Small Steps Forward As Israel Engages in Corridor Diplomacy

For diplomatic stargazers, it’s the ultimate constellation.

Every year, the first two weeks of the United Nations’ three-month General Assembly draws high-ranking diplomats of the 190 member-states for the general debate, where members make special addresses.

But the action is on the sidelines: Heads of state huddle in so-called corridor conversation and bilateral meetings.

For Israel, it’s an opportunity to make its case and gauge current world opinion from allies and foes alike.

And it’s the premier time for the organized Jewish community to lobby the international community on Israel’s behalf.

One week into diplomatic meetings with a barrage of countries, Jewish groups report a newfound understanding of Israel’s security needs, widespread criticism of Yasser Arafat and his policies, and little steps toward breaking the diplomatic deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Converging around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the United Nations seems to realize this is a time of tenuousness.

The effect of last year’s attacks has led to a concerted effort against all forms of terror as a universal danger.

In fact, the Security Council reaffirmed the U.N. resolution passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on its anniversary, stating the U.N. obligation to fight terror.

Now, there is a sense among observers that with the threat of war against Iraq ahead and a battery of attacks still buffeting the Middle East, the United Nations no longer has the luxury for polemics.

“Last year, more countries seemed focused on sort of scoring debating points by chastising Israel for its alleged behavior, its alleged intransigence,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Now “there seems to be a recognition that this is less a time for polemics and more a time for policy innovations, that we’re at a crucial time.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres conveyed the same message at his diplomatic meetings this week and before the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.

Indicating that a breakthrough with the Palestinians was near, Peres told the Russian, Chinese and Spanish foreign ministers on Sunday, “We must be very cautious not to miss this opportunity.”

Still, Peres criticized Tuesday a Palestinian proposal for a cease-fire in two phases.

Peres said the proposal is not worthy of consideration because in the first phase, the killing of noncivilians would be permitted. Palestinians refer to civilians as those living in Israel, but they regard Israeli soldiers and settlers as combatants.

The Palestinian offer specified no timelines for the cease-fire and made no demands on Israel, according to an Israeli official.

In meeting with his counterparts this week, Peres said Israelis realize the necessity of making concessions for peace — the question comes down to the integrity of the Palestinians.

To that end, Peres said Palestinians must appoint a prime minister, accelerate reform of its government and security system and crack down on corruption.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Peres also drew parallels between Israel and the world in its quest for freedom and war on terror.

Israel “offered the Palestinians a comprehensive solution without the terror, a solution that was close to their national aspirations.

“We related to their desire to be free, to be equal, independent. We agreed that they would have their land in accordance with United Nations’ resolutions. Terror postponed their destiny. Terror postponed our willingness to end control of their lives.”

But Peres was optimistic.

He called the debate occurring among the Palestinians the “profound” symbol of the dawn of democracy, and spoke of separating politically into two states with a coordinated economy.

Furthermore, he added, President Bush’s vision for peace “outlines a political goal and a timetable” and has the support of Arab countries along with the diplomatic “Quartet” — Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

Along with meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Peres met with members of the Quartet on Tuesday.

In that meeting, the Quartet stated that it “deplored and condemned the morally repugnant violence and terror, which must end.” It did not specify whether it meant Israel or Palestinian violence, or both.

The group also agreed to intensify efforts to achieve a “final Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on their common vision, as inter alia expressed by President Bush, of two states, Israel and an independent, viable and democratic Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

The Quartet also outlined a process, which it would monitor, under which Israel would withdraw to the pre-intifada lines and a Palestinian state would emerge — with provisional borders by 2003 and a permanent-status solution by 2005.

“Despite the public appearance, this is not a static moment,” Harris told JTA midway through more than 60 diplomatic meetings to address, among other issues, Israel’s quest for peace and rising anti-Semitism.

The schedule includes meetings with the following Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritania, Qatar and Tunisia.

Harris also joined the E.U.’s top diplomat, Javier Solana, at a private dinner at the Hotel Sofitel that lasted more than two hours, and met with key Muslim countries, including Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In a separate 80-minute meeting that “would have lasted longer, but for the onset of Yom Kippur,” the Saudi foreign minister presented a very detailed vision for peace, Harris said, but declined to reveal any details.

In general, he said of his meetings with foreign leaders, there are fewer references now to the once-popular condemnation of Israel’s “excessive use of force,” Harris said.

But the term du jour is “spiral of violence” — an analysis he calls “profoundly unfair” because it “suggests this kind of cold symmetry between the arsonist and the fireman.”

Still, the “traditional defenders of the Palestinians are having trouble on two counts.”

First, they cannot fully explain Arafat’s rejection of the proposal made at Camp David in the summer of 2000, and second they cannot justify suicide bombings.

One moderate Arab foreign minister “said to us eyeball to eyeball, ‘Arafat made a terrible mistake two years ago. If I were Arafat, I would have accepted the Clinton-Barak proposal as presented.’ ” Harris said.

Perhaps at the heart of the shift in tone is the “growing awareness that terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, and that if suicide bombers can succeed in New York or Tel Aviv, they can succeed anywhere,” Harris said.

For that reason, there was a “much better understanding this year of the danger posed by suicide bombers to Israel” and the recognition of Israel’s security needs, even on the part of Arab nations, he said.

While Iraq is the chief topic of concern at the United Nations, Jewish leaders on the scene at the United Nations all related a growing disenchantment with the Palestinian leadership.

“I think that they see that Arafat is not the answer,” said Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which holds some 20 diplomatic meetings.

Mariaschin said his central message in these meetings has been that the “manipulation of the U.N. system by the Palestinians and those who back them is counterproductive to bringing about any kind of agreement.”

It makes Israel less inclined to involve the United Nations in the process, and Palestinian expectations are raised so high that they are sure to be dashed.

But since Bush’s June 24 speech calling for Palestinian reform, countries see that “the old formula cannot work anymore,” Mariaschin said.

“I think they realize the ball really now is squarely in the Palestinian court,” he said.

Israel agrees.

Peres told JTA there is “more consensus than ever before” that reforming the Palestinian Authority is necessary to reach peace.

“There is more understanding today that the root of the problem is not necessarily the so-called occupation, but rather the unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to come to terms with the very existence of the state of Israel,” said Ambassador Aaron Jacob, deputy permanent representative of Israel’s Mission to the United Nations.

Israel’s message to the countries is its desire for peace, and the onus is on the Palestinians to stop violence and terror.

“More and more countries” are buying Israel’s cause as legitimate.

While they often speak against Israel to “accommodate the Arab group,” Jacob said those same countries express understanding of Israel’s predicament in bilateral meetings.

“Sometimes it’s more important what kind of substance there is to the bilateral relationship,” Jacob said.

The tone indeed appears to be changing, say Jewish leaders.

“I think Israel’s coming into a much better position,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

One national leader whose country currently has no diplomatic relations with Israel told him that re-establishing relations is his priority, said Hoenlein, who has coordinated about six diplomatic meetings and participated in more than a dozen others.

The negatives of associating with Israel are diminishing, because countries are seeing those relations as integral to broadening their position in the world, he said.

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