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Jewish Leaders Press Concerns As Potential U.N. Heads Reach out

As the U.N. General Assembly opens, diplomats vying to be the world’s top peacekeeper are taking the time to consult with a group that has emerged as a critical constituency: American Jewish leaders. At least three of the favored candidates to replace Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general have met in recent months with leaders of the U.S. Jewish groups that routinely deal with the United Nations, JTA has learned.

“It’s a recognition that we’re part of the equation and the political calculus,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who acknowledged “several” meetings with prospective candidates.

“It’s clear that no candidate can win without the support of the five permanent members, and there is thinking that American Jewry would have some impact on the thinking of the United States.”

The United States, Russia, France, China and Britain are the five permanent members wielding veto power on the U.N. Security Council, the body that recommends a candidate for secretary-general to the General Assembly for confirmation.

The casting call comes because Kofi Annan’s term lapses at the end of this year, and Jewish leaders are considering the disappointments of his term as well as its highlights.

Many of the issues that characterized the last part of Annan’s 10-year term — the Iranian nuclear threat, the aftermath of the Lebanon war and the prospect of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — will feature high on the Jewish agenda the week that world leaders arrive to address the General Assembly during its opening session.

“We want to gauge the international mood toward Israel post-summer conflict and get a sense of whether there’s any traction of rumors of resumption of peace talks,” said Harris, who said his organization planned 60 meetings with world leaders this week and next. “We’ll be talking about the challenges of anti-Semitism.”

After two Africans in the job — Annan is from Ghana and his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was from Egypt — the assumption is that an Asian will now get the position.

Of the declared candidates, Shashi Tharoor, a U.N. undersecretary-general backed by his native India, and Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, have met with Jewish groups.

Another candidate, Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, has also met with Jewish leaders and is in the process of setting up a second meeting, and Jewish groups have strong ongoing relations with another candidate, Prince Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan’s envoy to the body.

Community leaders were loath to endorse a particular candidate, but Tharoor at least made a favorable impression.

“We should take him seriously as a candidate,” said Shai Franklin, director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress. “He was instrumental in putting the Holocaust on the U.N. agenda.”

The 2005 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and subsequent Holocaust memorials, are counted among the highs of Annan’s time at the United Nations.

Lows include Annan’s failure to directly confront Iran’s leaders on their Holocaust denial and what is perceived as his eagerness to rush to blame Israel for civilian casualties in its recent war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“We wanted to make him understand how the community felt, how important the U.N. was in dealing with Israel issues, and some of the disappointment we felt in the past in how the United Nations could have dealt with those issues,” Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office, said of the Sept. 7 meeting with Tharoor.

The ADL has virtually cut off Annan because of his statements during the war with Hezbollah.

Another disappointment is the Human Rights Council that Annan initiated. It replaced the stridently anti-Israel Human Rights Commission, but if anything, in its first three months the new body has been even more persistent in criticizing Israel, a problem Annan himself has acknowledged.

“Right out of the box it went back to business as usual,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, who also attended the meeting with Tharoor.

“I tell diplomats, ‘Because you all go along with these resolutions, you raise expectations from Palestinians and alienate Israel. From a standpoint of making the system work, you’re not accomplishing anything.’ “

Such concerns were shared by the United States.

The secretary-general “doesn’t represent a national government, and so the important thing is that we have a leader who’s going to help make the U.N. an effective organization in supporting democracy-promotion efforts and in defending human rights,” Kristen Silverberg, assistant secretary of state for international organizations, said last week.

“We’ve been disappointed, really profoundly disappointed, by the quality of the resolutions that are coming out of the Human Rights Council,” Silverberg continued. “We think they have an unconstructive focus on Israel, and that they really need to turn their attention to some of the key human rights problems in the world.”

In a straw poll conducted by the 15-member Security Council last week, Ban of South Korea came first, followed by Tharoor of India and Sathirathai of Thailand.

Jordan’s Hussein came a distant fourth because, according to insiders, he is an Arab who has warm ties with Israel — an outcome that underscored reluctance in the Jewish community to reveal recent meetings with candidates.

In fifth place came Jayantha Dhanapala, the top U.N. disarmament official, from Sri Lanka. A dark horse not on last week’s ballot is Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials reportedly favor her because, among other reasons, she would be the first woman in the job.

Tharoor’s meeting with Jewish leaders in Washington was organized by Chabad-Lubavitch, representing another development in the evolving U.N.-Jewish relationship.

The fervently Orthodox outreach group recently has assumed a high profile at the United Nations, and is interviewing for staff to deal full time with the world body.

“I can speak for a movement with an energetic, ongoing presence in 73 countries,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s envoy in Washington, who organized the Tharoor meeting and is spearheading the effort to establish a permanent Chabad presence at the United Nations.

Chabad’s participation is the latest signal that the movement, which for years shunned mainstream Jewish alliances, is now forging them.

Officials at other organizations said Chabad and the United Nations made a natural match because of Chabad’s permanent presence in nations that otherwise lack any Jewish presence.

“Chabad has an effective international network of Jews,” said the WJC’s Franklin.

Mariaschin of B’nai B’rith International said the more Jewish organizations involved at the United Nations, the merrier.

“We’re such a small community, and it’s a big world out there,” he said.

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