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Fearing Fallout from Fence Ruling, Israel Supporters Go on Offensive

July 12, 2004
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American Jewish officials are launching a media and diplomatic offensive to limit damage from the International Court of Justice opinion that Israel’s West Bank security barrier is illegal. Seven months after the U.N. General Assembly called on the U.N. court to judge the legal consequences of Israel’s “wall,” the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding advisory opinion last Friday that Israel must tear down the barrier and pay reparations to Palestinians affected by its construction.

The only dissenter in the court’s 14-1 ruling was the American judge, a Holocaust survivor.

The opinion asks “all states not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction.”

Israeli officials were especially chagrined that the court issued no criticism of the thousands of Palestinian terrorist attacks that prompte! d Israel to build the fence.

The opinion, which is non-binding, can’t sanction Israel, but its power lies in the use Israel’s enemies can make of it — and that’s what Jewish officials want to combat.

The Palestinians have said they will call for a special emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly to demand that Israel comply with the court’s opinion. That could lead to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose and enforce sanctions.

Because the Arab-backed resolution that asked for the court opinion got only lukewarm backing — it passed the General Assembly by a 90-8 vote, with 74 abstentions — Israel supporters plan to target countries that had reservations about the hearing.

Many countries, including much of Europe, argued against tainting the court with a political issue and diverting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“To have the Palestinians once again hijack the system” is “deja vu all over again,” said Dan Mariasc! hin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “I think we have to go back to those countries who felt this should not have gone to the court in the first place.”

Mariaschin hopes those nations will tell the United Nations “that this is an issue that belongs in negotiations and is not to be determined in New York City, not to be determined in The Hague, but to be determined in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians.”

B’nai B’rith International has mobilized chapters around the world to urge government leaders to oppose any U.N. resolution on the court opinion.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called the campaign its “biggest mobilization” since the fight against a 1975 U.N. resolution that denigrated Zionism as racism.

With broad response from its member groups, the Presidents Conference is reaching out to Caribbean and Latin American nations that it doesn’t usually think it can sway.

The Presidents Conference also urged Russia, the United Kingdom and France — Securi! ty Council members with veto power who had opposed the court hearings — to stick to their positions.

Israel also is targeting those countries that didn’t want the court to consider the issue.

An Israeli delegation met last Friday with Ben Bot, foreign minister for the Netherlands, which took over the rotating E.U. presidency July 1.

Because Europe sways scores of votes at the United Nations, “we asked the European Union to stick to its position” in the upcoming debates and votes on the fence, said Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations.

Last Friday, however, Bot said “that the European Union, while recognizing Israel’s right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, has demanded that Israel stop and reverse the construction of the barrier inside the occupied Palestinian territory, including in and around East Jerusalem.”

A meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday is expected to issue an E.U. statement on the! matter, a likely indicator of voting behavior at the United Nations.

European abstentions would be something of a symbolic victory for Israel, mirroring the outcome of the December vote that sent the issue to The Hague — when Arab and African countries voted in favor of the resolution but major democracies abstained.

In the meantime, the United States has opposed the court’s opinion, but hasn’t said explicitly that it would veto a Security Council resolution demanding Israeli compliance.

“It remains our view that this referral to the court was inappropriate and that in fact it could impede efforts to achieve progress toward a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last Friday.

The White House also said the international court was the wrong venue to debate the fence.

Even Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, entered the fray.

“Israel’s fence is a legitimate response to terror that only exists in response to the w! ave of terror attacks against Israel,” Kerry said in a press release last Friday. “It is not a matter for the ICJ.”

Jewish groups are gearing up with pro-fence talking points they can use with government leaders and newspaper editors.

In a conference call last Friday for Jewish community relations councils across North America, activists were told that if they are asked for media comment, they should stress how much the fence already has reduced terrorism.

Many U.S. Jewish organizations issued press releases last Friday blasting the court’s decision.

The court was taken over by “narrow political extremist goals,” said James Tisch, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The ruling contradicts the fundamental right of all states to defend their citizens. No other country is judged like Israel not to higher standards, but double standards.”

A slew of U.S. representatives also issued statements rejecting the court opi! nion. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has begun a lobbying campaign urging Latin American countries to oppose a U.N. resolution.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) sponsored a congressional resolution condemning the court’s opinion.

At a press conference last Friday across from the United Nations attended by New York’s two Democratic senators — Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton — Jewish groups said terrorist attacks had fallen by 90 percent since parts of the fence went up.

“It makes no sense for the United Nations to vehemently oppose a fence which is a non-violent response to terrorism rather than opposing terrorism itself,” Clinton told the crowd.

Also speaking at the press conference, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, called last Friday a “tragic day.”

“The U.N. has been hijacked and abused,” Gillerman said. The opinion “totally disregards why that fence was put up there.”

“This is the Arafat fence. This is the fence that Arafat built,” he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. “This fen! ce will remain and protect Israeli lives. It will remain as long as Arafat’s reign of terror remains.”

JTA staff writers Ron Kampeas and Matthew E. Berger in Washington and Joe Berkofsky in New York contributed to this story.

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