As U.N. Meets, the Diplomatic Dance Card is Full Across Town

By Marc Perelman

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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Newt and the UN

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, onetime leader of the Republican Party’s bomb-throwing conservative wing, has become a staunchly moderate advocate of United Nations reform. Unlike his more fire-breathing party colleagues — such as Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, who wants Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resign in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal — Gingrich is earning bipartisan plaudits for the well-received report on U.N. reform that he produced with former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine. This month, addressing a panel hosted by the World Jewish Congress shortly before the General Assembly convened, Gingrich defended the U.N. passionately and urged America to play a leading role in what he described as a five- to six-year reform process. But he warned that for the world body to rebuild itself, it needed to acknowledge that it had profoundly failed on issues such as the condemnation of terrorism, defense of human rights and acceptance of Israel.

Iran vs. Iran

When recently elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he would travel to New York to attend this year’s United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian opposition announced plans for a protest rally outside the U.N.’s glass tower. The hope was that several thousand protests would come. The hawkish president has been accused of playing a lead role in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and the protesters expected broad sympathy. But the New York committee against Ahmadinejad, set up in late August, was more than just a channel for regime opponents. It had links to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which in turn is linked to the Mujahedin e-Khalq Organization. The latter is listed by the State Department and the European Union as a foreign terrorist organization. Even though there has been talk of using Iraq-based MEK troops against Tehran — and despite the group’s role in exposing Iran’s secret nuclear activities — the Bush administration decided to shut down the Washington office of the National Council. Still, the organization has its American supporters in Congress. Two of them, Democratic Reps. Ed Towns of New York and William Clay of Missouri, gave speeches at the event, alongside some European lawmakers and exiled opposition figures. Sympathizers sported T-shirts and caps glorifying Maryam Rajavi, top leader of the MEK, and shouted “Ahmadinejad terrorist” while spokesmen urged regime change in Iran. “We want both the MEK and the NCRI off the terror list,” said Shirin Nariman, a spokesperson. “It will help unleash the democratic energy in Iran.”

Never Again?

One of the points of contention during the negotiations over a United Nations reform package was the so-called right of intervention to prevent genocide. The original reform document declared that the international community is responsible for protecting civilians from war crimes and genocide when governments cannot or will not provide such protection, but the language was watered down. The adopted text says that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis rather than on principle. In addition to human rights advocates, one person who lamented the outcome was Rwandan President Paul Kagame. His country has become a symbol of genocide unfolding while the international community stood silent. Kagame told an audience at Columbia University this month that the world needed to set up a swift intervention mechanism to flesh out the vaguely worded U.N. document. Taking the example of the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan, Kagame urged world leaders to stop arguing about whether or not the killings constitute genocide and to start acting.

Wolfensohn Brings it On…

James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank and current international envoy to Gaza, is well known for his outspokenness. After weeks of low-key presence on the ground this summer to help ensure a smooth Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he publicly urged both parties last week to get serious about negotiating the remaining sticking points. He was speaking during a debate with Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa during the Clinton Global Initiative, a mini “Davos on the Hudson” meeting convened this month to seek solutions to global poverty, climate change and religious strife. “The remaining problems in Gaza can be solved in three hours if the parties decide it,” Wolfensohn said, referring to disputes over border crossings, disposal of the rubble from settlements, and linkage between the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the reopening of the seaport and the airport in Gaza. “We’re ready to help, so get on it!”

Spain Promises Action

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former European Union special envoy to the Middle East, swears that this is not just another high-minded project that will end up as an empty promise. The so-called Alliance of Civilizations, sponsored by Spain and Turkey and endorsed by the United Nations, claims to be a performance-based approach toward promoting tolerance and dialogue, delineating steps that countries must take in the fields of education, culture and law. “We want a specific plan of action, obligations and responsibilities,” Moratinos told the Forward, adding that a high panel of experts is to deliver a report at the end of 2006. “No more talk. We need to undermine the fanatics by having Muslims themselves stand up.” The initiative, launched by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero after the deadly Madrid train bombings in March 2004, parallels a similar one started within the Muslim world by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. That plan aims at having senior theologians condemn terrorism and fight the use of religious edicts by terrorist groups to legitimize their activities

The Rabbi and Putin

Russia’s Chabad chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin soon to raise the issue of Iran’s nuclear programs. Lazar, who was attending the American Jewish Congress dinner honoring President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, said that Western countries need to do a better job of explaining the Iranian situation to Putin. If they did, he said, the Russian leader would reconsider Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Tehran. “If the West engages him in the right way and gives him more credit, it would work,” said Lazar, who is known to be close to Putin. “He can be useful in many ways, especially in the Middle East, where Russia has some trust.” Asked whether he thought that the prosecution of oil magnate had anything to do with Jews, Lazar said it was “not a Jewish issue at all.” Khodorkovsky, who was indicted for tax fraud but claims he is being persecuted for his political ambitions, told Lazar 10 days before his arrest last year that he did not feel Jewish at all. “I believe it is both a business and political case,” the rabbi said.

France and the Jew(s)

In a symbol of changing times and diplomatic savvy, France this week bestowed its highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur, on the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, for his lifelong advocacy of justice and tolerance. At a special dinner Sunday night, Harris gave an emotional speech recounting his family’s ordeal in Europe before and during World War II. Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy used the occasion to describe France’s efforts to fight antisemitism, noting a nearly 50% drop in the number of antisemitic incidents in the first semester compared with the same period last year. Praising the improvement of relations between Paris and Jerusalem, he warned Syria to stay out of Lebanon. Harris bluntly told Iran that Europe’s patience was wearing thin on the nuclear issue.

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