Israel has responded ambiguously to the recent UN appointment of a special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. With the installation of Norwegian diplomat Teri Larsen as both Special Coordinator and the UN Secretary General's personal representative to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA), the United Nations has expanded its role in the peace process. But Israel's response reveals the state's troubled relationship with the United Nations. Although the demonstrated disagreement on how to respond to the appointment certainly reveals an apparent split in the Israeli government, the divided response is more an exposition of Barak's attempts to negotiate public opinion in favor of Israel.
The first reaction of the Israeli government came in a statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which said that Israel "cannot accept an expansion of the title, mandate and powers" of the UN envoy. An official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Agence France Presse (AFP) on September 23 on condition of anonymity that Israel "will not lend a hand to the United Nations to allow the return to the peace process of an institution which has always been particularly hostile towards us." But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly backed Larsen's appointment. Although Barak issued no direct statement, Amir Abramovitz, the spokesman for Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, told AFP that Barak told Beilin by phone of his support. According to Abramovitz, Barak "not only does not oppose the appointment, but he supports it," as quoted by AFP. Barak is currently travelling in Europe.
The Palestinians have made repeated calls for a greater UN role in the peace process, a process that has traditionally been mediated by Israel's ally, the United States. And with the recent agreement to begin final status negotiations, which will focus on such sensitive issues as the fate of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and access to water, the involvement of a more unbiased negotiator becomes all the more imperative.
The recent row over Disney's portrayal of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has no doubt raised concerns over a perceived American bias in favor of Israel. The influence exerted over American politics by the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and other such pressure groups is well documented and several prominent politicians, such as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, have publicly voiced their support for Israel, even on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem. And Israel is the single largest recipient of American foreign aid.
It is no surprise then that the timetable for the completion of final status negotiations set for September 2000, the United Nations and countries around the world have no doubt recognized the pressing need for a less biased negotiator than the United States.
The statement issued from the Israeli Foreign Ministry reveals that the United Nations has not always kowtowed to the United States in its support of Israel. The United Nations has condemned Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and of other countries, particularly Lebanon. Several UN resolutions have called for immediate Israeli withdrawals and an end to Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories. In April the UN Human Rights Commission condemned Israel's behavior in the occupied territories and the country's contempt for UN resolutions. Despite the fierce opposition of the United States and Israel, a UN conference took place in Geneva in July to discuss Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Israel's split with United Nations goes beyond the refusal to comply with UN and international law. On May 31, international protest was sparked by the Israeli shelling in South Lebanon that killed an Irish UN worker.
Given the troubled relations between Israel and the United Nations, the Foreign Ministry statement seems the more honest response to the UN's desire for a greater role in the Peace Process. According to the BBC on September 22, Israel has traditionally "gone to great lengths to exclude it [the UN] from any role in the peace process." Barak's alleged support for Larsen's appointment represents more a disagreement as to how to negotiate international opinion rather than any real support for an increased UN role in the peace process. Except for his agreement to call for a halt to settlement activity, Barak's stance on the Palestinian question is little different than his right wing predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. In regards to Jerusalem, Barak stated clearly in his election campaign that the city is the eternal, undivided capital of Israel. But Barak's views are on a collision course with the United Nations as UN resolution 242 states that East Jerusalem is part of Palestine.
Far from sympathizing with Palestinian and world demands for an increased UN role, Barak seems to be simply trying to put a positive face on foregone conclusion. With the pressure on for a final resolution to the peace process, Israel would suffer in terms of world opinion if it appeared to reject outright an unbiased mediator in the conflict. Barak's rejection of the statement issued by his own foreign ministry most likely represents the Prime Minister's attempts to manipulate world opinion rather than his commitment to equitable peace negotiations.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com