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An Ambassador's Cool Under Fire : The Battlefield's Now the U.N. for Israel's Netanyahu

February 14, 1988|DON SHANNON | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — As a 32-year-old paratroop captain, Benjamin Netanyahu and his reserve unit were fighting their way along the road to Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when an important message came through: Netanyahu had just been appointed Israel's deputy ambassador to Washington.

As Eyal Arad tells it, the story is better in Hebrew, because the word for road and minister are the same: tzir. "So he went from the Beirut tzir to Washington tzir in three days," chuckled Arad, who is press secretary of the Israeli mission to the United Nations.

Action on His New Road

In the last few weeks, it might well have seemed to Netanyahu that his new road is no less filled with action than the old. As Israel's representative to the world organization since 1984, he has been point man in the Jewish state's defense of its controversial repression of Palestinian protest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It's less tough than it was during Lebanon," Netanyahu said, comparing the current firestorm in world opinion to the Israeli army's 1982 invasion, which climaxed in the bombing of Beirut. "In that situation, it took a lot longer to restore tranquillity, and the reaction of the American Administration was very hostile. The reaction now is more measured."

Then too, he said, "the (American) Jewish community was much more vociferous and unrestrained in its criticism. Now I detect much more sense of confusion."

Netanyahu sees his task as putting the unrest in Israel's occupied territories in its proper perspective. "These are not Mother Teresas marching around with placards protesting for human rights," he said. "These are people trying to kill and wound as many Israelis as they can."

He conceded that television images of violence in the occupied territories create public sympathy for the Palestinians but insisted that TV's "penchant for action shots" and reluctance to delve deeply into the root of the unrest have provided a false picture.

"It's like you had street gangs in American cities and they were terrorizing shopkeepers and firebombing their shops and forcing them to close and clubbing kids out of their schools into the streets," he maintained. "All this you don't see. What you see is when the cops come in and roust these kids."

But just as quickly Netanyahu acknowledges that the mass media also give him wide access to U. S. public opinion, the influencing of which he rates as one of his primary tasks.

Polished Image

With his dashing good looks (a scarred lip from one of his paratroop exploits keeps him from being almost too handsome) and near-perfectly idiomatic, unaccented English, he presents an unusually polished image for Israel and is a much sought-after spokesman for it on the U.S. network news shows. The score of Arab envoys at the United Nations probably don't log as much camera time combined as Netanyahu does alone.

While Netanyahu recognizes the importance of the battle of the airwaves, he also must fight Israel's battles in another venue: the U.N. Security Council, where in recent weeks Israel has been the target of four critical resolutions related to the Palestinian uprising. "I think we've been able to halt the stampede inside the council," he said.

Arab countries took heart when the United States joined the other 14 Security Council members on Jan. 5 to warn Israel against deporting Palestinian agitators, Netanyahu said, and they gained further confidence with a U.S. abstention on a Jan. 14 appeal by the council to halt further deportations.

But he pointed with satisfaction to the subsequent U.S. vetoes of a measure condemning Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon and another calling for an international conference to resolve the problem of the occupied territories.

"They should give us an honorary membership," he said of the Security Council. "I sometimes wonder what the United Nations would do without Israel." (Israel has never served on the council because it is excluded by its neighbors from the Mideastern geographic bloc, the basis on which non-permanent members are elected.)

Although some of his countrymen in the past have chosen to virtually ignore the international organization, Netanyahu believes in the "importance of making our case heard" at the United Nations. "If you don't make your case there, somebody will," he said. "We are trying not only to alter but also to persuade. It's not just a rhetorical fist fight."

He even sees a slight improvement from what he calls Israel's worst time here--the period after the 1974 boycott by the mostly Arab oil-producing countries. Oil-hungry African countries cut relations with Israel at the Arabs' behest, he recalled, and "we had these flat-Earth resolutions condemning Zionism as racism."

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