diplomat, noting that those states could threaten an economic boycott.

“The Europeans may want to water down Israel’s membership,” he said, “so they can tell the Arab world that we let them in, but not entirely.”

Israel was inching toward WEOG membership in the mid-1990s until the November 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Europeans were loathe to reward his replacement, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the carrot of WEOG membership because of his perceived intransigence in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

At the same time, some within WEOG were concerned that opening the door to Israel might encourage others in Europe, like the Baltics and Central Europeans — now in the Eastern European grouping — to bang on the door for WEOG membership.

The European outlook changed with last year’s election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Israeli diplomatic efforts have also been bolstered by Richard Holbrooke, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Holbrooke, who was appointed late last summer, has said Israeli membership in WEOG is one of his top priorities.

In October, France dropped its objections to Israeli membership; Spain followed suit in February.

There are two schools of thought regarding the modalities: One says that Israel should hold out for full rights and privileges, with no strings attached; the other, advocated by groups like the American Jewish Committee, says Israel should seek the best possible terms now, and negotiate for the rest once inside WEOG.

“As I see it, Israel is willing to bend initially, but not permanently,” said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee.

“The best terms does not mean the ideal terms. But having said that, there’s still a great deal of room for negotiation.”

Despite the forward momentum, there is still concern among Israelis and their American Jewish backers that some Europeans continue to link Israel’s status with progress in the Middle East peace process. This unfairly holds Israel to a different standard, they say.

After all, they say, many U.N. states are embroiled in regional or neighborly conflicts, but suffer no impact on their grouping membership.

But there is also some resignation that linkage is inevitable.

“Israel should not be an exception,” Jacob said. “But I’m aware that in reality, the peace process may affect” negotiations with WEOG. “In principle, though, it should not.”

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