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Mideast Expected to Again Lead the U.N. Agenda

Diplomacy: The world body is likely to devote considerable funds and time to the issue despite having had little to show for its efforts.

January 13, 2002|WILLIAM ORME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council began its first session of the new year by hearing an impassioned demand that it pay more attention to the Middle East. The preoccupation with Afghanistan threatens to make the Israeli-Palestinian dispute a mere "footnote" in deliberations here, said Syrian Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe.

But if half a century of diplomatic history is any guide, the fears of the Arab bloc's representative on the council would seem misplaced.

If there is anything that can be confidently predicted about the United Nations in 2002, diplomats say, it is that it will once again devote an extraordinary amount of time, money, documents and oratory to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Already, with a raging controversy over clandestine arms shipments to the Palestinians and continuing gun battles, there are renewed calls for U.N. intervention.

But after hundreds of conferences and resolutions on the Middle East--far more than on any other regional dispute--the U.N. has had frustratingly little to show for its efforts, many officials here concede.

Most frustrated of all are the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel says a majority of member states remain hostile to the very premise of a Jewish state. And the Palestinians complain that despite their many roll call victories here, the U.N. has not brought them closer to their goal of an independent state.

In its last official act of 2001, the General Assembly condemned Israeli occupation of territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and called for an international monitoring mechanism to oversee a cease-fire and Israeli withdrawal. It was a now-familiar ritual: The resolution was vetoed by the United States in the Security Council, where it would have had binding legal force, then passed overwhelmingly in the one-nation, one-vote assembly, where resolutions are not binding.

As usual, the only opposition came from the U.S., Israel and--in one of those enduring U.N. oddities--the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, American protectorates and Israeli aid recipients.

"Any Israeli ambassador knows that his country is more or less completely alone in this so-called family of nations," said Yehuda Lancry, Israel's representative at the world body.

For the Palestinians, who acknowledge that last month's resolution moved them no closer to independence, Israel's isolation is precisely the point.

"The fact that we don't have that much to show for it doesn't make it any less important," said Nasser Kidwa, the Palestinian representative here. "It is important for us to feel that we are not alone."

General Assembly to Take Up Mideast Issue

When it reconvenes this week, the General Assembly is certain to pick up the Palestinian cudgel again. In the Security Council, Syria can count on a solid majority of the 15 members to support its insistence on immediate Middle East debates and briefings by U.N. envoys. And Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to return to the region for more hands-on diplomacy, as he has every year.

Some diplomats say the U.N.'s devotion to the Arab-Israeli dispute is wildly disproportionate, given the myriad unresolved conflicts elsewhere in the world, from Kashmir to Colombia to Congo. But others--noting the Middle East dispute's capacity to inflame a vast region--say the world body should do much more to force a negotiated settlement.

The chief adversaries here insist that there is no personal animus in the conflict. Lancry, in his third year as Israeli representative, says his relationship with Kidwa is "correct, and beyond correct." The two men say they converse regularly, alternating between Arabic and English, notwithstanding the Israeli Cabinet's announced severing of ties with the Palestinian Authority.

"I consider him a good professional," Lancry said. "And he is a man who at a personal level is without hatred."

Kidwa returns the compliment: "The Israelis have a very reasonable and decent representative here. Whether he really represents [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is another question."

Many Israelis would concede that Kidwa has a point. Lancry's office features a portrait not of Sharon or Foreign Minister Shimon Peres but of David Levy, the past foreign minister who appointed him.

But there is no question as to whom Kidwa represents. Yasser Arafat is his uncle--the Palestinian Authority president's sister, who lives in Gaza, is Kidwa's mother--and sent him to what was then the Palestine Liberation Organization's U.N. office 14 years ago. Trained as a dentist, Kidwa has practiced only diplomacy since.

"He is a brilliant negotiator," said Nancy Soderberg, who served as a deputy U.S. representative to the U.N. under the Clinton administration.

Yet Soderberg, like many U.S. foreign policy experts, contends that the Palestinian representative's victories here have been pyrrhic, creating an illusion of progress toward statehood but undermining that cause by alienating Washington and reinforcing Israeli fears.

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