NEW YORK (Mar. 21)
Jewish leaders are lamenting the fall from grace of a trusted friend.
First U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “illegal” last week.
Then Annan’s office leaked a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — printed in Tuesday’s New York Times — denouncing Israel’s military actions against the Palestinians, while making only passing reference to the Palestinian terrorism that provoked the attacks.
American Jewish leaders reacted with outrage.
Annan’s actions “undermine his credibility and confidence in the U.N. Secretariat and further compromise the international body,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement.
“We say this with great pain, as we respected the Secretary-General and worked closely with him,” the 52-member umbrella organization added. “We had much higher expectations of him.”
Since Annan took office in 1997, Israel, the United States and American Jewish organizations had considered him a fair arbiter in the United Nations, where the huge Arab and Muslim bloc systematically uses its numbers to persecute Israel, they say.
The Arab states have refused to allow Israel into its natural Asian regional bloc at the United Nations, so Annan helped secure its temporary admission to the Western European and Others Group in May 2000, potentially opening the door for Israel finally to sit on important U.N. bodies.
Annan also was instrumental in confirming Israel’s full withdrawal from Lebanon according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, rejecting Syrian and Lebanese demands that Israel also withdraw from the Shabaa Farms region of the Golan Heights.
“That’s why this leak” is so “surprising” and “aggravating,” an official at the Israel Mission to the United Nations said.
“I feel obliged to call your attention to disturbing patterns in the treatment of civilians and humanitarian relief workers by the Israeli Defense Forces,” Annan wrote to Sharon, adding that the Israel Defense Force’s methods have “come to resemble all-out conventional warfare.”
While making no mention of Israeli victims of terror, Annan blasted the process by which “hundreds of innocent noncombatant civilians — men, women and children — have been injured or killed, and many buildings and homes have been damaged or destroyed.”
Referring to a staff member of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency who was killed when Israeli troops opened fire on an ambulance, Annan wrote, “I am especially dismayed by the IDF’s failure to protect and respect ambulances and medical personnel.”
He rejected as “unfounded” the “allegations by Israeli government spokespersons that ambulances have been used to smuggle Palestinian militants and weapons.”
According to the Conference of Presidents, however, “There is ample documentation, including film footage that has been shown in the media, that
more than substantiates this charge.”
Annan’s latest remarks may have damaged the chances for the United Nations to take a larger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a frequent Arab demand.
Unless Annan takes steps to discourage Palestinian terrorism and the incitement that produces it, “it would be far better if the Secretary General remain silent and the U.N. stay out of the affairs of the region,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Israel responded to Annan’s letter with a statement saying, “The tactic of using the media for selective criticism, so as to exert pressure on those combating terror rather than on the terrorists and those states supporting them, is at the least counterproductive.”
Leaking the letter was “most inappropriate and contrary to basic diplomatic conduct,” Israel said.
For its part, the United States has no plans to respond to Annan’s letter. One U.S. official called the letter “straightforward,” and said there are “reasonable” concerns about the protection of civilians, particularly U.N. personnel, in armed conflict.
Farhan Haq, a spokesmen for Annan, refused to comment on the backlash from Israel and American Jewry.
The Israeli official speculated that Annan’s remarks may have been intended “to score political points with the Arab countries” before a meeting of the Arab League in Beirut next week.
At any rate, the official said, the leak showed that the United Nations is more interested in publicity than dialogue. He rejected the U.N.’s charge that it made the letter public only after six days passed with no response from Sharon.
Not even a week — including the Shabbat respite — had gone by since Israel received the letter, the official argued. Besides, he said, there’s no “deadline” for replying to a letter, and Sharon’s agenda has been rather full these days, given the deteriorating security situation in Israel.
American Jewish Committee spokesman Kenneth Bandler said Annan generally has been “very sensitive to trying to improve Israel’s position” at the United Nations, despite a couple of “blips” along the way.
The first was when UNIFIL — the U.N. peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon — long denied it had a videotape taken just after three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped from the border with Lebanon in October 2000.
Others noted the harsh anti-Semitism at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, last summer, which Annan held despite numerous warnings that the proceedings would deteriorate into an attack on Israel and Jews in general.
Such moves seemed to contrast with Annan’s previous diplomacy — he is one of the few U.N. secretaries-general to visit Israel.
Bandler recalled an Annan speech three years ago that greatly impressed the Jewish community.
“I know that to some of you in this audience, and in the Jewish community at large, it has sometimes seemed as if the United Nations serves all the world’s people but one — the Jews,” Annan said in a keynote speech at an AJCommittee dinner in 1999.
“The exclusion of Israel from the system of regional groupings; the intense focus given to some of Israel’s actions, while other situations sometimes fail to elicit similar outrage; these and other circumstances have given a regrettable impression of bias and one-sidedness,” he continued. “One of my priorities as secretary-general has been to try to heal these wounds and find our way to mutual understanding and partnership.”
While he didn’t refrain from criticizing Israeli policies he disagreed with, he did offer words of understanding for Israel’s international challenges that heartened the Israeli public.