The Jewish effort at the U.N.: Bang or bust?

Anne Bayefsky and Elie Wiesel answering reporters' questions during a break at “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The United Nations and Durban III Conference in New York,” Sept. 22, 2011. (Danielle Fleischman)

Anne Bayefsky and Elie Wiesel answering reporters’ questions during a break at “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The United Nations and Durban III Conference in New York,” Sept. 22, 2011. (Danielle Fleischman)

About 200 people attended the Durban 3-Ring Circus dressed as clowns, carrying signs and waving flags to protest what they referred to as a U.N. obsession with Israel, Sept. 22, 2011. (Danielle Fleischman)

About 200 people attended the Durban 3-Ring Circus dressed as clowns, carrying signs and waving flags to protest what they referred to as a U.N. obsession with Israel, Sept. 22, 2011. (Danielle Fleischman)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Until the main event, which didn’t come until the very end of last week, there was a strong element of theater to all the goings-on at and around the United Nations.

Participating countries at the stripped-down Durban Review Conference issued their condemnations of Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered his usual diatribe at the U.N. General Assembly. Jewish protesters outside masqueraded as clowns to portray the United Nations as a circus, while others held a mock wedding between effigies of Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad. There were counter-conferences, symbolic arrests, press statements, petitions, newspaper ads and conference calls.

And there were many, many meetings.

But with the world’s attention fixated on the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, did the Jewish effort amount to anything more than a sideshow during the U.N. General Assembly?

“If someday the history is written, believe me we played an essential role,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which aims to be the Jewish community’s voice on issues of foreign policy. “American Jews were not at all side players in this.”

The dueling General Assembly speeches by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “eclipsed everything else,” Hoenlein acknowledged. But he and others said that Jewish groups played a critical role behind the scenes.

In meetings that began months before the General Assembly and continued this week, Jewish organizations tried to pressure, sway, cajole and beseech governments from Washington to Libreville, Gabon, to line up against the unilateral Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. That strategy centered on lobbying the U.S. Congress and the White House; meeting with U.N. representatives, foreign ministers and heads of state; and even seeking help from influential businessmen with connections overseas.

The American Jewish Committee alone held 350 to 400 separate meetings, according to the organization’s executive director, David Harris.

The primary objective of the Jewish groups was to dilute support among U.N. Security Council countries and General Assembly members for the Palestinians’ statehood initiative. The secondary goal was to ensure as little attention as possible was paid to the so-called Durban III conference, the event that marked the 10th anniversary of the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in South Africa that served to rally anti-Israel forces. That’s partly why there was no major Jewish rally against Durban III.

On both counts, gauging success is tricky.

Yes, Durban III was boycotted by some 15 countries, and the media largely ignored the one-day conference held Sept. 22.

But did countries skip Durban III because of lobbying by Jewish groups, or did they decide it wasn’t in their interests to be part of a farcical process where notorious human rights violators such as Zimbabwe could herald their records fighting racism? Did media outlets fail to give much attention to Durban III because the Jews had discredited it, or because it didn’t merit much ink or airtime compared to the other big stories of the week?

On Palestinian statehood, measuring achievement is even more difficult because it remains to be seen how much opposition Palestinian statehood will encounter at the United Nations. Moreover, can meetings by Jewish nongovernmental organizations make a difference when it comes to the vote on Palestine, or will countries ultimately vote according to their national interests?

“In diplomacy, it’s not one meeting, one presentation one time by an AJC that turns the ship,” Harris said. “It’s many meetings by a variety of players — the U.S. government clearly in the lead, perhaps the Israeli government, perhaps the local Jewish community, perhaps others on the local scene — joined by AJC that somehow put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Even at this stage — it’s only been a few days since the Palestinian Authority formally submitted its petition for statehood to the U.N. Security Council — already there has been some measurable success, Harris and others said.

While a few weeks ago it seemed that the United States would be forced to use its veto at the Security Council to quash a Palestinian statehood resolution, now it’s far from clear the Palestinians will be able to muster the nine votes needed to prompt a U.S. veto. America no longer seems to be the lone ‘no’ vote on the Security Council.

“The very fact that it’s even in play is a major achievement by U.S. diplomacy, supported by Israeli diplomacy and Jewish NGO diplomacy,” Harris said.

In the General Assembly, where a resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood is practically assured passage but would not carry the force of international law, Jewish groups and their allies continue to press the international body’s so-called “moral minority” — democratic countries — to oppose the unilateral Palestinian bid. With the General Assembly still in session, those meetings were slated to be held right up until the start of Rosh Hashanah, which begins on the night of Sept. 28.

“In terms of the Palestinian statehood issue, we’re really not going to know the actual result for a while,” said Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, one of the Jewish organizations that lobbies at the United Nations. “We don’t know how it will go through the Council. In terms of counting votes, we’re not able to do that right now.”

Despite that uncertainty, and the difficulty of establishing what exactly motivates countries to vote one way or another, Jewish organizational leaders said the Jewish community already has achieved some measures of success.

“I do think that there was something very positive about this entire exercise,” Mariaschin said. “Not since the effort to repeal the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution have I seen the kind of coordinated effort by a number of Jewish organizations to work on one issue.”

Beyond that, Mariaschin said, all the demonstrations, counter-conferences and public displays by Jews in New York served a purpose, even if what the world was focused on were the speeches inside the U.N. building.

“A lot of people feel frustrated that they can’t actually do something,” Mariaschin said. “Knowing that organizations did something helps the morale in the community.

“I don’t think you can measure these events by their attendance. I think you have to measure these events by their content and their intent.”

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