UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday urged the cancellation of a U.N. investigation into Israel's occupation of a West Bank refugee camp after the Israeli government announced that it wouldn't cooperate with the inquiry.
In a meeting with the Security Council, which authorized the inquiry, Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast said that Annan now favored simply disbanding the U.N. fact-finding team, which has been in Geneva since last week waiting to begin its mission.
Led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the 20-member group was charged with assessing the toll of last month's fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians contend upward of a hundred civilians were killed during three weeks of fighting. Israelis say fatalities were fewer and were for the most part armed combatants.
Earlier Tuesday, Israel's security Cabinet--led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--voted almost unanimously against letting the investigation proceed unless six conditions were met. U.N. officials contend that some of the Israeli concerns have been addressed, whereas the others cannot or will not be.
The Israelis feared that the probe would be biased from the outset against their military.
Annan asserted Tuesday that the U.N. has already "done everything" it can to ease Israel's concerns about the personnel, focus and legal consequences of the fact-finding mission. "I think we've been very forthcoming," he said.
Israel emphatically disagrees. The government "presented the U.N. with conditions that are crucial to holding a fair inquiry into the Jenin affair," the security Cabinet said in a statement after its meeting. "However, as long as these conditions are not met, it will be impossible to begin holding the inquiry."
Only one minister, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, voted against the decision. Levy said the government should have unequivocally halted the investigation.
At the United Nations, though, that is exactly how the Israeli decision was interpreted.
"Since it appears from today's Cabinet statement by Israel that the difficulties in the way of deployment of the fact-finding team will not be resolved any time soon, the secretary-general is minded to disband the team, and I have so informed the council," Prendergast told reporters here Tuesday.
The Security Council will convene today to debate its response to the Israeli decision, with Arab states circulating a draft resolution that would compel Israeli compliance.
While Annan could decide to cancel the Jenin investigation on his own, he said Tuesday he preferred to have explicit support from the Security Council--and, he added, Washington--for any final decision.
"There are lots of accusations, lots of rumors, and we don't know what is true and what is not, and I really thought it was in everyone's interest to clarify this matter as soon as possible," Annan told reporters here Tuesday. "But in these circumstances, I cannot leave these gentlemen and women sitting in Geneva."
John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the world body, said the United States would back Annan if he chose to end the Jenin inquiry, even though the State Department had said that it wanted Israel and the U.N. to resolve the impasse.
"Obviously, when the secretary-general makes his decision, we will fully respect that," he said.
Though the United States was the original sponsor of the Security Council resolution endorsing the Jenin investigation, American diplomats had come to view the conflict as a divisive and potentially dangerous distraction from the negotiations aimed at ending the siege by Israeli forces of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The U.S. brokered an accord over the weekend to end the Ramallah stalemate, though it had not been implemented as of Tuesday.
From Israel's viewpoint, cancellation of the U.N. mission, even if accompanied by a Security Council rebuke of Israel's position, would be preferable to an investigation it feared would be biased, analysts and officials in Jerusalem argued.
"Certainly the prime minister, the Foreign Ministry, the defense establishment--across the board, there was a consensus that no committee is better than a flawed committee," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "Whatever penalty Israel will pay is less than the cost of a report that is one-sided and uses terms such as 'war crimes.' "
Annan sent a letter to the Israeli government Saturday summarizing the results of negotiations with Israeli officials at his offices here. Annan assured the Israelis that their soldiers and others interviewed by the fact-finding team would be guaranteed anonymity, and that there would be no transcripts that might be used in war crimes prosecutions--two key Israeli demands.