The U.N. Security Council struggled this evening to prevent the collapse of a beleaguered mission that has helped maintain peace between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights for nearly 40 years.
The fate of the mission -- the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) -- was placed in jeopardy this week when the Austrian government announced plans to withdraw the largest national contingent, some 380 Austrian peacekeepers, from the mission, which currently has 913 troops. The Austrian announcement followed a surge of fighting between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone.
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said Thursday in a joint statement. It continued, noting that "further delay (in withdrawing the troops) is no longer justifiable."
The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session tonight to review the options for preserving the mission. Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who is serving as the Security Council president for June, told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations has appealed to Austria to delay their pullout in order to give it the chance to find replacements.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. peacekeeping department has been in urgent discussions with countries that still have troops in the mission -- including India, which has nearly 200 blue helmets and the Philippines, which has roughly 350 -- to reinforce their contingents. It has also reached out to new countries, including Fiji, which was already planning to send a relatively small contingent of blue helmets, to send more.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that his government is willing to replace the Austrian contingent with a battalion of at least 300 blue helmets. But he noted that any decision would require agreement by the Israeli and Syrian governments, because their 1974 truce bars any of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- from participating in the mission. He also said he asked the U.N. legal department to determine whether a new Security Council resolution may be required.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis today in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was unclear whether Putin asked the Israeli leader to approve a Russian peacekeeping role in the Golan.
Council diplomats were puzzled by the Russian offer, noting that Moscow is one of Damascus's main military suppliers, and that Russian blue helmets would likely be targeted by Syrian rebels. They said they considered it unlikely that Israel or the Security Council's western powers would approve a Russian role in the Golan Heights. The U.N., meanwhile, made clear that Russia could not participate under existing conditions.
"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," Martin Nesirky, the U.N.'s chief spokesman told reporters. "However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF."
The U.N. mission first deployed U.N. blue helmets to the Golan in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. The lightly armed observers were initially mandated to help maintain a cease fire, monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian troops, and finally to oversee an "area of separation" between the rival powers pending a full-fledged peace agreements. The two combatants never made peace, however, the demilitarized zone has remained relatively calm for the past four decades.
But the area has emerged in recent months as a key battlefield between the Syria rebels, who initially sought a safe haven in the area, and the Syrian government, which has moved heavy weapons into the area of separation -- a violation of the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement -- to drive the rebels out. U.N. peacekeepers have been the target of an increasing number of attacks, hijackings, and abductions that have heightened concern among governments about the mission's viability. Fighting along the Golan Heights has already prompted other U.N. peacekeeping contingents -- from Croatia and Japan -- to leave the region.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. Security Council is "united in expressing their concern" about the ongoing fighting in the Golan and the proposal to withdraw troops." Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate," he said.
The U.N. peacekeeping department, he said, is "trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other current troop contributors from withdrawing troops. I think we are in a serious situation and we need to work together to try to protect the mission from collapse."
Lyall Grant said that the U.N. mandate in the Golan might not be sustainable over the long term. He said the U.N. peacekeeping department would present the Security Council with a set of options before June 26, when the mission's mandate expires, on whether the mission's mandate needs to be "strengthened, ended, or changed in the light of current circumstances."
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The U.N.'s top peacekeeper, Herve Ladous, said today that Syrian authorities are shelling the town where 21 Filipino peacekeepers continued to be held by anti-government insurgents.
Ladous said he remains confident that the blue helmets will be released, but he voiced concern that the Syrian government might retaliate against local villagers after the U.N. leaves.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is in touch with the rebels, announced that 8 U.N. vehicles had entered the town, indicating a pull out may be imminent. But the rebels have previously insisted that Syrian forces withdraw from the town before the peacekeepers are released.
The disclosure comes one day after an armed group, calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, had pledged to release the 21 peacekeepers. Ladsous's remarks suggested that the effort to extract them had grown increasingly more complicated.
During a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the crisis, Ladsous said that U.N. officials in Syria had been seeking to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between Syrian armed forces and the insurgents to allow the peacekeepers to be released, a council diplomat told Turtle Bay. The U.N. had expected to secure the blue helmets release this morning, but they were still being held by the time he briefed the Security Council.
