Israel, Jewish leaders leery of U.N. Nobel


NEW YORK, Oct. 16 (JTA) — Consider this week in U.N. history: The organization and its leader win the Nobel Peace Prize for being at “the forefront of efforts to achieve peace and security in the world” — while Syria, a state long accused of sponsoring terrorism, is elected overwhelmingly to the all- important Security Council.

If nothing else, the bizarre confluence of events underscores the fact that supporters of Israel view the world body much differently than does the rest of the globe.

Given the U.N.’s history of Israel-bashing, Israeli officials will continue to resist the organization’s push for a greater role in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict — peace prize or no peace prize.

The Norwegian-based Nobel Committee, commemorating its centenary and its aim to “strengthen organized cooperation between states,” described the United Nations as a global advocate for refugees, the poor, children and AIDS education, among other issues.

The “only negotiable route to global peace and cooperation goes by way of the United Nations,” the Nobel committee proclaimed.

Israelis, however, beg to differ: They note the guaranteed advantage Palestinians enjoy at the United Nations, where the Arab-Muslim bloc dominates the 189-member body.

“Even when times were better between Israel and the U.N., we maintained that the U.N. has no place in resolving this conflict,” said an Israeli official who did not want to be identified. “It would be the Palestinians’ ultimate dream to have us negotiating with the U.N.”

Indeed, as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat lauded the Nobel choice, he simultaneously endorsed an enhanced U.N. role. Erekat was quoted as hoping the United Nations would “gather the necessary strength” to end the Israeli presence in territory the Palestinians claim and establish a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

But when criticizing the United Nations, Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish leaders distinguish between the institution and its top official. The Nobel committee awarded the prize “in two equal parts” to the United Nations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, himself a Nobel laureate, praised Annan as a humanitarian who “really worries about the poor of the world” and is “changing the face of the U.N.”

Jewish leaders note that Annan has rejuvenated the world body in his five years at the helm. And while they recognize that he must tread carefully with his largest constituency — the Arab-Muslim bloc — they say he has been more sympathetic to Israel than have previous secretaries-general.

“I’ve seen up close the U.N.’s remarkable strengths and its glaring weaknesses,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who recently spent a year monitoring U.N. activities in Geneva.

“That’s why, for me, Kofi Annan truly deserves the award, but I don’t have the same feeling for the institution he represents,” Harris said. “Despite its noble aims it’s too imperfect, too politicized and too blatantly unfair in its treatment of some member-states, including Israel.”

Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders have a litany of grievances with the United Nations from the past six months alone.

Topping the list is anger over events surrounding the kidnapping last year of three Israeli soldiers across the Israeli-Lebanese border by Hezbollah gunmen.

Israel long had complained that — after pressuring Israel for years to comply with U.N. resolutions and withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon — the world body went strangely silent when Lebanon ignored the same resolutions and left its newly liberated territory under the control of Hezbollah.

On Oct. 7, 2000, Hezbollah gunmen attacked and kidnapped the Israeli soldiers, who were on a routine patrol of the border near territory monitored by U.N. peacekeepers.

The U.N. troops videotaped the aftermath of the incident, but for months denied to Israel that such a tape existed.

In July, U.N. officials finally admitted that the tape existed and apologized for suppressing it. Still, they refused to give Israel a copy of the tape, allowing Israeli officials only a quick viewing — of an edited version — to avoid angering Hezbollah or Lebanon.

Haim Avraham, whose son, St. Sgt. Benny Avraham, is one of the soldiers still missing, denounced the recent Nobel choice as a “downright shameful disgrace.”

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg sent a letter of protest to the Nobel committee.

“The U.N. hid facts, hid information,” a Burg spokeswoman said. “There should have been international pressure on the United Nations, not a Nobel Prize.”

This isn’t the first Nobel selection Jews have protested. There’s an ongoing campaign to strip Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of his 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Peres and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But concerning the United Nations, Jewish leaders point to several other examples of worrying politicization that hinders its mission:

• In May, the United States was ousted from the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, which includes representatives from such human rights aggressors as Sudan, Syria, Cuba and China.

• In early September, Israel and the United States stormed out of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism because of the level of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic vitriol, proceedings that many Jewish observers described as “an anti-racism conference that is itself racist.”

• On Oct. 8, Syria — which the United States and Israel accuse of harboring and sponsoring terrorists — was elected overwhelmingly to the U.N.’s 15-member Security Council, despite the body’s stated goal to “maintain international peace and security.”

Jews were not the only ones criticizing the Nobel selection.

Voices of protest also came from Rwanda and Bosnia, home to two of the worst genocides since the Holocaust. Annan was the head of U.N. peacekeeping missions when those genocides took place, in 1994 and from 1992-95, respectively.

Annan and the United Nations were condemned for not doing enough to prevent the massive loss of life, and for failing — in the interest of “neutrality” — to spotlight which side was the aggressor and which the victim.

While many continue to call for reform of the United Nations, no one expects it to change its stripes soon. If anything, the world body’s stature will likely continue to grow.

The United States sought the U.N.’s approval for its “war against terrorism,” and the organization responded with a resolution obliging its membership to take “all means necessary” to combat terror.

In a news conference last week, President Bush said the United Nations should be the pivotal organization in the anti-terrorism campaign, handling both the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and, once the military action ends, the task of nation-building.

To this end, Annan described the Nobel decision as a “shot in the arm” that would encourage the organization.

That has Jewish leaders leery.

If the Arab world continues its efforts to use the United Nations to demonize and isolate Israel, the added credibility of the Nobel prize could facilitate the effort.

The prize “is a reminder to those who dismiss or underestimate the significance of the U.N.,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It’s a reminder of why we should continue to focus on it and some of the dangerous trends there we have witnessed of late.”

Recommended from JTA