Jewish groups vie for attention as U.N. opens

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (JTA) — American Jewish groups are trying to make sure their agenda is heard when the United Nations General Assembly holds a truncated opening session next month.

More than the date has been changed for the start of debate in the international body. The attacks on Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, which postponed the opening for more than a month, have changed the global focus toward combating terrorism and placed other issues of importance to Jewish groups — including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the aftermath of last summer’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism — on the back burner.

“Our meetings will inevitably be defined principally by the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The organization was planning to meet with 55 diplomats from around the world when the assembly originally was scheduled to open in September. That number has been trimmed down to around 20 foreign leaders, with more meetings being scheduled.

In addition, what were supposed to be three weeks of diplomatic speeches have been compressed into one, and many heads of state have decided not to travel to New York for the event because of security concerns.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is expected to address the assembly Nov. 15.

Harris said the group plans to meet with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, as well as Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister who played a key role in arranging a temporary Palestinian cease-fire last summer.

The group also plan to meet with the president of the General Assembly, South Korea’s Han Seung Soo.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will meet with the leaders of Romania and Ukraine while they are in New York for the assembly, executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said.

Debate in the assembly originally was scheduled to begin just days after a Jewish solidarity rally for Israel planned for Sept. 23, and the United Nations was expected to focus largely on Israel, its treatment at the early September racism conference and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

But that is before the world changed with the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The assembly opening was postponed, and the solidarity rally was cancelled.

Israeli activists fear they now will have to wait in line with everyone else to get their views across.

“These meetings become almost like an assembly line,” said Harris, referring to the half-hour designated for most meetings between interest groups and foreign leaders. “It requires a great deal of focus and prioritization.”

Jewish leaders want to thwart future attempts by Arab states to denigrate Zionism as racism, which dominated the racism conference in South Africa and caused the U.S. and Israeli delegations to walk out.

There also are concerns about calls for a meeting on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with “protection of civilian persons in time of war” and other issues related to occupied territories. The Arab League wants a meeting called to highlight Israel’s alleged violations against the Palestinians.

Harris said he has been impressed that, even with the shortened schedule and intense international climate, the American Jewish community still is able to get an audience with many foreign leaders.

“It says a lot that the countries continue to want to meet with us, and in many cases, the initial phone call came from them,” he said.

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