"We are hopeful that their release can be accomplished very quickly and we are keeping our fingers crossed," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the 15-nation body. "The situation is as follows: our peacekeepers are detained in the village of al Jamlah. Apparently they are safe; they have been spread into five or four locations within the villages, in basements of various houses. That part of the village is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces."
The episode highlighted the risk of the Syrian civil war spreading beyond the theater of conflict inside the country. The captured U.N. peacekeepers are serving as part of a U.N. Disengagement and Observation Force, which is monitoring a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights. The fighting erupted in the town of al Jamlah, less than a mile from the Golan, and it has drawn the U.N. peacekeeping mission into the fray.
It was the second time in a week that U.N. blue helmets had been caught in the middle of fighting between the army and the insurgents around the town of al Jamlah, according to U.N. sources. Last weekend, three unarmed U.N. observers at the nearby U.N. Observation Post 58 got trapped between the warring combatants, forcing them to ultimately evacuate the post. Ladsous said the U.N. had since decided to evacuate another U.N. post because it was exposed to fire.
Ladsous voiced concern about the fate of the al Jamlah's villagers in the event that the U.N. blue helmets leave. "We all hope ... that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari denied Ladsous's account of events, telling reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that "the Syrian government is not shelling the village. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are." Jaafari said Syria is "sacrificing the lives of our soldiers in order to bring these peacekeepers [to safety]. We are paying a huge price for their safety."
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For well over a year now, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been bombarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with undiplomatic statements, lending the impression that his sympathies lie with those seeking his demise.
So, why in the world would an armed opposition group in Syria seize a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights monitoring a nearly 40-year truce between Israel and Syria and using them as a bargaining chip in their fight against Assad?
In a statement released today, the "media office" of the obscure rebel Brigade Shuhada Yarmouk, said they had acted against the U.N. because they were providing humanitarian aid to "the criminal regime troops" operating in the area. "We condemn this low act," the statement said. "Why [isn't] humanitarian aid delivered to the unarmed citizens instead of the criminal groups?" The group also posted a YouTube video showing the insurgents in front of large white truck with a U.N. insignia, vowing to hold the U.N. peacekeepers as hostages until Syrian government forces withdrew from contest.
The group's action was denounced by the Free Syrian Army's political and media coordinator, Louay al-Mokdad. "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said, according to the Washington Post. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers." U.N. officials said they suspect the captors are comprised primarily of armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.
It was impossible to verify the armed abductors' claims and the U.N. provided scant public detail on what had been unfolding in the area in the days and weeks leading up to today's abduction of about 20 armed U.N. blue helmets from the Philippines.
Diplomatic sources say that U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's Damascus-based deputy, Mokhtar Lamani,is trying to negotiate their release through his rebel contacts in Syria.
The U.N.'s humanitarian operations in Syria have come under scrutiny in recent months as aid agencies have faulted them for channeling a disproportionate amount of aid to government-controlled areas, leaving rebel-controlled territory wanting.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has countered that any limitation on their assistance to rebel-held areas was the result of fighting or the Syrian government's refusal to allow aid workers access to the region.
"Our aid," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, "goes basically to civilians; it doesn't go to fighting forces." Haq added that the abducted U.N. peacekeepers were charged with monitoring a cease-fire along a demilitarized zone separating Syrian and Israeli forces, not distributing humanitarian aid.
But an official confirmed to Turtle Bay that the U.N. mission in the Golan had provided some medical treatment to both government forces and insurgents who were in danger of dying from their wounds.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established in 1974 to monitor a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years, it has attracted little international attention.
But the Syrian civil war has increased tensions along the line of separation, raising concern that the conflict could spill into Israel. A month ago, a U.N. advisor went missing in the Golan Heights, and he has not yet been released. The U.N. also reported today that nearby fighting between rebels and the Syrian army over the weekend forced U.N. observers to evacuate an observation post, which was damaged during the fight.
