Amid a last-ditch push to salvage his peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak this week asked a unique gathering of world leaders here to play an active role in the Middle East peace process.
Speaking to more than 150 heads of state at the U.N. Millennium Summit on Wednesday, Barak said Israel is prepared to accept less than 100 percent “of its dreams.”
Israel has demonstrated a willingness to “make painful decisions for the sake of peace,” he said, citing as examples the negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians and the complete withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Barak called on U.N. member states to encourage reconciliation and discourage or oppose any unilateral measures – a reference to Sept. 13, when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has threatened to declare statehood.
His public comments came as he engaged in some private diplomacy as well. His U.N. speech came after meetings with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid and South African President Thabo Mbeki, and preceded consultations with President Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac.
Politically embattled at home, Barak’s visit to the United States is being seen as his last attempt to achieve a peace deal following the collapse of the Camp David summit in July.
The summit failed after the two sides could not agree on the future of Jerusalem.
Clinton was meeting Wednesday afternoon separately with Barak and Arafat, apparently in an effort to see if there was enough movement to warrant future negotiations.
In his six-minute speech to the assembled dignitaries, Barak singled out by name Arafat, who was seated in the audience behind a placard bearing the name “Palestine.”
“We are at the Rubicon, and neither of us can cross it alone,” Barak said in his measured and staccato English.
“History will judge what we do in the next days and weeks: Were we courageous and wise enough to guide our region across the deep river of mistrust, into a new land of reconciliation or did we shrink back at the water’s edge, resigned to lie in wait for the rising tide of bloodshed and grief?”
Barak, following the premier of Belize to the podium, had opened his speech by reciting, in Hebrew then in English, the famous biblical “beat their swords into ploughshares” quote from the prophet Micah.
Barak went on to state both the centrality of Jerusalem in the history and faith of the Jewish people, and its spiritual and emotional connection to other peoples of the world.
“Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, now calls for a peace of honor, of courage, and of brotherhood,” said the Israeli premier.
“We recognize that Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims and Christians the world over, and cherished by our Palestinian neighbors. A true peace will reflect all these bonds. Jerusalem will remain united and open to all who love her.”
Throughout Barak’s speech, Arafat looked on impassively. In his speech a short while later, the Palestinian Authority president said: “We remain committed to our national rights over East Jerusalem, capital of our state and shelter of our sacred sites, as well as our rights on the Christian and Islamic holy sites.”
Arafat countered that his people, too, had made concessions, agreeing to establish a state “on less than a quarter of the historical territory of Palestine.”
He added: “We have made a strategic decision committing ourselves to the peace process, offering significant and painful concessions in order to arrive at a reasonable compromise acceptable to both sides.”
Meanwhile, the historic gathering of world leaders provided a golden opportunity for activists to promote their cause celebres outside.
Among the Jewish protesters were members of Americans for a Safe Israel and followers of the late, militantly anti- Arab leader Meir Kahane.
During the afternoon, their ranks swelled from half a dozen just before Barak addressed the United Nations, to several dozen after. But they were assigned, ironically, a spot adjacent to the Communist Party of Iran. So, to be heard over the Iranian communists, the Kahanists were forced to scream their “Barak is a Traitor!” and “Palestine Never!” slogans.
A few sections down, Bob Kunst had no need to yell.
The president of Shalom International of Miami was there solo, sandwiched between the Free Tibet movement and a group of angry Korean doctors.
But Kunst was busy giving interview after interview to the American and foreign media drawn to his signs, which read “No More Nazism” and “Remember the Holocaust.”
His target was Poland and its government’s consent for a disco and shopping center near Auschwitz.
“I have to schlep all the way from Miami Beach because nobody’s got the cojones to speak out on this,” said Kunst, who noted one exception, AMCHA – The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, which had recently demonstrated outside the Polish consulate in New York.
“Where is Israel on this one, where are the American Jewish leaders?” he said “Why are they allowing dancing on Jewish graves?”