To engage or not to engage? Groups ponder approach as U.N. disappoints


WASHINGTON — The United Nations is the elephant in the room, U.S. Jewish leaders agree. The question lurking behind a nasty public argument in recent weeks is whether it’s an elephant you can ignore.

The Anti-Defamation League says the performance of the organization and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan, during the recent Lebanon crisis was so unconscionably anti-Israel that it no longer makes sense for Jews to deal with the United Nations.


“Our message should be, ‘We have no business with you,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.

Other Jewish leaders agree that there is much to be criticized — which is precisely why cutting off the United Nations would be counterproductive, they say.

“The Jewish community has a legitimate set of strong grievances, but to deal yourself out of the game, to isolate yourself, does you no good vis- à-vis a body that now retains 192 states,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director.

The debate culminated in an ADL ad in the Aug. 10 New York Times addressed to Annan: “How many more Israeli civilians must die before you condemn Hezbollah? And when will you extend condolences to Israeli victims?”

Annan and his defenders were outraged, saying he repeatedly had condemned the terrorist group and had extended condolences to both sides.

“It’s painful to him when he sees an ad like the ADL’s,” said Edward Mortimer, Annan’s spokesman. “The Anti-Defamation League has printed something that is defamatory.”

Annan condemned Hezbollah on multiple occasions during the war, but usually in conjunction with condemnations of Israel. He also extended condolences to Israelis, in the context of expressing sympathy for all civilian victims.

However, on two notable occasions — after four U.N. observers were killed July 25 and after a bombing killed at least 28 civilians five days later — he singled out Israel for harsh condemnation, even accusing the Jewish state of deliberately targeting the U.N. observers.

Foxman was furious when he learned that the co-chairmen of a U.N. reform committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were to meet with Annan to address their concerns, three weeks after Hezbollah launched the war July 12.

“I asked, ‘Why are we going? Who decided now is the time to go?’ ” Foxman said.

Insiders said Annan’s office invited Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International, and Robert Goodkind, the AJCommittee president, because the Presidents Conference committee they co-chair was preparing a report on U.N. reform, and Annan was eager to address mounting Jewish frustration.

Also attending was Harold Tanner, chairman of the Presidents Conference. Foxman was not invited, something others in attendance emphasized, though Foxman said that did not bother him.

The meeting was a disappointment, according to the Jewish leaders who attended — Annan especially balked at a request to describe Hezbollah as a “terrorist” group, as it is defined by Israel and the United States — but that didn’t mean the meeting wasn’t worthwhile, they said.

“You never know when your words will have immediate effect or will resonate at a later date,” Kaplan said, adding that Foxman should have waited until the committee presented its recommendations on U.N. reform, in about two months.

Harris said the Jewish community inevitably must deal with the United Nations, with all its faults.

“The odds may be against us but we have no choice but to engage, and let’s engage intelligently and skillfully and not shoot from the hip,” he said.

The World Jewish Congress, which represents the interests of overseas Jewish communities to the organization, said engagement with the United Nations was critical because of how large it looms as an influence overseas.

“It’s understandable for those of us based in New York to want to use our proximity to U.N. headquarters on behalf of Israel or broader Jewish concerns — and there ´s nothing wrong with that,” said Shai Franklin, the WJC’s director of international organizations. “For a few billion people around the world, and for the international press corps, the U.N. will be relevant for a long time to come.”

The U.N. Security Council had a crucial role to play in the Lebanon war outcome — though Hezbollah immediately gutted the council’s cease-fire resolution by refusing to disarm — and in forthcoming deliberations on Iran’s nuclear policy, Harris noted.

Foxman countered that Israel, as a sovereign nation, should be the one to deal with the United Nations. Jewish groups, whose power lies in their ability to confer legitimacy, should stay away, he said.

“All we do is give them cover, and I’m tired of it,” he said.

Dan Gillerman, Israel’s envoy to the United Nations, who is known to have a good relationship with Annan, did not return calls for comment.

Harris noted some U.N. successes under Annan, including Holocaust commemoration and condemnation of anti-Semitism.

Foxman said those were superficial.

“It’s much easier for the Kofi Annans of this world to embrace, commemorate dead Jews,” he said. “They have tremendous difficulty embracing and standing up for live Jews.”

The remark by Annan that provoked the most outrage came July 26, a day after an Israeli fighter bombed a U.N. truce observers’ post, killing four of the observers.

“I am shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli defense forces of a U.N. observer post in southern Lebanon,” Annan said.

Mortimer said Annan was referring to the six alerts Israel got from the post prior to the bombing.

“He said ‘apparently deliberate’ based on the report he had from people on the spot, that there was no firing by Hezbollah,” Mortimer said. “It was highly visible and very well known to the Israelis.”

It was subsequently revealed that at least one of the dead observers had complained that Hezbollah men nearby were firing missiles. Israel said it was responding to that Hezbollah fire — but Annan never retracted his statement.

That was not Annan’s only misstep, according to Jewish leaders. He was unequivocal in condemning Israel for a July 30 bombing at Kana that killed at least 28 civilians, but failed to adequately address Hezbollah’s responsibility for using civilian cover to fire its rockets on northern Israel.

“We must condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” Annan said. “This tragedy has, rightly, provoked moral outrage throughout the world.”

Much further down in the statement, Annan noted: “Hezbollah has continued firing rockets indiscriminately into northern Israel, from positions apparently located in the midst of the civilian population. No one disputes Israel’s right to defend itself. But by its manner of doing so it has caused, and is causing, death and suffering on a wholly unacceptable scale.”

More than 700 Lebanese died in the 34-day war, most of them civilians, according to Lebanese counts. More than 160 Israelis died, most of them soldiers.

More broadly, Annan insisted on an immediate cease-fire, while Israel — with a U.S. nod — wanted the international community to hold back until it had substantially damaged Hezbollah’s military capability.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said the relationship with the United Nations was a work in progress.

“We want to see the U.N. be a vehicle that’s effective in dealing with world crises,” he said.

To that end, he said, the Presidents Conference was meeting with likely successors to Annan, whose term finishes at the end of this year.