Officials in New York said that the U.N. observers have faced increasing harassment in recent months from insurgents operating in the region.
The troubles began last year when Sunni residents of the town of Jabata and another nearby village took up arms against Syrian loyalists, according to a U.N. official.
Since then, a motley coalition of Syrian and foreign fighters -- including members of the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusra Front, and armed Palestinians -- have come to their aid. "The opposition forces have taken advantage of the separation zone," said an official. "They have used it as a kind of sanctuary."
In New York, a U.N. spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, confirmed that "approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of around 20 peacekeepers." He said that the U.N. observer force in the Golan Heights "is dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution."
Del Buey said that the observers were carrying out a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an U.N. observation post near the town of Al Jamlah, which had been the site of heavy fighting between the Syrian government and rebels.
If there was any positive to take away from today's action, it's that it succeeded in uniting the 15-nation Security Council around a crisis that has more often exposed deep rifts between the key powers. Led by Russia, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the abduction of U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, and demanding their "unconditional and immediate" release.
Following the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who is serving as Security Council president this month, condemned the armed hostage takers.
"This particular case is particularly unacceptable and bizarre in that UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria -- they're on a completely different mission," Churkin said. "It seems that lately some people are trying very hard to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this conflict up."
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Today's U.N. General Assembly vote elevating Palestine to a "non-member observer state" will do little to confer Palestinians the trappings of a truly independent state.
But what it will do is provide the Palestinians with a ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where membership is available to all states, not just full-fledged members of the United Nations. It will also provide the Palestinians with a new lever to pressure Israel from continuing its expansion of Israeli settlements.
The prospects of Palestinian membership in the ICC, which could place Palestinian territories under the court's jurisdiction for the first time, has alarmed Israel and the United States, who fear it may lead to the prosecution of Israeli soldiers.
It has also rattled Europeans, who support the ICC but fret that Palestinian membership in the tribunal would complicate efforts to restart peace talks.
President Barack Obama has leaned heavily on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to put off his U.N. statehood bid. In a sign of the importance, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns promised Wednesday that if Abbas backed away, Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, the Associated Press reported.
"This resolution is not going to take them closer to statehood," Victoria Nuland told reporters on Wednesday. "It does nothing to get them closer to statehood, and it may actually make the environment more difficult."
Britain has led diplomatic efforts to persuade Abbas to offer assurances that he will not join the Hague-based court until the Middle East Peace Process is concluded. Britain has also pressed Abbas to agree to resume negotiations with Israel after today's vote without preconditions."
The Palestinians' U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour, told reporters this week that his government had no intention of immediately joining the ICC but that it intended to keep the option on the table. He also hinted that the Palestinians would consider going to the court if Israel continues its settlement policy.
"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC," he told reporters this week. "But, at the same time, it is not fair for us to tie our own hands [against] all the possibilities that could be available to us." Characterizing Israeli's settlement policy as war crime, Mansour raised the possibility of going to the court if Israel continues to expand settlements.
There is a provision in the Rome Statue, the treaty establishing the international tribunal, that could apply to Israel's settlement policy. It defines, as a war crime, the "transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory."
Christian Wenewaser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador and the former president of the ICC's assembly of states parties, said that the Palestinians cannot dictate which specific crimes the ICC's prosecutor might choose to examine, and that it could only invite the prosecutor to investigate a general situation where large-scale crimes have been committed.
That, he noted, raises the prospects that the prosecutor could turn her sights on Palestinian extremists who have been firing rockets into Israel. Wenewaser said he believes that the Palestinians will not immediately approach the court. "I think they will let this sit for a while," said "They will just use the threat of resubmitting [a claim] as leverage to stop the settlement policy."
In January 2009, the Palestinians appealed to the Hague-based criminal court to open an investigation into Israeli conduct during a three-week operation in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008. Earlier this year, the court's then-prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he lacked the authority to rule on the decision.
Today's votes leave the Palestinians two main options: they can either resubmit their request to the new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as a U.N.-recognized observer state, potentially providing the court with jurisdiction on past crimes. They can also become a member of the International Criminal Court, and pursue a prosecution there.
