Sunday, September 26, 2010

Closest Ally misses US mood On Kosovo

United Nations Report: Ban Ki-moon Engages Israeli Politicians, as Israel Remains Mum on Kosovo Precedent

WRMEA, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 19, 41

United Nations Report
Ban Ki-moon Engages Israeli Politicians, as Israel Remains Mum on Kosovo Precedent
By Ian Williams

The endless trail of Israeli politicians beating their way to the door of the U.N. secretary-general continues, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak arriving at the end of July. One wonders whether it is a form of masochism on their part, since Ban Ki-moon's public statements on Gaza, on settlements, or the flotilla assault can scarcely offer them much comfort, and he is reputed to be unsparingly direct in private conversation. Even as Barak turned up, the consequences of the Goldstone Report rumble on and the Human Rights Council appointed yet another inquiry into Israel's May 31 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Even so, Ban clearly keeps an open door for the motley ministers who turn up at his office, and almost certainly sees more Israeli politicians than those of any other nationality. If one were cynical, one might wonder whether or not a visit to the U.N.'s New York headquarters allows Israeli ministers to deduct expenses for a trip to meet potential American donors to electoral campaigns back in Israel. On another level, however, it demonstrates the bipolar relationships between Israel and the world organization. After all, the state's legitimacy derives far more from the U.N. partition resolutions and its admission to the General Assembly than from any deeds by Moses—which even the most assiduous title search might have difficulty producing. It seems Israeli politicians will do anything to get the U.N.'s blessing—except, of course, abide by the organization's decisions and resolutions!

The other aspect of the ability to believe several impossible things before breakfast is the Israeli tendency to dismiss all U.N. agencies as irredeemably anti-Israel, while happily demanding that the U.N. take action against Iran, Lebanon and Syria for alleged breaches of U.N. resolutions. And there is this, almost pathetic, wish to be accepted, which manifests itself in the need to be photographed with Ban Ki-moon.

Ban has parlayed it well. The U.N. is more involved in the Middle East question than ever before. At the beginning of August he even persuaded Israel to accept an international fact-finding inquiry into the flotilla assault, with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer as chair and, as vice-chair, the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe—who, when he was awarded B'nai B'rith's premier international honor, the Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism, spoke of his "deep feeling of respect and admiration for Israel." They will be joined by a Turkish and an Israeli representative. The panel is the result of the Security Council presidential statement, supported—and, indeed, diluted—by the U.S., and Israeli acceptance resulting from intense pressure from Ban.

It would of course be naïve to think that it was the moral standing of the U.N. alone which won over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. More sober-minded Israelis are desperate to woo Turkey, so Ban was able to leverage pressure from inside Israel as well. It shows that Ban's work with Israel does have positive results, and already, as a consequence of it, the U.N. has a much more active part in what passes for a peace process. It took a lot of pressure for Israel to allow Washington to allow the U.N. even a walk-on part when Boutros Ghali, one of the architects of the original Camp David agreement, was secretary-general. And then the U.N. was smuggled in to become part of the Quartet, with the EU, Russia and the U.S.

Israeli leaders had traditionally resisted U.N. involvement because it was the world's institutional memory: all the resolutions that it wanted to force the Palestinians to forget stood against the Jewish state's expansionist ambitions. But, conversely, the U.N. must ratify any agreement reached if Israel is ever to gain the full legitimacy it craves. Israel might have cemented its hold on the U.S., but that is showing welcome signs of crumbling. Along with short-term behavior, Israeli leaders have a long-term view, and can see Washington's relative decline and the increasing importance of China and the EU. World opinion is tiring of aggressive, heavily armed self-proclaimed victims. It takes a lot of effort to make fundamentalist Islamist militant bigots like Hamas the objects of sympathy, but Israel has managed it!

So what is the U.N. doing about it all? For years U.S. congressional apologists for Israel have railed against the U.N. programs that expound its own decisions—including those the U.S. itself voted for! But these programs have persevered, and in July I was in Lisbon for one of them. The media seminars on the Middle East issue used to be just Third Worldish jamborees, but under Boutros Ghali and his head of information, Samir Sanbar, the seminars became more deliberative and less declarative, inviting Israeli journalists and politicians from across the political spectrum, along with Palestinian counterparts and international journalists and academics.

