World Preoccupation with Iraq Unlikely to Remove Israel from the U.N. Hot Seat

The world’s preoccupation with the chaos in Iraq is unlikely to divert attention from the trademark scrutiny of Israel by the United Nations General Assembly.

It could even render Israel a red herring, according to diplomats and Jewish observers involved with this month’s General Assembly opening.

Israel could become a rallying call for countries to unite against rather than “tackling tough issues,” such as Iraq and terrorism, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

At the very least, the Arab-Israeli conflict is likely to be featured prominently during the assembly’s three-month session, which this week brought a panoply of heads of state to the stage of the world body.

“If past is prologue,” Israel will be a salient topic, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which has more than 60 diplomatic appointments, including meetings with officials from Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.

This year’s General Assembly comes as the United States is seeking international financial and military support to ease the U.S. burden in Iraq.

Each year, the General Assembly slams Israel with some 21 critical resolutions, making the Jewish state the target of more resolutions than all other countries combined, an Israeli official said.

Last week, as the assembly opened, Syria sponsored a Security Council resolution — ultimately vetoed by the United States — calling on Israel to reject its decision in principle to remove Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Then, last Friday, the General Assembly held a special emergency session to pass a resolution demanding that Israel cease its threats against Arafat.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue “is going to be a major one in the General Assembly because of the ‘road map’ ” peace plan and its subsequent collapse, along with escalated tensions in the region, an Israeli official said.

Those factors will keep Israel a “hot issue on the agenda,” he said.

For Israel and Jewish organizations that hope to boost Israel’s image and the peace process at the world body, the challenges are many.

Among them is the breakdown of the road map, which President Bush acknowledged last week had stalled.

Another is Europe’s position in judging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a meeting with French president Jacques Chirac on Monday, several U.S. Jewish leaders lamented that Chirac assigned equal culpability to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Chirac “did not seem to accept our attempt to make a distinction between the arsonist and the fireman,” Harris said.

Like other European leaders, Chirac has created a Catch-22 for the peace process: faulting Arafat for the intifada, but seeing him as a critical figure in ending it, Jewish officials said.

In contrast, Israel and the United States believe Arafat is a hindrance to the process.

According to Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Chirac met with the Jews because he felt it would “help him reassert good relations with America and with Jews, both of whom he cares about.”

In an address to the United Nations on Tuesday, Chirac called for an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as increased monitoring of peace agreements.

“A strong political will alone, on both sides,” will pave the way to an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chirac said. “The international community must restore a dynamic for peace.”

The French president “didn’t change his mind” about Israel and doesn’t like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “any more than he did before” the meeting with Jewish groups, Singer said.

Still, according to Harris, lobbying European leaders is critical in trying to get the message across.

“The moral center of gravity at the U.N. is the European Union,” he said. “To really get movement on the anti-Israel resolutions, you need to have the European Union with you.”

Indeed, France voted for last week’s resolutions on Israel and Arafat in both the Security Council and the General Assembly.

Germany abstained on the Security Council resolution and voted for the General Assembly resolution.

But many European nations don’t buy the position of Israel and the United States — that Palestinian terrorism must cease in order to revive the peace process, Harris said.

Catherine MacKenzie, press officer for the British Mission to the United Nations, cast the conflict as one between the developed and developing worlds.

“While the developed world is saying security first,” she said, it’s necessary to simultaneously “deal with underlying feelings of exclusion.”

“If you’re ignoring the other side’s problems, then you’re brewing up a hell of a lot of trouble for yourself,” she said.

Observers say it’s problematic that many countries that have strong bilateral relations with Israel remain silent when the Jewish state is attacked at the United Nations.

“I continue to be disillusioned that while we’re hearing a lot of good things” in meetings with France, Turkey and Britain, for example, “when they get in the international arena, they play that pro-Arab tilt, and they’re not willing to break it,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“They’re not willing to stand up and say, ‘Enough with this nonsense.’ “

For its part, Israel has felt slightly “more of a cold shoulder from Arab countries” this year, according to the Israeli official. The official said Israeli representatives were meeting with officials from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Morocco.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who was scheduled to address the General Assembly on Thursday, was slated to speak before 20 heads of state this week at an anti-terrorism meeting.

In the end, observers predicted, the United States, while preoccupied with winning international support for its efforts in Iraq, is also likely to press Israel’s case.

According to U.S. spokesman Robert Wood, America’s focus on Iraq does not overshadow its work on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“We can focus on a number of different issues,” he said. He added that the administration’s goal is to revive the road map toward a two-state solution.

According to Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, the administration already proved its ability to differentiate between and uphold those priorities with the veto of last week’s Security Council resolution.

Indeed, in his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, which also focused on countering the threat of nuclear proliferation, Bush linked the issue of Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Iraq as a democracy will have great power to inspire the Middle East,” he said. “The advance of democratic institutions in Iraq is setting an example that others, including the Palestinian people, would be wise to follow.

“The Palestinian cause is betrayed by leaders who cling to power by feeding old hatreds, and destroying the good work of others,” Bush continued. “The Palestinian people deserve their own state — committed to reform, to fighting terror and to building peace.”

Bush urged all parties in the Middle East to carry out the commitments they made to reviving the peace process: “Israel must work to create the conditions that will allow a peaceful Palestinian state to emerge. Arab nations must cut off funding and other support for terrorist organizations. America will work with every nation in the region that acts boldly for the sake of peace.”

Meanwhile, observers say peace with Israel in the corridors of the United Nations won’t precede peace on the ground.

“Historically the best chance for progress at the U.N. comes when the situation on the ground is improving,” Harris said. “When the situation is either paralyzed or regressing, the chances of any breakthrough at the U.N. are pretty remote.

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