Jim Goldston, the executive director of Justice Initiative at the Open Society Foundations, said that there are a number legal hurdles that must be crossed before the court could decide whether to take on an investigation in Israel. For one, it remains unclear how the prosecutor could determine the territory under which it can exercise jurisdiction.
It also remains unclear whether the prosecutor will have jurisdiction over alleged crimes dating back to 2002, when the ICC treaty came into force, or only those committed after Palestine becomes a member of the court. Also, the International Criminal Court's treaty grants preference to national prosecutors to carry out prosecutions, if they can demonstrate the have the means and will to do it. Israel would likely to argue that its court's are capable and willing to conduct credible investigations into alleged war crimes in Palestinian lands.
Meanwhile, Goldston said that placing Israel within the court's possible jurisdiction would help address complaints, particularly within Africa, that the court only pursues war criminals that lack powerful patrons."The ICC has been plagued by question of selectivity and alleged double standard, the idea that certain states are subject to the law, and others have political protection, and are not subject to the law. This would open up the possibility of more equitable administration of justice. I think this would be a positive thing."
But that could come at the cost of the ICC's improving relationship with the United States.
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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today announced that France would support the Palestinian bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations, frustrating efforts by President Barack Obama to persuade the Palestinian leader to stand down. "For several years, France's official position has been to recognize the Palestinian state.... When the question will be asked, France will answer "Yes" for consistency's sake," Fabius told the French Parliament.
The remarks come two days before Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to preside over a U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution recognizing Palestine as a "non-member state" at the United Nations. Fabius's comment also appeared calculated to deliver a political boost to the Palestinian leader, who has been eclipsed by its more militant rival, Hamas, whose influence has risen with the fortunes of the region's Islamist governments, principally Egypt.
The new status would not confer on the Palestinian the status of a full U.N. member state, but could pave the way for admission in other international organizations, including the International Criminal Court, that do not require states parties to be full-fledged members of the United Nations.
A previous bid by the Palestinians to become a U.N. member state faltered more than a year ago in the face of firm American opposition within the U.N. Security Council.
The United States maintains that the Palestinian route to statehood should proceed through a negotiated peace settlement with the Israeli government. But such talks have been stalled.
European governments have been generally sympathetic to the Palestinian quest for statehood, but several capitals, including London and Berlin, have urged the Palestinians to back down, saying the move could undercut prospects for a resumption of future peace talks, and could damage its relations with President Obama, who has appealed with Abbas not to move forward.
"We have made consistently clear that we think that it is wrong for the Palestinians to bring this resolution to a vote at this time and that it isn't likely to be a helpful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant told reporters today. "But we have not made a decision yet that if it does come to a vote, how we will vote."
The Guardian reported that Britain has privately pledged to back Abbas if he pledges not to pursue Israel for war crimes through the International Criminal Court and agrees to return to the peace table with Israel without preconditions.
Germany is expected to vote against the measure or abstain on the grounds that the initiative provides little hope of advancing the prospects for peace in the region.
"Little can be achieved by it. If the Palestinians believe it will push the Israelis into negotiations we don't believe that. If they might have in mind to take the issue to the International Criminal Court it will not help, of course, from the perspective of a return to the negotiation table," said one senior U.N. based diplomat. "We fear Abbas is heading for a dangerous Phyrric victory ... the danger is the Palestinians will even more drastically and dramatically turn to Hamas when they see that Abbas has not brought anything tangible for them. It might backfire for Abbas."
But others say American and Israeli opposition to Abbas' statehood bid will backfire. "If the world wants to express support for the Palestinian party that recognizes Israel, seeks to avoid violence, and genuinely wishes to reach a peace agreement in which a Palestinian state exists alongside -- not instead of -- Israel, it will have its chance later this week when Mr. Abbas makes his bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood before the United Nations," Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords wrote in the New York Times. "If American and Israeli opposition to a Palestinian bid continues, it could serve as a mortal blow to Mr. Abbas, and end up being a prize that enhances the power and legitimacy of Hamas."
