NEW YORK, Feb. 20 (JTA) — The man said to be President Bush’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has vast experience in Latin America and Southeast Asia but is an unknown entity vis-a-vis the Middle East.

In fact, John Negroponte, who has held ambassadorships to Mexico, Honduras and the Phillippines, was barely on the radar of American Jewish activists until he recently emerged as a front-runner for the post.

The Bush administration has not officially announced the appointment, which remains the last major vacancy in his administration.

But The New York Times reported over the weekend that his nomination is all but a done deal.

The appointment would still require Senate confirmation.

Israel’s defenders at the United Nations expect the new ambassador to have his hands full at the world body, as the knives may be out for Israel following the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

Many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which dominates the United Nations, view Sharon as a war criminal.

Despite their unfamiliarity with Negroponte, pro-Israel advocates say they are satisfied with what they have heard about him so far.

“The word we have is that he’ll be fine on our issues,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We have every reason to anticipate that he will be supportive and carry out the administration’s goals and objectives,” Hoenlein said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

Negroponte was a career diplomat until 1997, when he joined the publishing giant McGraw-Hill as executive vice president for global markets.

While in the State Department, he sometimes attracted controversy.

As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, according to The New York Times, Negroponte “oversaw a military buildup that turned much of that country into a springboard and refuge” for the rebels, known as Contras, who were battling against the leftist government in neighboring Nicaragua.

According to his McGraw-Hill biography, Negroponte was the officer- in-charge for Vietnam for the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger, from 1971 to 1973; and was deputy director of the NSC under Gen. Colin Powell from 1987 to 1989.

He is said to be close to Powell, the new secretary of state.

Jewish observers are not concerned by Negroponte’s lack of expertise in Middle East affairs, noting that his predecessor, Richard Holbrooke, was similarly new to the issue when he went to the United Nations.

Holbrooke was widely praised for his robust defense of Israel.

“I don’t consider that to be a significant drawback; the U.N. does deal with issues other than the Middle East,” said Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Holbrooke has joined the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York, as a “senior counselor.” Holbrooke could not be reached for comment about Negroponte, who was, according to news reports, his roommate in Vietnam in 1964 to 65, where they both served as diplomats.

But in interviews with the Times and CNN, Holbrooke had only good things to say about the appointment.

Nevertheless, no one expects Negroponte to quite fill Holbrooke’s shoes.

In fact, some speculate that the post, which had been elevated to Cabinet rank by President Clinton, may be downgraded again under Bush.

Holbrooke lobbied for Israel’s partial entry in May into the Western Europe and Others Group, one of five regional groupings at the United Nations. Because of Arab pressure, Israel was the only one of 189 member-states to be excluded from the regional grouping system.

Holbrooke was also key in pushing for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, to gain “consultative” status to the influential U.N. Economic and Social Council. Thanks in part to Holbrooke’s efforts, Hadassah now seems to be on the verge of attaining such status.

“Holbrooke showed how much an active U.N. ambassador can do,” Hoenlein said.

And during the ongoing Palestinian intifada, Holbrooke fought behind the scenes to block official condemnation of Israel.

Perhaps the greatest blemish on Holbrooke’s record, from the Jewish perspective, was his controversial abstention from an Oct. 7 U.N. Security Council resolution that essentially blamed Israel for provoking and prolonging the Palestinian violence that had erupted.

The United States is empowered with a veto, so a “no” vote would have torpedoed the resolution. Holbrooke later cited several reason for the abstention, but it wasn’t clear to observers whether Holbrooke had recommended to Clinton that the United States abstain, or if it was primarily the president’s call.

From the Jewish perspective, Negroponte, if he is confirmed, will face two primary challenges at the world body, said Michael Colson, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.

“One of the most challenging things for a U.S. ambassador is to articulately define U.S. interests in a multilateral environment,” Colson said.

At the United Nations, it’s “one country, one vote, for 189 members, and when you start adding up the numbers, there are many countries with a much different outlook on foreign policy issues than the United States.”

The second challenge, Colson said, is “to make sure the U.N. does not get involved in the Middle East in an inappropriate or unhelpful way.”

In recent months, the Palestinians have appeared to be reviving its efforts to “internationalize” the Israeli-Arab conflict, to lure in the world body, where the huge voting bloc of Arab and Muslim states guarantees the Palestinians a sympathetic hearing, and hostility toward Israel.

“The only way to settle the Middle East conflict is through direct negotiations between these two parties. The United States must tell the U.N. when it shouldn’t act,” Colson said.

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