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George Buamgarten

Security Council Meeting on Middle East—Few Surprises, As Jordanian Foreign Minister Presides

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, January 28, 2014

     The regular monthly meeting of the U.N. Security Council produced few surprises, and the usual combination of both bitter invective and pompous bluster. What was unusual, however, was the presence of several Foreign Ministers –including the Presiding Officer, in the Chair.


     The Presidency of the Security Council rotates alphabetically among both the permanent and non-permanent members, which for January 2014 devolved upon Jordan. What was unusual was the manner in which Jordan happened to get the seat in the first place. The seat was intended for some member from what is called the “Asia Group” (All Security Council members—except the “Permanent Five”—are elected for two-year terms, as representatives of one of five “regional groups”). The Asian seat had gone—after a campaign of several years—to Saudi Arabia. There is an unwritten agreement that there shall always be one (1) Arab member of the Council—either from North Africa or the Middle East. Thus, Saudi Arabia was chosen as an Arab member, representing the Asia Group.


     The trouble began, on the morning after the October election, when the Saudis announced that they were declining the seat to which they had just been elected. Their reasons were never entirely clear, or ever fully and explicitly spelled out. But they seemed to have been very upset with the way things were going in the Middle East, as well as with the Council itself, and its chronic ineffectiveness (“Security Council Reform” is a vastly wider issue at the United Nations, and goes far beyond the Saudis and their particular complaints.). At this point, Jordanian Ambassador Zeid bin Raad bin Zeid bin Al-Hussein rushed home for consultations with King Abdullah II (his Second Cousin, once removed), they decided to stand for the seat, in place of the Saudis. And, with the alphabetical rotation (France having presided in December 2013), they got the Presidency, on the first day of their membership. Prince Zeid (whom this correspondent knows for several years), despite his royal background, is in fact a highly experienced diplomat and international civil servant, and thus well qualified to preside over the Council.


   The Security Council holds a Public Debate (as opposed to closed “Consultations”) most every month, on the subject of “The Middle East, including the Palestine Question”. The Debates are routine, with the exception of ones just after the “flotilla affair”, or when the Arab states are trying to condemn Israel for something. What was unusual on this occasion was the presence of the Foreign Ministers of Jordan and Luxembourg, and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The Secretary-General first briefed the Council, both the “Observer State of Palestine” and the State of Israel spoke, followed by statements by each member of the Council, and then by other states and observers.



     Sitting in as President on this occasion was Ambassador Zeid’s immediate superior, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (The Council’s Presidency vests with the country, not the Ambassador, so anyone in Jordan may preside—in theory, right up to King Abdullah. Similarly, President Obama could preside during a U.S. Presidency, as he did several years ago, and likely will again when the U.S. next presides in September, during the annual “General Debate”). Judeh, who was educated at Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.), has been Foreign Minister since 2009


    The first speaker, as always in such debates, was the Secretary0General, Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban spoke himself on this occasion, rather than sending his Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, or some other official. Since the official Agenda was just nominally the entire Middle East, he noted the tragic and explosive situation in Syria, as well as its effect on neighboring Lebanon. He also cited the great increase in tensions and violence in Iraq. Addressing himself to the Israel—Palestine situation, Ban complimented Secretary John Kerry, and his indefatigable efforts to bring the two sides together. He just mentions in passing (in a one-line paragraph) the building of settlements by Israel. He identifies Gaza as a “cause for concern”, and notes the shortfall in UNRWA funding (UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestine refugees.). He asserts that “…only a negotiated solution will bring security and recognition in the region and beyond”. And addressing himself to the two leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, the Secretary-General says: If you are prepared to take the bold decisions required, I will push ahead on the positive agenda of peace dividends for both sides…”.


    The “State of Palestine” was the first speaker in this debate. Under the Rules of the Security Council, each of its Members has the right to speak. Any other member of the U.N. with and interest in the issue at hand may speak, under what is called Rule 37. And organizations (such as the European Union, or the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People) may speak, under what is called Rule 39. And Non-Member entities such as the “State of Palestine” (or the Holy See, which has the same status) may speak under the “Other” Category.