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For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it wasn't enough just to reiterate an impassioned call for the United States and other U.N. governments to impose a red line on Iran's nuclear program.
He literally drew it -- right before the assembled world leaders -- on a crude bomb chart that looked like it came directly out Wile E. Coyote's comic book arsenal.
In a speech that briefly glossed over the Middle East process, Netanyahu made his most detailed and impassioned case for confronting Iran, clarifying that the threshold for a military strike should be set at the point Iran produces enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
"Nothing could imperil our future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told the gathering of foreign leaders. "At this late hour, the only way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting an atomic bomb is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
"Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war," he added. "I believe faced with clear red line Iran will back down."
The Israeli prime minister has been pressing President Barack Obama for weeks to specify a precise stage in Iran's enrichment of uranium that would trigger a military reaction. Obama has repeatedly said that the United States would not permit Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but he has refused to commit to a specific red line in order to preserve response flexibility.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that while it remains committed to resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran "through diplomacy and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."
"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained." Obama said. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Netanyahu thanked Obama for his statement acknowledging an Iranian nuclear weapons program could not be contained, and he said he recognized that international sanctions were inflicting serious pain on the regime.
But he said that more than a decade of sanctions and diplomacy have failed to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that it would be irresponsible to place one's faith in cautious estimates from Western intelligence agencies that there is sufficient time to stop the Iranians from acquiring the bomb. "Our intelligence agents are not fool-proof," he said.
Netanyahu, who spoke shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, devoted little attention to the peace process, simply saying the "libelous speeches" or "unilateral declarations of statehood" before the U.N. General Assembly would not further the cause of peace.
The Palestinian leader was the clear favorite in the General Assembly, receiving a standing ovation for a speech that denounced a wave of anti-Palestinian attacks by Jewish settlers, and claimed that Israeli policies were undermining the ability of the Palestinian National Authority to function -- threatening its ultimate collapse.
But his bid for international recognition of statehood was scaled back from a year ago.
"We will continue our efforts to obtain full membership for Palestine at the United Nations," he said. But for now, he said his government has "begun intensive consultations with various regional organizations and member states aimed at having
the General Assembly adopt a resolution considering the State of Palestine as a non-member state of the United Nations during this session."
"We do not seek to delegitimize an existing state -- that is Israel; but rather
to assert the state that must be realized -- that is Palestine."
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that his plan to travel to Tehran later this month is "a major mistake even if it is being made with good intentions," according to a statement from Netanyahu's office.
The U.N. has not announced that Ban is planning to travel to Iran, but U.N.-based diplomats say privately that he will attend a high-level meeting of the non-aligned movement in Tehran later this month.
It will be Ban's first trip to Tehran since becoming secretary general in 2007.
While there, Ban is expected to hold meetings with the Iranian leader on a range of issues, including Iran's nuclear program and its role in Syria.
"During your tenure as U.N. Secretary General, you have acted fairly," Netanyahu told Ban, according to the statement. "This is why I was so disappointed to hear about your intention to attend the non-aligned summit that will be held in Tehran at the end of the month.... Mr. Secretary General your place is not in Tehran"
A spokesman for Ban, Farhan Haq, said "there is no trip to announce, and consequently no comment to make in response to the read out" of Ban's conversation with Netanyahu.
Ban's relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been extremely chilly.
He routinely criticizes the Iranian leader for refusing to comply with Security Council demands to suspend his country's uranium enrichment program. U.N. diplomats said he would use the trip to apply pressure on the Iranian government to try to persuade the Iranian leader to help calm the violence in Syria, Iran's most important regional ally.
But Netanyahu faulted his plans to visit Tehran on the grounds that it would "grant legitimacy" to a regime that has flouted its international obligations and poses an existential threat to Israel.
"To reward Iran for its impudence by a visit of the U.N. Secretary General would be a horrible mistake," the statement said.
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Last week, Khulood Badawi, a U.N. relief worker in Jerusalem, tweeted a photograph of an injured Palestinian girl, saying "Palestine is bleeding. Another child killed by Israel. Another father carrying a child into a grave in Gaza."