Of course, there was much reticence on the part of some Israelis to take part, not least as they wrestled with the various arbitrary taboos of assorted Israeli governments about which Palestinians they could speak to. Indeed, especially in the early days, some Palestinians were reluctant in case they were tainted as collaborators with the occupiers.

In Lisbon, where the effect of new media was being considered, the U.N. had assembled a respectable spectrum of Israeli media and society, along with those from Palestine who could get out. Gazans were under-represented, naturally, because the Israeli government does not allow them to travel.

And that highlighted one of the points: despite a decade and a half of such "bridge building," and despite an encouraging relaxation of tensions, it appeared that in general, the Palestinians followed events in Israel far more closely than vice versa. Despite the unprecedented accessibility that new media gave to the Palestinian press and media, few Israelis avail themselves of it, even on Hebrew-language sites. In that sense, the wall has worked. Even many Israeli journalists seem oblivious to what is happening on the other side, of the daily humiliation of occupation. A young Palestinian journalist's account of in effect groveling to get a permit to attend a press conference in Jerusalem, crossing innumerable checkpoints, with arbitrary and capricious delays, and having to return by five was compared by an Israeli editor, sympathetic and personable, to the security the rest of us endure at airports—i.e., something necessary and excusable. It was a stunning lack of personal and professional empathy, all the more telling for being unconscious and in contrast to his apparent benignity.
The ICJ Decision on Kosovo

Recognizing the pain of others is, of course, one of the building blocks of a global society, and Israelis certainly are not alone in thinking that the people they drop bombs on do not understand them. On July 22, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion asked for by the General Assembly, at Serbia's request, on the legality of the Kosovar declaration of independence. There was no international law against declaring independence, the court ruled—which is hardly surprising, since most members of the U.N. are there because at some point or other they had declared their independence.

Belgrade had covered its bases, but not really in glory, by pre-emptively stating that it would not be bound by the decision. It is symptomatic of the self-regarding state of Serbian nationalism that its government can ask for a court ruling while telling the court that it will only accept a favorable decision. For decades Serbia had treated Kosovo as if it were its own West Bank, regarding the actual inhabitants as unwanted complications to its alleged historical claims, and of course it is a hot button issue in Serbia, where growing pragmatic acceptance that Kosovo is not going to return to the bosom of its persecutor does not detract from nationalist outrage. The Serb government, a prisoner to nationalist sentiment, used the U.N. and the ICJ to stall the issue domestically, not because it expected—or even wanted—a resolution of the issue.

It is an interesting dilemma, because Serbia does not have a snowball's chance in hell of joining the EU, as it wants, if it maintains claims against a country now recognized by the EU and a majority of its members. Currently 69 U.N. members recognize Kosovo, and the ICJ's decision will almost certainly open the floodgates.

However, there is an interesting omission. Serbia complains that the EU and U.S. have been putting pressure on countries to recognize Kosovo. One would expect, therefore, that Washington's closest ally, which owes so much to American diplomatic support, would be one of the first to step up to the plate. But Israel has not recognized Kosovo, and it will be interesting to see whether it will now. Ask not what you can do for the U.S., but what can the U.S. do for you!

Apart from keeping lines open to China, Russia and other powers, Israel clearly is thinking of the legal precedent offered by Kosovo for the threatened Palestinian (re)Declaration of Independence. Unlike Kosovo, the United Nations General Assembly authorized the establishment of an Arab Palestinian state in the same 1947 partition resolution, and has progressively upped the status of the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations so that it has almost all the prerogatives and opportunities of a member state. It is only a paragraph or two from being recognized as a full member—with, of course, profound implications.

One can already hear the objection that it would be wrong to recognize a state without clear international boundaries, but that of course is precisely what happened with Israel, which had exceeded what it was allowed in the partition resolution. In fact there is a clear corpus of U.N. decisions on the Palestinian state's boundaries. No wonder Israel is holding back on Kosovo.

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