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U.N. Chief's Effort to Earn Israeli Trust Helped Bring About the Summit


UNITED NATIONS — At first, his presence in the Mideast peace talks was a matter of lucky timing.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan happened to be in Paris the day U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was trying to convince the Middle Eastern leaders to salvage their faltering peace and invited Annan along. At one point, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat stormed out of the meeting and came back only when Albright yelled for the guards to shut the gates to keep his limousine from leaving the U.S. Embassy compound.

By the next morning, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak weren't speaking to each other at all, and Arafat would hardly take calls from Washington. But he would talk to Annan, who had a good record with the Palestinians and a softer approach.

Following the failure of the Paris talks Oct. 5, Monday's summit in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, might not have happened if not for Annan's efforts. While it may seem natural for the head of the U.N. to play peacemaker, the world body has never been considered neutral in the Middle East. That both the Israelis and Palestinians view Annan as an honest broker is the result of a concerted campaign on his part to win Israel's trust.

As the fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinians shattered, Annan jetted to Tel Aviv to try to put the pieces back together. In three days last week, the secretary-general met with Barak and Arafat four times each, shuttling between Gaza, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to persuade them to set aside their preconditions and simply come to the table.

Annan called on President Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. He made countless phone calls, his tiny Motorola cell phone stuck to his ear and used throughout the night, with barely any time to change his suit and tie--unusual for the impeccably outfitted Annan.

In the end, Annan did it, and this time his presence at the summit wasn't simply good timing.

Annan has "opened the door to Israel," said Israel's ambassador to the U.N., Yehuda Lancry. "He is perceived by Israel as a man of reason, displaying the greatest moral authority possible. That is why his role this week is so precious."

The U.N. has been involved in the region from the first days of Israel's creation. It was a U.N. resolution that partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab halves in 1947, and a series of U.N.-brokered cease-fires have stopped fighting in the decades since.

But a majority of nations in the U.N. support the Palestinians, considering Israel an occupying force that has flouted past U.N. resolutions and is sheltered under Washington's wing. The world body's General Assembly passed a resolution in 1975 equating Zionism and racism. It was repealed in 1991 under U.S. pressure.

In turn, Israel has considered the U.N. too pro-Arab to act as an impartial mediator. Israel almost shut the U.N. out of the Madrid peace talks in 1991, allowing a single U.N. observer to watch from the sidelines.

But when Annan became secretary-general in 1996, he pledged to normalize Israel's status at the U.N., hoping that could boost chances of peace in the Middle East. Without fanfare, he has gone out of his way to meet with Israeli leaders, speak to Jewish groups in the U.S. and make clear that the U.N. wants to play a balanced role.

"It's not something he's done very dramatically; it's something he's done very systematically," said David Malone, president of the New York-based International Peace Academy and a Middle East specialist. "He has emphasized that he personally regrets the tone of past U.N. decisions in the Middle East. . . . His abhorrence of violence extends to both sides of the conflict."

There have been proposals for the U.N. to take charge of East Jerusalem and its contested holy sites, as well as a likely role for the U.N. to monitor any territorial agreements.

But mutual distrust lingers between Israel and the U.N., and that will limit the organization's institutional role in the area. After the U.N. Security Council voted 14 to 0 on Oct. 7 to condemn Israel for "excessive use of force" and demanded an investigation into what sparked new fighting, Barak dismissed the council as "totally biased." The United States abstained from that vote.

Lancry, the ambassador, said Israel welcomes U.N. intervention only in special cases. "While we appreciate Kofi Annan, we are very suspicious of the Security Council and General Assembly," he said.

While there is respect for Annan's talents, both sides recognize that Washington is the key player. Clinton has been best able to bring Barak to the table, urge concessions from Israel and enforce the pledges from both sides. Annan's role has been particularly important when the United States has run into trouble fulfilling its traditional role.

"The U.S. is running the show," said Phyllis Bennis, a U.N. and Mideast expert at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. "But over the past week, it's been the secretary-general who has been orchestrating the international diplomacy on the ground, not the U.S. He was able to win Palestinian consent [to come to Monday's summit] when the U.S. was not, and that's a significant development."

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