The photograph, it turned out, was more than six years old -- captured by a Reuters photographer, and depicting a child who had been injured in a swing accident.
"She was not killed by Israeli forces," Ron Prosor, Israel's U.N. ambassador, wrote in a letter to the U.N. emergency coordinator, Valerie Amos, in which he demanded the woman be fired "Although Ms. Badawi's portrayal of this photo was clearly a blatant falsehood, her post became the top tweet for anything related to Gaza on Twitter."
The U.N.'s chief spokesman, Martin Nesirky, today confirmed that the tweet was not true, adding that "it is regrettable that an OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] staff member had posted information on her personal Twitter profile which was both false and which reflected on issues that are related to her work."
"The opinions expressed in her Twitter profile in no way reflect the views of OCHA, nor were they sanctions by OCHA," Nesirky said. "OCHA strives to ensure its neutrality and impartiality in all aspects of its work and it is important that the private actions of our staff do not undermine these principles in countries in which we work."
The controversy comes as Israel is engaged in a series of violent exchanges with the Palestinians, with Palestinian militants firing more than 100 rockets at Israeli civilians, wounding several civilians. Israel has retaliated with a series of air strikes that have killed 25 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press.
Badawi, an Israeli citizen and long time Palestinian activist before she was hired by the United Nations, did not respond to a request for comment left on her Twitter account, which she stopped using on the day her employers learned about the erroneous tweet.
But her Twitter feed links to a story by another woman, Diana Alzeer, who claimed she posted the photo on her own site, mistakenly thinking that the photograph was recent. Alzeer ran a correction after learning that the photo was old. Badawi subsequently deleted the entry on her Twitter feed.
Israel's U.N. ambassador has cited the erroneous tweet as cause for Badawi's dismissal, saying that she "not only failed to remain impartial; she actively engaged in the demonization of Israel."
But Israel apparently got questioned by some of its Twitter followers for posting an old photograph to illustrate the current violence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, posted a photograph showing "an Israeli woman lying on the ground with her two children, their hands over their heads, their faces squashed into the pavement," according to the Associated Press.
Gendelman wrote that the picture captures the moment "when a rocket fired by terrorists from Gaza is about to hit their home." The photo, AP reported, was from 2009. "I never stated that the photo was current," Gendelman told followers who pointed out that the photograph was old. It illustrates the fear that people in southern Israel live in."
U.N. officials, meanwhile, would not say whether Badawi would keep her job.
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Ed.: this post has been modified to correct an error. Badawi is an Israeli citizen, posted by OCHA in Jerusalem, not Gaza.
The United States has long used its veto power in the Security Council to shield Israel from condemnation for its settlement program. But that didn't prevent Israel from getting a walloping at the press stakeout outside the Security Council today.
Several regional groups, including the Security Council's four European powers, denounced Israel's construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they are imperiling prospects for a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and undermining hopes of a return to negotiations. The U.N. Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab Group, and IBSA (comprised of India, Brazil, and South Africa) also delivered statements blaming the Israeli government for its settlement policies.
Their remarks followed a briefing by a top U.N. official, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who expressed "serious concern" over the announcement of several new housing projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that run "contrary to international law," and the demolition of some 57 Palestinian buildings. He said it was also "deeply troubling" that attacks against Palestinian civilians and mosques by Israeli settlers had become "a systematic occurrence." Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully condemned the violent attacks, and vowed to stop them, according to Fernandez-Taranco.
But the tough criticism reflected frustration with the stalled peace process and the United States' refusal, through its veto power, to contemplate a role for the U.N. Security Council in pressuring Israel to change its behavior. It also suggested that that the majority of U.N. members are positioning themselves to place most of the blame on Israel for a breakdown in peace talks with the Palestinians, who themselves have refused to hold direct talks with Netanyahu's government until it halts the settlements and accepts a series of other conditions.
"Maybe [Israel] needs a gentle prod from the international community, including the Security Council, from time to time," said Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. It is "so very frustrating ... that we cannot do anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue."
