UNITED NATIONS — Despite their long-standing misgivings about the world body and its leadership, America’s main Jewish groups are staying on the sidelines as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan battles calls by American conservatives for his resignation.
At the same time, the pressures on Annan to clean house appear to have strengthened the Jewish groups in their separate campaign for the dismissal of several senior U.N. aides deemed hostile to Israel. At least one, Peter Hansen, head of the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, will not be reappointed when his current term runs out at the end of February, several sources said. The fate of another aide, Lakhdar Brahimi, a special adviser known for his anti-Israel views, is less clear, as are Annan’s plans for a successor to outgoing Middle East special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen.
Annan has been facing calls to resign for weeks from Republican lawmakers and pundits angered over his handling of the so-called oil-for-food scandal, involving corruption in a U.N. program intended to channel humanitarian aid to Iraq during the 1990s. Critics also fault Annan for opposing American policy goals and for a host of management problems, some of them full-blown scandals.
A preliminary report on the oil-for-food scandal, issued this week by a special investigative panel, found evidence of mismanagement but “no flaming red flag” of top-level corruption, the panel’s chairman, former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, told reporters.
Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman last week became the first ranking Democrat to suggest that Annan was not adequate for the job.
Jewish community officials have been noticeably silent on Annan’s fate, reflecting their ambivalent feelings toward the Ghanaian-born diplomat. But community officials insisted that their silence should not be taken as endorsement of his ouster.
“The Jewish community has no position on oil-for-food,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, echoing the views of several officials interviewed. “What concerns us is his leadership on our issues. He has been too studiously evenhanded and quick to criticize Israel during the intifada. On the other hand, he has made some efforts to talk about antisemitism at the U.N.”
Annan made a point early in his tenure of acknowledging Israeli sensitivities, winning him praise from Israel and from its supporters. He was the driving force behind the U.N.’s first-ever conference on antisemitism this past June. He also helped set up an exhibit and a special General Assembly session, set for January 24, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz.
At the same time, his tenure has coincided with growing Israeli isolation and rising Islamic-Western tensions. He has also angered American conservatives, including some leading supporters of Israel, for his failure to back President Bush on Iraq.
Jewish groups are wary, however, of efforts to identify them with the goals of the Republican administration. Several officials were dismissive of the fact that two of Annan’s most visible critics, Lieberman and Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, are both Jewish, insisting that the senators’ views did not imply a “Jewish criticism.”
“They represent U.S. foreign policy interests, especially because they have both been for the war in Iraq, and it looks as though they are settling scores on that issue,” Foxman said.
Most observers believe Annan will not resign, but will answer critics by pushing reforms. They point to his decision to replace longtime chief of staff Iqbal Riza as a tacit acknowledgment of poor oversight on various fronts. In addition to the oil-for-food scandal, the world body faces charges of sexual harassment by peacekeeping troops in Congo, detailed in an internal investigation released last week, as well as mounting employee complaints about working conditions.
Annan has two years left in his second and last term. Replacing him now, without a clear succession mechanism, would create more problems than it would solve, one communal official said.
Several sources said that Annan had decided, after consulting an advisory commission, not to reappoint Hansen for a fourth three-year term as commissioner-general of the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee aid agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Hansen came under fire several months ago after acknowledging in an interview that his agency was likely employing Hamas members. He quickly backtracked, saying he meant Hamas sympathizers, but his fate was probably sealed then, observers said. Rep. Tom Lantos of California reportedly discussed Hansen with Annan several weeks ago and made clear that the administration wanted him out. Sources said that European countries, while favoring him, would not block his replacement.
“We expect any person chosen to have a zero tolerance policy on links to terrorism,” said Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International.
Earlier this month, B’nai B’rith leaders wrote to Annan urging him to replace Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who last year blamed Israel for troubles in Iraq, calling it “the big poison” in the Middle East. This month, he denounced international acceptance of Israel’s “cynical and ridiculous viewpoint” and called for Ariel Sharon to be “condemned” for “assassinating people.”
Annan has repeatedly said that Brahimi’s views were his own, a stance that Foxman called insufficient. However, community officials privately acknowledge that Brahimi’s pivotal role in brokering stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and especially Iraq make it unlikely that Washington will support his ouster.
No clear favorite has emerged to replace special Middle East envoy Larsen, a Norwegian, who has stepped down. One name cited by insiders is Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast, a Briton who often presents Middle East reports to the Security Council. Communal officials said he aroused mixed feelings and was, in the words of one, “not perceived as a friend of Israel.”