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Palestinians step up anti-Israel diplomacy

NEW YORK, March 4 (JTA) — Reinvigorated by the election of the hawkish Ariel Sharon in Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab allies are stepping up their diplomatic efforts to isolate Israel on the international stage.

Jewish observers say the Palestinians’ diplomatic attack is a corollary to their “Al-Aksa Intifada”: a way to achieve at the United Nations, as on the street, what they have been unable to win at the negotiating table.

But some now detect an even broader Arab agenda.

“The onslaught of questioning of the Jewish historical narrative and the” Jewish “connection to the land of Israel and Jerusalem, the increase in Holocaust denial within the Arab world, are all part of a deliberate strategy to erode the legitimacy of Israel as a sovereign state,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“Internationally, the basis of Israel’s legitimacy is its historical and biblical links, and the Holocaust demonstrated the tragedy of a people without a sovereign state,” Harris said. “If you begin to chip away at these notions, you can begin to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign state.”

Israeli diplomats and American Jewish activists are working to ward off the diplomatic attack.

They hope the Bush administration will soon join the fray, but the Arab world — with the help of its allies in the developing world — enjoys a huge numerical advantage in international forums.

Several high-profile forums are planned in the coming months under the auspices of the United Nations, which historically has been anti-Israel, Jewish observers say.

At a minimum, activists are bracing for a barrage of anti-Israel condemnations.

Jewish observers say the Palestinians are preparing to renew their push to have an international peacekeeping force sent to the West Bank, ostensibly to protect the Palestinians from Israel.

“The Palestinian Authority instigated and sustained the violence, and now they’re calling on the international community to protect them from the violence,” said Harris Schoenberg, chairman of the U.N. caucus of Jewish nongovernmental organizations.

Calls to the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser al- Kidwa, were not returned.

But a spokesman for the Organization of the Islamic Conference denied there is any campaign to isolate Israel.

Israel is guilty of causing the problems because it occupies Palestinian land, Yussef Kanaan, a spokesman for the OIC office in New York, told JTA.

“The minute there is complete recognition that there is occupation, this will be a basis for the peace process to really succeed,” Kanaan said.

Israel advocates disagree.

The Palestinian leadership has always operated on “parallel tracks,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The Palestinians seek Israeli concessions at the negotiating table while they and their allies seek to isolate Israel diplomatically, Hoenlein said.

The preferred venue is the United Nations, where a massive bloc of Arab and Muslim states, together with Third World supporters, regularly closes ranks to denounce Israel.

After a slight thaw in Israel-U.N. relations last summer, the outbreak of the intifada unleashed a wave of anti-Israel animus.

Many Israel backers claim the Palestinians purposely send their children to the front lines of clashes with Israeli troops, knowing that the shocking images will win global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

The strategy appeared to work at first, as several anti-Israel resolutions were passed in the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly in New York and by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

The human rights commission declared Israel guilty of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” even before sending a team to investigate.

World sympathy for the Palestinians seemed to decline slightly, however, as the media began reporting on gunmen among the Palestinian street demonstrators and as the Palestinians resumed a campaign of terror attacks against Israel.

The Arab side hopes last month’s election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister will provide fresh fodder for its anti-Israel crusade, Jewish advocates say.

Arab commentators denounce nearly every Israeli leader as a “war criminal,” but they reserve special venom for Sharon, whom they call a “butcher.”

Some Jewish observers say there may be calls to indict Sharon for war crimes in connection with the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

An Israeli inquiry commission found Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, indirectly responsible for the massacre because he failed to prevent it.

Israel backers predict a series of provocations — like the terrorist attacks March 1 and Sunday in northern Israel or the frequent harassment by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border — that would trigger a harsh response from Sharon and garner international sympathy for the Arabs.

Up first on the diplomatic front is the Arab world’s demand for a meeting on the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Established in 1949, the treaty deals with “protection of civilian persons in time of war” and other issues related to occupied territories.

In the half-century since the treaty was signed, only one conference has been called to discuss violations: On July 15, 1999, at the behest of the Arab world, some 100 participants gathered in Geneva to discuss Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The meeting, which was boycotted by Israel, the United States and Canada, lasted just 17 minutes. It was then adjourned indefinitely.

In October, the 22-member Arab League implored the Swiss government to convene a second conference to highlight Israel’s alleged violations of the Geneva Convention.

A Feb. 15 deadline to receive feedback from member-states — and gauge the level of interest — has been delayed.

The United States is strongly opposed to a second conference. But several European countries have indicated they will respond positively, Pierre- Yves Fux, the desk officer for humanitarian and Middle East issues in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, said in a phone interview from Bern.

Because of continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, a new meeting “is certainly a possibility,” Fux said. “But how such a meeting would be convened is totally another question.”

“Would it be just to have a condemnation, or would there be measures, negative measures or positive measures?” he asked. “All of that is unclear.”

In other arenas, a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights is set for March 19. Jewish activists like AJCommittee’s Harris predict stinging criticism of Israel.

From Geneva, attention will turn to Durban, South Africa and the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” in early September.

Jewish activists fought bitterly to have the issue of anti-Semitism included on the agenda. But Jewish activists will have a bigger battle on their hands.

At a preparatory meeting held Feb. 19-21 in Tehran — from which Jewish groups were effectively banned — the Asian and Arab participants produced a document that alarmed Jewish activists.

Israel was the only U.N. member-state cited by name, and some fear that the language used may be incorporated in the final resolution of the Durban conference.

The document decried Israeli treatment of the Palestinians not only as racist but as “a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity, a form of genocide and a serious threat to international peace and security.”

According to Schoenberg, who has been closely monitoring preparations for the Durban conference, if the Tehran resolution is accepted in Durban “it would be a reincarnation of the ‘Zionism is Racism’ libel,” a U.N. resolution that was on the books from 1975 to 1991.

Jewish activists are redoubling their efforts to limit the damage to Israel’s image, but they still are waiting impatiently for the leadership of Israel’s most important ally, the United States.

The Bush administration has yet to formally appoint a new U.N. ambassador — career diplomat John Negroponte is the leading candidate — or any other high-level representative at the world body.

Meanwhile, Jewish activists were angered by the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, released last week, which criticized Israel for allegedly using excessive force against Palestinian assailants.

The report implies a moral equivalence between Palestinian violence and the Israeli response, said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents.

The report creates “the potential for mischief,” Hoenlein said. “It can be used and distorted by Arab-American groups, or by members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, to show that ‘it’s not only us — the U.S. also says Israel uses excessive force.’ “

How aggressively the new Bush administration will defend Israel, diplomatically or militarily, remains to be seen, Harris said.

“Whether it’s Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or Yasser Arafat, a new administration is always going to be tested, to see if it will come out strong and four-square for Israel or if there will be a gap or distance,” he said.

“We can work as energetically as possible to ensure there is never a gap,” Harris said, “but until there is a moment of testing, we can never be sure what the response will be.”

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