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As Annan Prepares to Leave U.n., Jews Give His Tenure Mixed Marks

December 26, 2006
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“Life is made of things that we are forced to do and things that we are free to do,” Shimon Peres observed last month at a farewell dinner for Kofi Annan. “And if we judge you not by the things that you were forced but by the things that you were free to do, you were a wonderful human being.” It’s a truth often invoked in considering the legacy of Annan, the 68-year-old Ghanaian whose 10-year term as U.N. secretary-general concludes this month.

Though he comports himself with the air of a president and regularly jets to global hot spots when crisis looms, Annan is tethered to the views of the 192 countries that are effectively his bosses. Many of those countries view Israel with unvarnished contempt, while others see a focus on Israel as a way to detract from more serious issues closer to home.

“Inevitably for any secretary-general, it becomes a very difficult, high-wire balancing act or juggling exercise,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Unfortunately for us, that’s the reality of the U.N.”

As Annan’s tenure draws to a close, most Jewish leaders say his record on issues of Jewish concern has been decidedly mixed. Though they point to certain signs of progress, Israel remains a focus of unrelenting criticism at the United Nations, portrayed as a leading violator of human rights and the sole obstacle to Middle East peace.

As the organization’s public face, Annan often is the target of Jewish anger.

“Kofi Annan was a disaster as secretary-general,” Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a law professor at Touro College, told JTA. “He was a disaster for Israel. He was a disaster for human rights. He was a disaster for world peace.”

Those who disparage Annan’s tenure have no shortage of grist for the mill: There are the 20-some resolutions criticizing Israel adopted every year by the General Assembly, the disproportionate focus on Israel by the U.N. human rights apparatus and the automatic Muslim majority in the General Assembly, which ensures that Israel remains almost constantly in the dock at the world body.

While Annan is not personally responsible for every anti-Israel measure, even his sympathizers in the Jewish community acknowledge that there’s much to condemn about his performance.

In particular, they note the moral equivalence evident in his frequent condemnations of Israel’s counter-terrorist operations and his willingness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who has called repeatedly for Israel’s destruction — and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Echoing Peres, Annan’s sympathizers in the community note the severe limitations under which the secretary-general operates. And they emphasize the positive during his tenure: Israel’s belated acceptance into a U.N. regional grouping, in 2000; the first U.N. conference on anti-Semitism, in June 2004; and the first U.N. commemoration of the Holocaust, in January 2005.

“Those were significant achievements,” Harris said. “Who among the recent secretaries-general, including such individuals as Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kurt Waldheim, showed any interest in any of these issues? To his credit, Kofi Annan addressed each of these issues, and more than once.”

Raising issues, in the end, is the principal weapon in the secretary-general’s arsenal.

“He can’t cause any of these things to happen,” journalist James Traub, author of a recent book on Annan and the United Nations, told JTA. “He can create an atmosphere which increases the likelihood they would happen.”

A secretary-general can exert influence “in the realm of rhetoric, suasion, moral authority and at times diplomacy,” Traub said.

Those who know him say Annan was often sensitive to Jewish concerns behind the scenes.

Yehuda Lancry, a former Israeli U.N. ambassador, recalled several visits to Annan’s office in April 2002 in the aftermath of a fierce battle in the Jenin refugee camp that prompted accusations — later shown to be baseless — that the army had massacred innocent Palestinians.

Over a cigar, Lancry outlined Israeli concerns regarding the makeup of a fact-finding team the U.N. was considering establishing.

“He was very receptive and finally decided to disband the team,” Lancry said.

Publicly, at least, Annan blamed Israeli delays for making the mission unfeasible.

What Lancry calls Annan’s sensitivity to Jewish history and culture was most clearly manifest in the prominence his United Nations gave to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

At a June 2004 anti-Semitism conference, Annan declared, “Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home, too.”

Five months later the General Assembly established Jan. 27 as an annual day of commemoration of the Holocaust. Two months after that, Annan presided over the General Assembly’s first such commemoration.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Annan “broke a taboo” in paying such attention to the Holocaust.

But in what is perhaps a sign of how bitter the U.N. record has made some in the Jewish community, even Annan’s achievements in this regard are suspect.

Bayefsky calls Annan “a master” at dividing Jews from Israel, saying his “modus operandi was to pretend he cared about anti-Semitism” while refusing to take a stand against Israel’s current enemies.

“He coddled Jewish interests through acknowledging anti-Semitism, but refused to admit that the anti-Zionist agenda of those who control the outcomes at the General Assembly is a form of anti-Semitism,” Bayefsky said. “Kofi Annan’s role in the demonization of Israel was to constantly place Israel as the bargaining chip for progress on any other front, knowing that Israel had no hope of winning the numbers game at the U.N.”

Israel’s numerical disadvantage is even more acute in the realm of human rights, where Israel’s stature has, if anything, deteriorated on Annan’s watch.

Israel remains the subject of more condemnatory resolutions than any other country at the Human Rights Council. Established in April with much fanfare as a replacement for its discredited predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, the new council has proven even worse.

Annan backed the new council and has won accolades for his efforts from the human-rights community, but even he has been disappointed with the council.

In a speech marking International Human Rights Day earlier this month, he acknowledged, with characteristic understatement, that the council “so far has clearly not justified all the hopes that so many of us placed in it.”

Annan has publicly urged the council not to focus so obsessively on Israel. But those appeals have not been heeded, and Annan has declined to issue a more forceful critique.

“Kofi is, if anything, hypersensitive to the question of what the market will bear,” Traub said. “The combination of his own natural cautiousness and this kind of learned sensitivity to what you can and can’t say has prevented him from saying a lot of things, including things he believes to be true but thinks will cause harm without doing any good.”

But what counts most, according to some, is what Annan did say. Those statements are significant not only because they break with decades of silence by his predecessors, but because pronouncements by the secretary-general have a force of their own.

“The General Assembly resolution on the Holocaust, which quoted the secretary-general, then gave the Security Council the basis for a statement condemning Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and reaffirming that Israel has the right, like any other member state, to exist,” said Eve Epstein, a former consultant to the executive office of the secretary-general and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “All of these subtle changes shouldn’t be underestimated.”

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