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Israel Braces for Verbal Onslaught at Hands of U.N. Human Rights Group

March 13, 2002
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As violence between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated over the past month, so, too, has U.N. pressure on Israel.

The Palestinians, aided by their diplomatic and bureaucratic allies throughout the U.N. system, have stepped up rhetorical attacks from all directions against the Jewish state, say pro-Israel advocates.

And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday demanded that Israel end what he described — for the first time, aides said — as “the illegal occupation”

The attacks have come even as a Saudi peace proposal gains steam and U.S. mediators lobby for a cease-fire.

Jewish observers are braced for next week’s reconvening of the historically anti-Israel U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva — the first such session since the United States lost its seat last year to other Western countries.

“It could be a difficult session” for Israel without its trusty defender, an American official said.

But the slew of anti-Israel resolutions anticipated at the Geneva forum will, at most, be symbolic victories that fuel the Palestinian-led campaign against Israel, observers say.

Of greater import, they say, is what happens at the U.N. Security Council, because of its legally binding authority.

The Security Council is the institution responsible for ensuring global peace and security.

Indeed it was in a speech to the Security Council that Annan criticized both the Israelis and Palestinians, saying he was disturbed that “escalation has been met with escalation with little — in some cases no — regard for innocent civilian lives.”

But he seemed to concentrate a bit more on Israeli responsibility for the bloodshed.

Annan decried the “increasing use of heavy weaponry by Israel in civilian areas” against those “already subjected to severe physical and economic hardships.”

Actions like these “further fuel the fires of hatred, despair and extremism among Palestinians,” he said.

“You have the right to live in peace and security within secure internationally recognized borders,” he said to Israel. “But you must end the illegal occupation.”

As for the Palestinians, Annan said, they “have played their full part in the escalating cycle of violence, counter- violence and revenge” and described their acts of terror and suicide bombings as “morally repugnant.”

“You have the inalienable right to a viable state within secure internationally recognized borders,” he said.

“But the deliberate targeting of civilians,” he said, “is doing immense harm to your cause, by weakening international support, and making Israelis believe that it is their existence as a state, and not the occupation, that is being opposed.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry, downplayed Annan’s remarks, telling Reuters that Israel had already agreed in principle to a Palestinian state, but that negotiations were required to get there.

He was quoted as saying that Israeli forces were “compelled” to follow their strategy because of a Palestinian terrorist campaign that was often more deadly and did more damage than the Israeli army.

Several of the Security Council’s 15 members, especially Syria, are now said to be champing at the bit to enter the Middle East fray — which is why many eyes are turned to an Arab summit scheduled for March 27-28 in Beirut, where a focus is expected to be a Saudi proposal to grant Israel diplomatic relations with Arab countries in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to pre-Six-Day War borders.

Depending on the summit’s outcome, Palestinian supporters are expected to bring to the Security Council a resolution that will either reiterate a call to send international monitors to the disputed territories, or will demand a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders — or both.

In either case, Israel will resist.

“It’s not for the Security Council to resolve this conflict, but for the parties themselves,” Aaron Jacob, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told JTA.

“The Palestinians should live up to their commitment to renounce terrorism, and resolve all outstanding issues through negotiations with Israel.”

The American official, who asked not to be identified, said Washington would seek to discourage the Security Council from taking concrete action.

“Being responsible for peace and security, there’s a frustration on the part of several council members that there’s this terrible violence and the council hasn’t responded in a way they feel is appropriate,” the official said.

“However, what we’ve tried to impress upon them is to let the various U.S. officials on the ground do their work. Passing a resolution is not going to do anything constructive to bring about a cessation of violence.

“At the end of the day, the only way to get a resolution is for the parties to sit down and work out their differences for themselves.”

With U.S. support for Israel, no one-sided, anti-Israel resolution has much of a chance of reaching the Security Council and becoming law.

Resolutions generally make it to that level only if there is a likelihood of it passing by consensus, since the council generally prefers to appear united, say U.N. watchers — which is why sometimes proposed resolutions get killed before they reach the floor.

When the Palestinians succeed in winning wide backing for anti-Israel initiatives, the Americans sometimes use their veto vote to quash it.

Since the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, a handful of anti-Israel resolutions have come close but only one passed — when the U.S. abstained from a vote early on in the bloodshed, in October 2000.

Behind the current anti-Israel diplomatic activity, observers say, is a two-pronged Palestinian and Arab strategy: in the long term, an overarching effort to “de-legitimize” the Jewish state; in the short term, a renewed push to “internationalize” the conflict.

Palestinian supporters, the reasoning goes, seek to marginalize the United States in favor of a third party more sympathetic to their cause, like the United Nations or European Union.

The world body is clearly preoccupied with the Palestinians, Jewish observers say, by dint of a huge Arab-Muslim bloc of member states that routinely dictates the U.N. agenda.

Indeed, over the years a number of U.N. agencies have been established to address the Palestinian plight exclusively.

The Arab-Muslim bloc and other Palestinian supporters are also able to dominate various U.N. forums, most notably the much-touted U.N. World Conference Against Racism held late last summer in Durban, South Africa.

Anti-Israel forces there succeeded in inserting into a formal U.N. document language that painted Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” guilty of genocide and ethic cleansing, among other crimes.

Israel and the United States walked out in protest.

But the document did not die.

In fact, it was adopted two weeks ago, over Israeli protests, by the U.N.’s “Third Committee,” which is responsible for social, humanitarian and cultural issues.

As an added insult, Israeli officials say, some members of the Third Committee sought, but failed, to strip out two references to anti-Semitism as a form of discrimination and persecution.

The final anti-racism document is expected to be endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly this fall. Meanwhile, the Commission on Human Rights — which includes Cuba, China, Sudan and Syria as members — will begin six weeks of debates on March 18.

Israel is again expected to dominate the agenda.

“The big picture here,” said Andrew Srulevitch, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, “is that the U.N., its human rights and humanitarian agencies are being abused by the Arab states for political reasons.”

“We don’t think Israel is above criticism, but we think the criticism at the U.N. is disproportionate, biased and often unjustified.”

As for the future of Israeli-U.N. relations, it’s unclear what, if anything, can be done to rectify the perceived unfairness.

As long as the Arab-Muslim bloc holds sway among the membership, with no serious prospect for reform on the horizon, there’s little reason for optimism, say Jewish observers.

“Every time the Palestinians get a victory there, of course it emboldens them even more,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

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