    The “State of Palestine” was represented by its Ambassador/Observer, Dr. Riyad Mansour. Mansour, who served as spokesperson for his Mission under one of its previous Ambassadors, quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. The Palestinian people, as he portrays it, are the [obvious] victims of a gross injustice. Therefore, the whole issue has been on the U.N. Agenda, for some seven decades. He seems to expect great things from the efforts of Secretary Kerry. And he quotes the Secretary as promising to expend every effort to find peace.


     Mansour further reiterated the Palestinian position: A Palestinian State based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the refugee problem. “On our part”, he said. “the Palestinian Government and people are committed to peace and justice and are exhausting all efforts…”. Overlooked, as always, in the genesis of the so-called “refugee problem”: the Palestinians and their leaders (Principally the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, El Haj Amin Husseini, who spent most of the Second World War as Adolf Hitler’s virtual house guest in Berlin) encouraged their flight. And their successors have perpetuated the myth of their dispossession, to this very day.


   Answering on behalf of Israel, its Ambassador and veteran diplomat Ron Prosor pointed to Israel as an “island of stability and democracy in a ‘sea of hostility’ in its region”. Israel, he said, was committed to peace. It had made the “heartbreaking decision” to release terrorists, who had been given a “hero’s welcome” by the people. Their victims were obliged to “watch the murderers of their families being celebrated”. He further faulted the Palestinians—and the Fatah party in particular—for repeated incitement. He asserted than “an entire generation had been lost to incitement”.


    Prosor also said that the Israel—Palestine conflict was not the major conflict in the Middle East. Shiites were fighting Sunnis, who were also fighting Alawites. Extremist groups were battling each other in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia etc. etc. He also reminded the Council that “Each and every one here must tell the Palestinians that there will never peace as long as they refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish State and insist on a so called right of return”.


Prosor also pointed up the dangers of a nuclear Iran: Allowing it to continue enrichment of Uranium would enable it to build a bomb very quickly. He also pointed out that Iran is the foremost sponsor of terrorism, as well as the backer of Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon—both of which pose a mortal threat to the State of Israel. He also said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could learn a lot from the late King Hussein, about making peace.


  Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh stepped out of his presidential role, and spoke “in his national capacity” for Jordan. He said that “it was deplorable that the Middle East remained in the grip of chronic tensions”. As one of only two Arab states having diplomatic relations with Israel, he said that Jordan supported Secretary Kerry’s efforts to reach a settlement, and that it “…was imperative to implement the two-state solution…”


A statement surprisingly hostile to Israel came from—of all people—the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn. While applauding Israel’s release of prisoners, he greatly emphasized the


       Illegality of Israel’s “settlements”, calling them a real threat to peace, and in contravention of the principle of bona-fide negotiations. Peace could not be achieved, he said, while “settlement activity” continued, while the Gaza “blockade” persisted, and while the separation wall “continued to grab Palestinian land”.


U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power spent most of her speech on the conflict in Syria, but did note that Secretary Kerry was continuing his efforts for peace. She also welcomed the European Union’s December pledge, supporting the peace process. Ambassador Gerard Araud of France and Sir Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom also voiced support for Secretary Kerry’s efforts, while criticizing further “settlement activity”.


  Syria’s Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said that the world was just making misleading and false statements about his country. This only served to divert attention from “…the core matter under discussion: ending Israel’s occupation of Arab lands”. He accused some member states of “…denying the truth by lying to themselves and to the world, and stop presenting pretexts and excuses on behalf of Israel”. Ja-afari, who can often be very friendly to the U.N. media community, seems sometimes to be living…in some alternate universe.


Afterward, Ambassador Prosor appeared at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, on Manhattan’s West Side. He gave his audience a taste of some of the flavor of the Council Debate, and defended Israel’s actions with both bluntness and eloquence, even taking some hostile questions from members of the audience. He also used the occasion to announce the rescheduling of an Israeli “People of the Book” exhibit, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters.


  So ended the regular monthly “Middle East Debate”. The presence of several Foreign Ministers was just a bit unusual; the outcome was not: No resolutions were passed, nothing was decided, no modicum of further peace was accomplished. Yet these debates go on, month after month after month. Are they a useful tool for peace…or just a forum for Israel’s enemies to vent their imagined grievances about her supposed “guilt”? In the final analysis, what do they achieve?

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