Yaacobi sees welcome environment for Israel at U.N.

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For decades at the United Nations, Israel was trapped in political no-man's land — a full member, yet isolated and vilified.

But since the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, the United Nations has turned into the Jewish state's diplomatic Promised Land.

For Israel, the world body has become "a framework for international cooperation," said Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Ya'acobi. "This is a great opportunity for Israel to work through this channel and enhance our international standing."

Israel's position at the United Nations is stronger than ever as the world body marks its 50th anniversary, said Ya'acobi, who visited San Francisco last week for the anniversary festivities.

During an interview at Israel's consulate, the ambassador predicted Israel will eventually establish formal ties with most Arab states and U.N. members.

"The change is very substantial and very quick," he said.

The period when Israeli U.N. envoys from Golda Meir to Abba Eban got the cold shoulder in the halls of the U.N. headquarters is receding into history, he noted. In the past two years, the Jewish state has established diplomatic relations with 29 U.N. members. Today, Israel has ties with 155 of 185 U.N. countries.

The transformation became visible four years ago, when the U.N. Security Council nullified — Ya'acobi says "repaired" — its infamous 1975 vote equating Zionism with racism.

The reversal came at a time when global geopolitical forces were setting the stage for Israel's surer footing at the United Nations. The Cold War had come to a close, and the engine behind many anti-Israel U.N. votes — the Soviet Union — had disintegrated.

Amid these dramatic developments, Israel broke with its tradition of refusing U.N. involvement in Mideast peace efforts by allowing U.N. mediation at the 1991 Madrid peace conference with Arab states. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed their peace agreement and laid the groundwork for further Israeli gains at the United Nations.

Since the Israeli-PLO treaty signing, about 20 anti-Israel U.N. resolutions that Ya'acobi calls "anachronistic" and "irrelevant" have been dropped, delayed or reversed.

After years of Israel's constant censure battles, "there is no negative or condemning language being used anymore," Ya'acobi said.

An unprecedented U.N. resolution supporting Israel came out of the Security Council after the Israel-PLO treaty urging Mideast nations to continue the road to peace.

Other signs of support for Israel abound, Ya'acobi says.

When Argentina and Israel initiated a resolution calling for international cooperation to fight terrorism, the United Nations unanimously approved the measure.

Meanwhile, Israel has formed "working relationships, some very close," with such Arab or Muslim states as Djibouti, Morocco, Tunisia — once home to the PLO — and Qatar, Ya'acobi said.

Ya'acobi, 60, seems ideally suited to working behind the scenes on bolstering those ties. A 23-year Labor Party veteran and former Cabinet member, the soft-spoken author and poet was among those to approve the Entebbe rescue mission in 1976 and help devise Israeli electoral reform more recently. Yet because he has stayed out of the media spotlight, few outside Israeli political circles recognize him.

As Israel makes inroads into the Arab world at the United Nations' New York headquarters, it is making headway with U.N. agencies. Ties are improving after years of tension with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which acts as a buffer between Israeli troops and Lebanese and Palestinian forces. Similarly, Israel has even called for aid to the Palestinians to flow through the United Nations Development Program.

For now, Israel has stopped short of more visible U.N. actions, such as sending troops to join U.N. peacekeeping forces. But Ya'acobi said Israel has joined other humanitarian and civil relief efforts. An Israeli police team joined other U.N. forces in Haiti, for example, and Israel sent a team of doctors, a field hospital and aid to Rwandan refugees.

Moreover, four Israelis were recently elected to General Assembly posts, including seats on panels overseeing children's and human rights.

Ya'acobi considers these appointments significant. "It exemplifies a new position of standing for Israel in the U.N.," he said.

Despite Israel's growing stature in the United Nations, Ya'acobi admitted the Jewish state faces obstacles to becoming a full U.N. participant. The biggest pitfall is that Israel has not integrated into any international political or regional alignment.

For years, Israel was grouped with Asian nations rather than Middle Eastern countries because of its conflicts with Arab states. Israel now is campaigning to join other Western democracies in a group that includes Australia, Canada, Western Europe and the United States, Ya'acobi said.

Israel hopes that joining this group will help establish its role as a leading Western democracy, Ya'acobi said, but so far Great Britain and France have remained noncommittal about the arrangement.

"We hope Britain and France will be more decisive in their support," he said.

Ya'acobi is nonetheless increasingly upbeat about Israel's place in the United Nations and the world.

No anti-Israel votes have surfaced in the past two years, despite such events as the Hebron massacre and Israel's deportation of Palestinians to Lebanon, he said. (A U.N. vote against Israel's planned seizure of Arab land in Jerusalem fell to a U.S. veto.)

By itself, the lack of anti-Israel resolutions is a breakthrough, he said. "Who would have believed it two or three years ago?"