The Obama administration maintains that Israel's ongoing settlement activities are illegitimate, but in February it vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements on the ground and made clear that it prefers differences between the Israelis and Palestinians be resolved through direct talks, not by Security Council action. It has also blamed the Palestinians for jeopardizing the prospects for new peace talks by pursuing the statehood bid, including the decision to secure recognition as a state in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
On Sept. 23, the Middle East Quartet -- which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations -- outlined a road map that envisioned a resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians within one month, and the formulation of a set of comprehensive peace proposals within three months. The first deadline passed without an agreement; the three-month mark comes later this week.
"Israel's continuing announcements to accelerate the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, send a devastating message. We call on the Israeli government to reverse these steps," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant said on behalf of the council's European Union members. Joined by representatives of France, Germany, and Portugal, Lyall-Grant said "the viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel's long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements. Settlements are illegal under international law and represent a serious blow to the Quartets' efforts to restart peace negotiations."
The United States and Israel did not take up the microphone outside the Security Council to respond to the charges. But an Israel spokeswoman later reacted sharply to the onslaught of criticism in a statement.
"This is a badge of shame for the international community. Instead of focusing on the pressing issues before it, the Security Council chooses to focus on settlements," said Karean Peretz, spokeswoman for the Israeli mission to the United Nations. "While innocent civilians are slaughtered in Syria, terrorist groups operate freely in Gaza, U.N. forces are being attacked in Lebanon and Iran seeks nuclear weapons, the Security Council remains silent and paralyzed." Peretz said that "the main obstacle to peace, has been, and remains, the Palestinians' claim to the so-called right of return and its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state."
Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission, had this to say: "The only way to resolve the outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians is through serious and substantive direct negotiations. We believe Security Council action on final status issues would only harden the positions of both sides and make the resumption of negotiations more difficult."
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On Monday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in New York that a U.N. report detailing atrocities by Syrian security forces underscored the need for the U.N. Security Council to take action to stop a campaign of repression that has left more than 4,000 dead, most of them peaceful protesters.
But over the following days, U.S. diplomats in Geneva worked behind the scenes to eliminate a European Union proposal to have the U.N. Human Rights Council recommend that the Security Council consider the U.N. report on Syrian abuses and to "take appropriate action" to stop it, according to senior Western diplomats and human rights advocates.
Western diplomats said that U.S. officials had informed them this week that they are reluctant to see the Human Rights Council resolution refer the matter to the Security Council -- because it would reinforce a precedent that could be used in the future against Israel.
In Oct. 2009, the rights council called on the U.N. Security Council to consider the Goldstone Report, which sharply criticized Israel's conduct during the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive, called Operation Cast Lead. The resolution was adopted over the objections of the United States, but the Security Council's membership showed little interest in taking up the matter.
European diplomats were hoping to use the rights council this week as a political lever to ratchet up pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad with the one threat they believe he fears: a deeper Security Council role in addressing the crisis. "It would be disappointing but not surprising if United States policy on Israel was skewing their policy towards the strongest possible action on Syria," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But U.S. officials challenged that account, saying that while they don't believe it's appropriate for the Human Rights Council to tell the Security Council what to do, Washington does favor the toughest possible action against Syria. They also maintain that the United States has lead international efforts at the United Nations to ensure that Syrian officials are ultimately held accountable for their crimes.
They cited U.S. support for a Security Council statement in August demanding that Syrian perpetrators of violence face justice for their crimes, the move to rally support to prevent Syria from getting elected to the Human Rights Council, and the convening of a series of three special sessions there to condemn and investigate Syria's crimes.
"For months now, the United States has been at the forefront pressing for Security Council action against the Syrian regime, as well as action and condemnation through other U.N. bodies like the Human Rights Council," Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, told Turtle Bay. "However, the Human Rights Council simply cannot refer matters to the Security Council because it's a subsidiary of the General Assembly ... the Security Council decides which issues of international peace and security it will take up."
