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On Sidelines of United Nations, Jewish Groups Work the Scene

November 21, 2001
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When scores of world leaders descended on New York in mid-November for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session, it created more than just traffic problems.

It also created an opportunity for Jewish groups to pursue their “foreign policy,” pressing the interests of Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities in meetings with representatives from around the world.

On one recent morning, a trio of officials from the American Jewish Committee was meeting with El Salvador’s foreign minister and its U.N. ambassador.

Israel and pro-Israel advocates are grateful to the Salvadorans, as they are one of only two countries in the world — the other is Costa Rica — to open an embassy in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, rather than in Tel Aviv, ignoring protests from the Arab world.

“It’s important that we find every opportunity to acknowledge El Salvador’s principled determination,” says David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director.

For example, the AJCommittee endorsed a U.S.-Central America free trade agreement, Harris says, and will work to ensure that the region’s needs are not forgotten while the U.S. focuses on its campaign against terrorism.

This is Jewish diplomacy in action.

While Washington renews its push for Mideast peace and Jews and Israel weigh how to respond, American Jewish groups like the AJCommittee forge ahead with foreign policy of their own.

From the Jewish side, the aim is to drum up global support for Israel and protect vulnerable Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.

The nations sitting across the table are seeking something equally intangible — Jewish clout.

American Jewry is viewed as one of the most influential lobbying forces in Washington — the perception often outstrips the reality, Jewish leaders say — and as an important middleman for improving relations with the world’s lone superpower.

And the Jewish community makes sure to remember its friends, Harris says.

“These relationships are two-way streets,” he says. “We try to transmit the issues that are of importance to us. From our interlocutors, we listen. And where and when possible, we try to be responsive.”

A handful of American Jewish groups routinely send delegations across the globe, where they receive red-carpet treatment. Likewise, statesmen visiting Washington may squeeze a meeting with Jewish leaders into their itineraries.

But the diplomatic high season is the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

This year, due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the General Assembly was postponed two months and compressed from three weeks into one.

The AJCommittee usually meets with some 50 world leaders during the assembly weeks. This year, because of the shortened time frame, it crammed all the meetings into eight days beginning Nov. 9.

The AJCommittee is not alone in its diplomatic efforts; most of the leading American Jewish organizations do the same. But Harris allowed a reporter to tag along for a day to gain a glimpse into the world of American Jewish diplomacy — as long as the countries were not identified.

From El Salvador, Harris and various AJCommittee staff and lay leaders met with foreign ministers of a European Union member, an Arabic Gulf state, a former Soviet republic, and an important Middle Eastern state.

Meanwhile, other staff met with delegations from Azerbaijan, Macedonia and something called the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.”

The AJCommittee has met with several of these countries for seven or eight years in a row, Harris said.

Whether at AJCommittee headquarters, a consulate or a U.N. mission — all of which are close to the United Nations — the meetings generally unfolded in a similar format.

Composed primarily of men dressed in dark suits, the delegations sat face to face across a table or around a room.

First came condolences for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Then the exchange of niceties and praise — sometimes more sincere, sometimes less — followed by candor and gravitas.

After years of such meetings, the senior figures addressed each other by first name. The host began by asking the most senior guest what’s new or what’s on his mind.

Naturally, discussion was dominated by Sept. 11, the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. campaign against terrorism. But local and regional issues and ethnic or religious conflicts also were addressed. Questions were asked, notes taken.

Then the roles were reversed.

Requests and favors were not broached in every encounter. Often, the meetings are a free-flowing exchange of ideas and opinions, a search for common ground, trust and partnership.

With the Bush administration refocusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the AJCommittee’s main message was that the Palestinians — and the rest of the world — need to help rebuild the confidence of Israelis whose belief in the peace process was shattered by Palestinian violence.

The AJCommittee’s counterparts also sent messages.

In an hourlong meeting, the foreign minister of the former Soviet republic made clear his concern that a long-term conflict with a neighbor had been knocked off Washington’s radar screen. Harris and his colleagues indicated that they would raise the issue with Bush officials.

In his 90-minute meeting, the European foreign minister did not explicitly request anything. But Harris made sure to thank him for his pressures last year on Iranian leaders to release 13 — now nine — Iranian Jews jailed for allegedly spying for Israel.

The minister vowed to raise the issue again on his upcoming visit to Iran.

Harris also mentioned that the Jewish community in the foreign minister’s home country is anxious about local media focus on a conspiracy theory about Jews engineering the Sept. 11 attacks.

The foreign minister reassured Harris that such talk was heard only on the fringes.

“There’s rhyme and reason to what we’re doing,” Harris said later. “We don’t only surface when there’s a crisis, then go rushing for help. We’re there throughout. Then when we do have a crisis, we have a certain standing and credibility that, at the very least, gives us access and a hearing.”

Access and hearing seemed to be the only thing Harris and his colleagues derived from a meeting with the Arab foreign minister at his country’s New York consulate.

The foreign minister — who told the Jewish delegation, “I couldn’t come to New York without meeting with you” — was charming and friendly.

The AJCommittee reiterated the need to rebuild Israeli confidence, and expressed concern about the role Iran and Saudi Arabia play in sponsoring global terrorism and exacerbating Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I agree with you,” the host would say repeatedly, smiling. “You are absolutely right. But . . . “

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also should take steps, the minister said — in a way that placed the onus entirely on the Israeli side.

The foreign minister did divulge some insider information about goings-on in the Arab world. But, still smiling, he defended Saudi Arabia from every allegation.

What exactly had the AJCommittee delegation accomplished, since the foreign minister hadn’t budged in his views or made any commitments? Was it a waste of time?

“It’s not a question of keeping contact at all costs,” Harris said afterward. “But such contact has inherent merit. I’d rather talk to Country X than about Country X.

“You have to ask yourself: Why is he meeting with us? Because he thinks we’re important actors here,” Harris continued. “And he’ll take away two things from this meeting: our unhappiness with Saudi Arabia, and the need to rebuild confidence in Israel. And who knows? Maybe when he goes back to one of his regional meetings, he’ll say ‘I’ve talked to Jews I trust, and they say this and that.’ “

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