News Analysis — U.N. session targeting Israel revives charges of bias

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NEW YORK — Long-held cynicism about the United Nations and its ability to be fair was reinvigorated this week as the General Assembly reconvened an emergency session targeted at Israel.

"The U.N. is reverting to its Cold War role as an Israel bashing forum," Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B'nai B'rith International, wrote as the world body prepared to debate Israel's construction of the controversial Har Homa housing project.

"The distortion, the hatred, the insult and the injury go well beyond what is warranted."

At Tuesday's session, members of the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a non-binding resolution against Israel.

But the Arab-sponsored resolution fell short of its original aims of levying economic sanctions against "illegal settlements" and undercutting Israel's standing in the United Nations.

Instead, the resolution called on states to "actively discourage" activities that contribute to the economic development of Israeli settlements.

In spite of the weakened resolution, the General Assembly's debate and its 131-3 vote provided evidence of the demise of the Middle East peace process.

The session also underscored Israel's increasing isolation after an anomalous warming of relations with the international community in the wake of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who had been pressing European U.N. diplomats to vote against the resolution, sounded a note similar to Schoenberg's.

"Treating Israel as a political football, to be kicked around at will, does not bring credit to the world organization struggling to reform itself and re-establish its credibility," he said in a statement.

In an interview, he added, "The U.N. attitude improves when Israel is forthcoming on the peace process. The moment there is a breakdown in the process, there's a reflexive assumption the breakdown is a result of an Israeli action or inaction."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also blasted the U.N. action even before it unfolded.

"While thousands or hundreds of thousands are dying in various wars or disasters in the world," he said, "the United Nations chooses to discuss two or three bulldozers that are building apartments for tranquil citizens in Jerusalem."

The stepped-up isolation of the Jewish state is further evidenced by the reluctance expressed by many nations to attend the upcoming Middle East regional economic conference in the Gulf nation of Qatar because of Israel's participation.

Both Israel and the United States have placed a lot of stock in the regional economic dividends that the November conference, the fourth of its kind, is expected to yield.

In fact, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has scheduled her first trip to the Middle East in the top U.S. diplomatic post to attend the conference, the State Department announced Tuesday.

Meanwhile in London, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat called on Europe to threaten economic sanctions against Israel to stop it from building new settlements.

Tuesday's resolution came in response to recent findings issued by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Israel had failed to stop the construction of the Har Homa housing project at a site in southeastern Jerusalem.

That construction triggered a crisis in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking along with Arab unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Israel sees Har Homa as part of its undivided capital of Jerusalem, Palestinians view the area as part of the capital of their hoped-for state.

Annan issued the report following an unusual emergency session the General Assembly convened in April.

At that time, members condemned the construction plan and demanded an immediate halt, adopting a non-binding resolution to that effect by a vote of 134-3.

Israel, the United States and Micronesia opposed the resolution; 11 nations abstained.

Once again this week, the United States and Micronesia joined with Israel.

Israel termed the secretary's report "one-sided and hostile" and protested the session, reiterating that its dispute with the Palestinians should be resolved bilaterally and not in the U.N. arena.

The convening of an emergency special session "is an extreme measure intended for use only in the exceptional cases of direct `threats to international peace and security,'" an official Israeli statement said. "By no means does the Jerusalem housing project constitute such a threat."

An earlier draft of this week's resolution suggested that Israel's U.N. participation be curtailed, but the final draft that was approved Tuesday was softened, only hinting at such action in the future.

At the session, the newly confirmed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, took the offensive.

During the debate, Gold chronicled a litany of violations committed by Arafat in the agreements he has made with Israel.

He assailed the Palestinian leader for not completing the revision of the Palestinian Covenant; for repeatedly cutting off security cooperation; for not terminating "incitement to violence"; for not carrying out "a systematic and effective combating of terrorist organizations"; for not transferring terrorist suspects; and for not confiscating illegal arms, among other violations.

"In short, while Israel has met all of its commitments, the PLO has met none of its obligations," he said.

Gold also accused the United Nations of "turning back the clock decades" and of undermining the peace process by holding the session as the process enters "its most critical phase."

"To the Palestinian side, it is the clearest of messages that the United Nations is a convenient and willing forum for bypassing the peace process.

"And to Israel, it sends the troubling message that taking serious security risks for peace, as Israel has done in every one of its agreements with the PLO, are concessions which are quickly forgotten."