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After Decades of Exclusion, Magen David Adom Expects Change

Riding the coattails of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Magen David Adom appears to be on the verge of securing full-member status in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies after close to 60 years of exclusion. On a recent visit to Israel, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey announced that she would shortly convene a conference at which signatories to the Geneva Conventions would consider an amendment calling for a neutral emblem. That would smooth the way for Israel to shed its observer status in favor of full partnership in the international association.

“It’s been long overdue,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York. “It’s the new and improved atmosphere” following the Gaza withdrawal.

Arab opposition has shut Israel out of the organization for years. The fledgling Jewish state’s candidacy was rejected during the Geneva Conventions in 1949, which insisted that new aid groups adopt the Red Cross emblem.

Among the major stumbling blocks has been Arab and Muslim states’ refusal to accept the Magen David, or Star of David, as an official symbol, despite the inclusion of the Islamic Red Crescent.

The changes to be discussed early next month in Geneva include creation of a new, neutral emblem to be used by member states that do not wish to use the cross or crescent. The new symbol would be a red crystal, a square resting on one of its corners.

The MDA — for whom full membership could mean increased funding in addition to resolution of its diplomatic isolation — will be free to display the Magen David either inside or next to the red crystal when its members work abroad.

The MDA has come close to securing membership in the International Red Cross before. Following several decades at arms length, the group inched closer to the international organization in the late 1990s.

The rapprochement has gained steam with staunch support for MDA from the American Red Cross — which since 2000 has withheld dues to the international body to protest Israel’s exclusion — and from the U.S. Congress, which has passed a series of measures demanding that MDA be granted full membership.

The upcoming conference is “a positive step toward reaching universality for the Red Cross movement,” Marty Evans, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that a diplomatic conference will adopt” the amendment, “thereby paving the way for MDA to become a full voting member of the movement.”

While Israel’s image recent boost probably helped MDA’s cause, the agency’s status has been improving for several years, said Yonatan Yagodovsky, director of the International Department of MDA in Israel. He cited several other countries as having been particularly active on Israel’s behalf, including the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, Jordan, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey and Bulgaria.

“The wedding invitations were sent, and I hope that there will be a positive resolution in about two weeks in Geneva,” Yagodovsky said.

A working committee was created in 1999 to look into clearing the impasse. An amendment to the “third protocol” that would have allowed Israel to fully join the group’s ranks was written, and observers expected it be adopted in October 2000.

When the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, however, the political situation it created once again stymied MDA’s efforts.

The recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has met with widespread support around the world, and Israel, Jewish leaders, and some European Union and other nations see the current moment as ripe for a deal.

This is “a politically propitious time for Switzerland to convene a diplomatic conference and put forward the third protocol,” said Andrew Srulevitch, director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ department of international affairs. “On its face, there’s no legitimate reason for the MDA to be excluded in principle. It has to be done in a way that is politically feasible.”

Since the Gaza pullout, some Muslim countries that previously opposed recognizing the Star of David have signaled a willingness to revisit the issue.

Sources say that Pakistan, which had been a leader in opposing MDA’s inclusion but recently has taken several steps toward Israel and the American Jewish community, now is more likely to support the move. Jewish leaders and American officials have raised the issue with Pakistan over the last few months.

Most recently, four U.S. senators — Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — sent a letter to Calmy-Rey in support of her decision to convene the December conference.

Passage of the new measure will affect not only Israel; Kazakhstan and Eritrea both have significant Muslim and Christian populations and have been reluctant to take on either the red cross or the red crescent symbol.

Observers note that there’s no guarantee MDA will be accepted. The move still must be passed by Geneva Conventions signatory nations that include Iran, whose president recently called for Israel to be destroyed.

But the observers note that Switzerland — the depository state of the Geneva Conventions — has been consulting with many of these nations over the last few months, and say it’s unlikely the Swiss would call the summit if they weren’t convinced the measure would pass.

“We are pretty much at the entrance to the new era,” Yagodovsky said.

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