Israeli officials and most Jewish communal leaders would agree with the following: Kofi Annan took unprecedented steps to make Israel a full member of the United Nations, combat antisemitism and make sure that the Holocaust was paid proper respect within the world body.
They would, however, also subscribe to the point of view that Annan was too frequent a critic of the Jewish state and too tepid a critic of Palestinian terrorism during his just-completed 10-year tenure as U.N. secretary general — not to mention his open disagreement with Washington over the Iraq War and anti-terrorism policies. In the end, pro-Israel critics would say, the former Ghanaian diplomat served at the helm of an inherently anti-Israeli institution.
The question for Israel and its supporters is, which Annan — who was succeeded January 1 by Ban Ki-moon of South Korea — will be remembered: a moral leader who shepherded a historical resolution proposed by Israel on the Holocaust, or an acerbic critic of Israel’s military actions in Beirut and the West Bank town of Jenin? In a series of speeches last month, Annan, who has been dogged by the oil-for-food scandal and criticized in Washington for his failure to reform the world body, expressed regrets for the U.N.’s failure to make headway in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to create a fair-minded human-rights monitoring entity — two factors of great concern to Jerusalem and its supporters.
Many Jewish communal officials who had dealings with Annan praised his efforts to improve the tense relationship between Israel and the world body, often defying open hostility from a majority of member states. They also hailed his willingness to reach out to an often-adversarial community.
“Despite the fact that he is reflecting the very historically sensitive relationship between the U.N. and Israel and the critical viewpoint of most member-states, Annan has done a lot to try to ease the tensions,” said Dan Carmon, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. “His efforts on Jewish issues were path-breaking, and he showed moral courage and candor in giving those issues prominence at the U.N.,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, which last month hosted a private dinner in honor of Annan.
Others, however, saw a decidedly more problematic legacy, tinged by Annan’s frequent criticism of Israel. “Unfortunately, he is more comfortable with dead Jews than living ones. That’s sad, because he is a good man,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which in the summer took out advertisements blasting Annan over his statements on Israel during the war in Lebanon. “He has failed the Jewish people in recent years because he saw himself as an arbitrator rather than a moral leader…. From time to time, he found the courage to say the right things, but his drive to please everyone has placed him on a trajectory of moral equivalence, putting the arsonist and the firemen on an equal footing.”
Annan had served in different positions in the U.N. when he was elected secretary-general with the support of the Clinton administration in January 1997 to succeed Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. For Israel and its supporters, whose relations with Ghali were distant at best, Annan, with his neutral background and his marriage to a relative of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, was a welcome change. And he quickly embarked on an effort to dispel the historic tensions between the world body and Israel, which were especially inflated under his predecessor.
Early in his first term, Annan became the first secretary general to denounce the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution passed by the General Assembly in 1975 and repealed in 1991 as a “low point for the U.N.” Annan, also appointed a liaison within his secretariat to the American Jewish community.
Annan was an early proponent of ending Israel’s exclusion from regional groups, which prevented it from participating in U.N. bodies. In May 2000, Israel was given temporary acceptance into the Western and Other Countries Group at the U.N. in New York — although not at U.N. offices abroad. Last year, Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman was elected by the General Assembly to serve as its vice president, and Israeli diplomats have been able to serve in several U.N. entities.
Annan, however, was eventually caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially after the beginning of the intifada in late 2000. The most controversial episode took place in the spring of 2002, after a pitched battle between Israel troops and Palestinians militants in Jenin. Senior U.N. officials blasted Israel for killing dozens of civilians, prompting virulent denunciations from Jerusalem, including threats to ban some U.N. officials from traveling to Israel. The U.N. eventually conducted a probe that essentially confirmed Israeli claims that the death toll had been lower than most initial estimates.
Similar tensions surfaced over Jerusalem’s actions in Lebanon. In addition to Annan’s regular condemnations of Israeli raids over the years, the relations soured in 2000 when evidence emerged that the U.N. had withheld video footage shot by its peacekeepers of the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. While U.N. officials initially denied possessing the video, they were forced to admit its existence in 2001, and an internal probe blamed the episode on botched communications between officials on the ground and the senior management in New York.
Still, Annan earned praise from Israel for officially sanctioning the Jewish state’s full withdrawal from Lebanese territory in 2000. By doing so, he undercut claims from Hezbollah and Syria that Israel was still occupying Lebanese land by holding on to a small swath along the border, known as the Shebaa Farms.
Annan’s tenure was also marked by the recrudescence of antisemitism in the world body. The most infamous example was a conference on racism and discrimination held in early September 2001 in Durban, South Africa, during which pro-Palestinian nongovernmental organizations staged numerous anti-Israel demonstrations, prompting the Israeli and the American delegation to leave and igniting a fresh round of accusations of anti-Israeli bias. The uproar effected an outreach effort by the secretariat, especially through Undersecretary Shashi Tharoor, and eventually the convening in June 2004 of the first-ever conference on antisemitism at U.N. headquarters.
In January 2005, a special session of the General Assembly to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps was held, and the G.A. adopted a resolution in November 2005, introduced by Israel, making January 27 an annual Holocaust Memorial Day.
More broadly, Annan considers as major achievements the so-called Millennium Development Goals that seek to slash a host of social ills, such as extreme hunger and poverty, infant and maternal mortality, and lack of access to education and health care, all by 2015. He also strongly lobbied for the adoption of a resolution outlining the responsibility of member states to protect civilians. But critics claim that Annan’s failures in this area have hurt his reputation.
They note his inability to do more to stop the violence in Darfur and his failure to stop the murderous civil conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s, at a time when he was the U.N.’s chief of peacekeeping operations. Annan has accepted part of the blame, but he noted that it needed to be shared with powerful Western governments.
Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic magazine, blasted Annan at a press conference early last month, accusing him of serving as a handmaiden to Sudan’s regime in its military campaign in Darfur. Annan has acknowledged the dismal reform of the U.N.’s main human rights body, the Human Rights Council. Since its creation six months ago, the new entity has passed eight resolutions condemning human rights violations — all focusing on alleged misdeeds by Israel.
“Are you any more confident today than you were 10 years ago that an intergovernmental organization can really do this job? I fear the answer may be no, and that the first steps of the Human Rights Council, which we all fought so hard to establish, may not have given you much encouragement,” he said earlier this month in a speech at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, Mo. “I am worried by its disproportionate focus on violations by Israel. Not that Israel should be given a free pass. Absolutely not. But the council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other states, as well.”
Edward Mortimer, a former Annan speechwriter who became his liaison to the Jewish community in 2003, told the Forward that “fair-minded Jews would acknowledge that Annan made a significant contribution to give Jews and Israel a fair place at the U.N.”