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Israelis, U.N. Now at Odds

Diplomacy: Relations between world body and Jewish state had been good. But a West Bank inquiry has roiled them.


UNITED NATIONS — To Israelis, it once again seems clear that the United Nations is not to be trusted. With the backing of most of the Security Council and General Assembly, Israeli Cabinet officials assert, U.N. officials are on a vendetta against their country and determined to discredit it in the eyes of the world.

For the top staff of the U.N. Secretariat and U.N. agencies, and many if not most of the foreign diplomats here, the old image of Israel playing by its own rules, contemptuous of U.N. reprimands, is decidedly back.

The immediate dispute between Israel and the U.N. centers on an investigation of Israel's incursion this month into a U.N. refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin, an inquiry Israel at first approved but now vows to block unless it can limit both the scope of the probe and its legal consequences.

The acrimonious confrontation, now in its second week with no clear resolution, has reinforced old enmities and stereotypes.

In Israel, Gideon Meir, the chief spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, denounced the United Nations on Monday as "an anti-Israeli organization." Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, who had initially welcomed the U.N. mission, told Israel Radio the day before that the Jenin inquest was beginning to resemble "blood libel."

At U.N. headquarters, where officials had agreed for three days running to postpone the mission for one additional day in deference to Israeli deliberations about whether to cooperate, there was unconcealed exasperation as the Security Council was told Monday that the Israeli Cabinet had not met to deliver a verdict.

"I told the council that I had disappointing news, in that the Israeli Cabinet did not take a decision today as we had been led to expect," Kieran Prendergast, undersecretary-general for political affairs, said after briefing the council.

Three hours earlier, U.N. officials had said it was their "clear understanding" that the Israeli Cabinet would meet and provide a written response outlining its position. Prendergast said he had been told that the Israeli government planned to meet today.

The Security Council unanimously endorsed the fact-finding mission April 19. All five permanent members, including the United States, called on Israel to cooperate.

"All member states are bound by Security Council resolutions, and Russia will insist Israel allow the mission to reach Jenin," Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said in Moscow.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it is "really important for Israel and for Israel's reputation" to allow the inquiry.

Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he had called Peres earlier Monday and said, "If you have nothing to hide, for Pete's sake get this fact-finding mission in as soon as possible."

And in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.N. mission should go forward. The U.S. "view is that Israel has raised some concerns, the U.N. has been responsive to these, and that they should be able to work this out, and we hope they do that as quickly as possible," Boucher said.

Throughout the last week, diplomats from developing nations, and in some cases West European countries as well, have blasted Israel for allegedly killing unarmed civilians in the Jenin camp and for its objections to the investigation.

Israeli diplomats have angrily retorted that the U.N. should investigate how a refugee camp under its supervision became a base for terror attacks on Israeli civilians. Israelis charge that the recruitment of forensic and legal experts on war crimes for the Jenin investigation shows that Israel will be "prosecuted" by what one minister called "this awful United Nations commission."

U.N. observers say the vitriolic exchanges are reminiscent of the days when the General Assembly denounced Zionism as racism and Israeli governments ignored U.N. objections to Israel's annexation of conquered territory.

"The ... government [of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] is not helping things with the language that they are using," said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the U.N. did not really help things either. It is a terrible team. You have to have people schooled in urban warfare."

Almost from the moment of its founding, Israel has had a contentious relationship with the United Nations. Its military control of lands seized from Syria, Egypt and Jordan after the 1967 Middle East War worsened tensions with the organization. Only a firm alliance with the veto-wielding United States helped Israel avoid direct confrontations with the Security Council.

But after it signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and agreed in the Oslo accords to an eventual land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel's relations with the United Nations notably improved.

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