Israel finally moves closer to upgrading status at U.N.

NEW YORK — After years of lobbying and disappointment, Israel may be on the verge of erasing its status as the only United Nations member shut out of a regional group.

Israel moved one step closer to membership in the Western European and Others Group on Monday, when U.N. ambassadors from the 15 countries that comprise the European Union agreed that Israel should be accepted to WEOG as a full — albeit temporary — member.

Israel's logical place is within the Asian grouping, but Iraq and Iran show no sign of ever welcoming in Israel. Israel sees its next best choice as the 26-member WEOG, which also includes the Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States for some issues.

On Tuesday, the E.U. circulated its conditions for permitting Israel to join. The conditions, or so-called "modalities" were returned by WEOG members to their capitals for study.

Israel is believed to have reservations about some of the conditions, particularly one that says Israel would be a voting member of the WEOG only in New York, not in other U.N. centers, such as Geneva.

Another condition is that Israel would not present candidates for contested vacancies on various U.N. bodies for two years. A further condition is that existing WEOG rotation schemes for putting forward candidates for election to U.N. posts would not be altered because of Israel's temporary membership.

There are two schools of thought regarding the modalities: One says that Israel should hold out for full rights and privileges, with no strings attached; the other, advocated by groups like the American Jewish Committee, says Israel should seek the best possible terms now, and negotiate for the rest once inside WEOG.

"As I see it, Israel is willing to bend initially, but not permanently," said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee. "The best terms does not mean the ideal terms."

Analysts say the group has dragged its feet on admitting Israel because of its concern about increased competition among other members of the group and its fear of angering its allies in the Arab world.

Membership in one of the U.N.'s five regional groupings is more than symbolic. An enhanced status for Israel would mean a stronger voice in U.N. affairs, though exactly how strong a role it could play would depend on conditions that may be placed on Israel's membership.

The development comes as Israel, which has often felt isolated and unfairly singled out for condemnation in the world body, has expressed concern that it may be a target at the U.N. conference on nuclear non-proliferation, which is taking place this month in New York.

Israel is one of four countries that has not signed the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, nor has it officially admitted to having nuclear capabilities. The other non-signatories are Cuba, India and Pakistan.

The WEOG development also comes in the wake of Israel's formal announcement that it would comply with the 1978 U.N. resolution that calls on it to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

It is not clear whether either of these issues will affect — positively or negatively — WEOG's decision to accept Israel.

"The atmosphere is always more favorable in the minds of politicians if positive steps are taken" in the Middle East, said Antonio Monteiro, Portugal's ambassador to the U.N. Portugal currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U..

"The E.U. now has a unified position," Monteiro said Tuesday. "We realize we could not delay this anymore. Israel naturally belongs to the Asian group, but since conditions do not exist, the principle of exclusion should not prevail."

Israel's membership in WEOG would be temporary, he said, with the ultimate goal of getting Israel accepted by the Asian group.

The momentum clearly favors Israeli membership, but negotiations are far from over.

Israel believes the modalities would be an injustice and would continue to violate the U.N. charter, which holds that each U.N. member is equal.

"We have said all along — we do not want to substitute one anomaly for another anomalous situation," said Aaron Jacob, Israel's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

"We are willing to accept certain temporary limitations, but we are not willing to accept restrictions that will render our membership meaningless."

Another diplomat close to the negotiations, who requested anonymity, said the modalities may also be an effort to appease the Arab and Muslim states in the United Nations, who constitute a huge, influential bloc.

No European member wants to be seen as "the one that allowed in Israel," said the diplomat, noting that Arab and Muslim states could threaten an economic boycott.

Israel was inching toward WEOG membership in the mid-1990s until the November 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Europeans were loathe to reward his replacement, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the carrot of WEOG membership because of his perceived intransigence in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The European outlook changed with last year's election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.