Outcome Could Be Up in the Air As Magen David Adom Vote Nears

The excitement over a December agreement to admit Israel’s Magen David Adom to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement after a 60-year exclusion may have been premature. This week 192 states, as well as 183 national emergency relief societies, are convening in Geneva to decide whether to allow Israel full membership, but the route appears less smooth than advocates believed just a few months ago.

The December agreement to allow a neutral red crystal symbol appeared to have overcome Arab and Muslim states’ longstanding refusal to accept a red Star of David, the symbol of Israel’s emergency services agency.

That vote suggested to many that Israel’s entry into the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement was not far off. But now Israeli and American supporters of Magen David Adom worry their optimism may have been a bit hasty.

Officials from Switzerland — which, as the depository state of the Geneva Conventions, is charged with ensuring MDA’s compliance with certain protocols — reported problems during a visit to Israel last week.

The protocols are part of a memorandum of understanding signed by MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society last November that requires Israel to, among other things, allow Palestinian ambulances quick and easy passage through military checkpoints.

Sources with Jewish organizations say Swiss officials did not think Israel was complying satisfactorily. One source close to the issue said the Palestinians’ new, Hamas-led government has been using ambulance drivers other than those approved by Israeli security services, causing delays at the checkpoints.

In accord with another protocol, Israel is allowing two Palestinian ambulances to operate in eastern Jerusalem but has expressed reservations about doing so, claiming that the vehicles have been used to transport weapons and terrorists.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that Israel’s reticence may have other roots as well: The Israeli government “is feeling uncomfortable” with the fact that formally recognizing the Palestinian group “could imply recognition of a Palestinian state,” the source said.

Further challenges could come from Arab and Islamic nations or their emergency service societies.

Shai Franklin, who is attending the conference as director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress, said Syria’s representative has made his alliances clear.

The Syrian envoy brought up the question of Arab interests at a Monday morning session, a day before the conference got underway, Franklin said.

“He threw down a marker,” Franklin said. “He wanted to remind people” Arab and Islamic states “are fully prepared to make trouble.”

In the final days before a vote on Israeli membership — expected Wednesday or Thursday — those in Geneva and on Capitol Hill were scrambling to push Israel’s case.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who long has advocated for Israel’s inclusion in the international movement, was to hold a news conference in support of MDA on Tuesday in Washington. That follows a letter that Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) sent in April to the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, asking her to urge Congress to approve the Red Cross’ adoption of the red crystal symbol.

Peter Eisenhauer, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said the bureau continues to be “actively engaged” on the issue and has a delegation in Geneva.

Major Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, also are lobbying on the issue.

Ambassador Aaron Jacob, the AJCommittee’s associate director of international affairs, said the group has approached many countries for their vote, especially countries that supported Israel in the December vote.

“We’re asking them to do the same in Geneva again,” he said.

Jacob admitted that “there are still some pending issues regarding the memorandum of understanding,” but he expressed confidence that “the outstanding issues would eventually be sorted out.”

Franklin, speaking from Geneva, said the World Jewish Congress also is involved in last-minute campaigning. He said his organization is targeting “countries on the fence” and trying to educate national relief societies, which were not present during the December vote.

Franklin said he sensed the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is proceeding “like a plane rolling down a runway.”

“The opening session this morning made it clear the federation is agreed on moving forward to admit” the Israeli and the Palestinian agency, he said. “The movement now is fully committed.”

Still, he acknowledged that Arab and Islamic states could present “potential snags.”

“Will questions just sort of be on the record… or will they really obstruct, really impede the proceedings?” he asked. “And that we can’t tell.”

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