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As U.N. General Assembly Opens, Israel’s Position Appears Improved

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As the United Nations begins its three-month General Assembly this week, observers describe an improved climate for Israel.

With much of the world focused on the possibility of a U.S.-led war against Iraq, attention has shifted away from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. In addition, the groundbreaking stipulations by U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte in July — who said America would veto any Security Council resolution on the Middle East that doesn’t mention Palestinian terror — have thwarted many such efforts.

Finally, Jewish leaders contend that countries simply are tired of anti-Israel antics that distract attention from other pressing issues.

“I really think things have changed,” said Dina Siegel Vann, U.N. and Latin American affairs director for B’nai B’rith International. “I think there’s a better understanding of the conflict in many camps,” along with a “sense of fatigue” with the Palestinian agenda.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis is simply a “lower priority” at this General Assembly than it has been in “a long, long time,” agreed Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

President Bush’s June 24 speech, demanding substantial reform of the Palestinian Authority and the ouster of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, “put the P.A. and Arafat in the terror camp” and dealt a blow to their “celebrity status,” Foxman said.

Yet new and old threats against Israel persist.

The 19 anti-Israel resolutions that pass each year in the General Assembly — more than are devoted to any other country– are likely to pass again.

A U.N.-sponsored conference with an “End the Occupation” theme, slated for later this month, is sure to be a forum for anti-Israel rhetoric.

Enemies of the Jewish state also may exploit the International Criminal Court, established recently under U.N. auspices, to try Israeli officials or settlers for war crimes.

Yet Israel has enjoyed some successes in recent months, beginning with a report on the April battle in the Jenin refugee camp that rejected charges that Israeli troops carried out a massacre.

Then, the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which ended last week, featured little of the anti-Israel rhetoric that marred the World Conference Against Racism in Durban last year.

In addition, an unprecedented number of Jewish organizations helped this year to plan the conference of nongovernmental organizations that accompanies the launch of each General Assembly — without anti-Israel activity.

For the past year, the United Nations also has been seeking a greater role in the Middle East, joining the European Union, the United States and Russia in the diplomatic “Quartet” seeking to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But critics say the United Nations is shooting itself in the foot by hosting a Sept. 23-24 conference organized by the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.

The United Nations is trying to “regain the credibility of Israel and the Jewish world,” but “from the outset they are disqualifying themselves” by sponsoring such a biased event, Siegel Vann said.

Siegel Vann said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations would make their concerns known to the United Nations, but were still discussing how to do so.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed that it was especially impolitic for the United Nations to host the pro-Palestinian conference if it wanted to be perceived as an impartial broker in the Middle East.

The Conference of Presidents, Anti-Defamation League and Israel’s U.N. delegation all sent letters to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressing their concern about the conference.

Still, most Jewish leaders weren’t too rattled by the conference, which is held periodically.

“I don’t think anyone takes this committee seriously,” said Andrew Srulevitch, executive director of U.N. Watch, which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee. “This is a body that was set up in order to bash Israel. That’s its raison d’etre.”

Jewish leaders insist that countries are sick of the Palestinians trying to dominate every forum with their agenda.

“Privately, more and more countries will express to us their frustration, their sense of exasperation, bordering on anger, that too much U.N. time, too many U.N. meetings, too much funding is being taken up by this one highly politicized issue,” said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee.

The AJCommittee is meeting with some 60 diplomats over the course of the next two weeks to discuss, among other things, rising anti-Semitism, Israel’s quest for peace and the unfair treatment it receives at the United Nations.

One European diplomat told him that the sober handling of the recent Johannesburg conference showed that the world had learned the lessons of Durban, Harris said.

However, another European diplomat rejected the notion of “Palestinian fatigue.”

“I think there is actually a degree of understanding that the U.N. at times ends up being a body where people take out their frustrations,” the diplomat said.

Corridor conversation and bilateral meetings lately have focused on how to resume U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq and how to proceed if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein balks, the diplomat said.

Some Arab countries try to draw links between Iraq’s noncompliance with U.N. resolutions and Israel’s noncompliance. But such behavior won’t carry much weight, Hoenlein said.

Hoenlein said the Jewish state clearly is in a “better situation than last year” — when the General Assembly opened on the heels of the Durban conference.

Still, according to an official at Israel’s U.N. mission, the Palestinians are expected once again to try to push their anti-Israel initiatives in the General Assembly.

“We mapped the possible scenarios and prepared contingencies,” the official said, though he refused to elaborate. “We’re prepared for everything.”

While sympathy for Israel hasn’t increased much, the Palestinians’ resort to terrorism has hurt their cause, the official said — especially with the General Assembly opening just a day before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The looming concern for Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is the possibility that Arab countries will try to bring Israelis before the new International Criminal Court in The Hague.

It’s “uncharted territory,” Raffel said.

For its part, the United States is “hopeful Israel will not have to face the barrage of accusations” it usually does, a U.S. official said.

“We, of course, have been trying,” in both the General Assembly and the Security Council, to show that “there are two sides to this situation.”

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