The debate follows the publication on Monday of a damning account by a U.N. commission of inquiry into Syria's conduct. It is playing out as the U.N. Human Rights Council prepares to vote on a resolution condemning Syria's action.
A confidential draft, which was obtained by Turtle Bay, "strongly condemns the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities." It accuses the government of committing "arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists."
The draft also calls on Syria to immediately halt its security crackdown, investigate rights abusers in the police and army, allow U.N. human rights monitors into Syria, and urges the Arab League and other U.N. members to support international efforts to "protect the population of the Syrian Arab Republic."
An earlier draft statement included a reference to the International Criminal Court. ( A preambular paragraph reiterated "the importance of accountability and the need to end impunity and hold to account those responsible for human rights, violations, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity [that may warrant the attention of the ICC]."
While the call for accountability remains in the latest draft, the bracketed reference to the ICC has been dropped at the insistence of the United States, which is not a member of the Hague-based court. The U.S. spokesman, Mark Kornblau, did not confirm the United States had blocked the language, but he said that "we continue to press for accountability -- and again this is not the in the purview of the Human Rights Council, it's the responsibility of the Security Council."
Human Rights advocates criticized the U.S. approach to the negotiations. "The U.S. should be leading the charge to include this kind of language rather than trying to block it," said Peggy Hicks, who is monitoring the negotiations in Geneva for Human Rights Watch.
"We think it's very important that the current draft resolution recommends that the General Assembly and the Security Council consider the report of the Commission of Inquiry, which found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria," said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's U.N. representative. "The members of the [Human Rights Council] that believe in international justice should stick up for this."
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For more than a month, the U.N. Security Council has deliberated on the question of whether the Palestinians meet the basic requirements to become a U.N. member. The exercise, which involves countless hours of debate and legal analysis by U.N. member-state lawyers, was largely pointless. Everyone knew going into the discussions what the outcome would be: a split, paralyzed, Security Council incapable of rendering a judgment.
So, what did the Security Council do next? It instructed the U.N. Secretariat to provide a written summary of the council's internal deliberations, outlining the differences -- but in classic council fashion concealing the identity of countries that weighed in on the matter.
At the end of the day, what matters is whether the Palestinians proceed, as they insist they will, to press for a Security Council vote on Palestinian membership.
A vote carries risks for the Palestinians. Nine votes are required for passage of a resolution in the Security Council. The Palestinians have secured only eight. Bosnia, a Muslim nation that already recognizes the Palestinians as a state, could give the Palestinians the ninth vote they need. But Bosnia's government is divided over the issue and is expected to abstain.
Even if the Palestinians get the nine votes, they will confront a certain U.S. veto. France and Britain have sought to persuade the Palestinians to back down, saying they will achieve nothing in the council, and that their campaign could fuel violence in the region.
France has promised to help the Palestinians try to muster broad European support for a General Assembly resolution that would upgrade the Palestinians status to an non-member observer state, on par with the Vatican.
In the meantime, Turtle Bay, decided to post a copy of the latest report on the Security Council's deliberations on Palestinian statehood. The report, which will be officially issued tomorrow, was first reported by Al Hurra.
See if you can figure out which position each of the council's 15 member states took.
A hint: Britain, Colombia, and France revealed they would abstain on the resolution. The United States, meanwhile, argued that Palestine could not be considered a "peace-loving" state so long as Palestinian militants were firing rockets across the border at Israeli communities.
Full text after the jump.
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The Obama administration has been pressing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome, as the new head of the World Food Program (WFP), the premier international agency responsible for feeding the world's poor and distressed.
Cousin, formerly president of the Polk Street Group, a Chicago-based public relations firm, has served in various corporate and non-profit jobs, including a stint at Albertsons, the food giant, and served as chief operating officer for America's Second Harvest, a national anti-hunger organization.
The Obama administration wants her to replace Josette Sheeran, the Bush administration choice for the job, when her five-year term expires in April 2012.
Officials say the administration had expected a decision to have been made by now and have grown concerned that Ban may not select their favored candidate. Dan Glickman, a former Democratic lawmaker from Kansas and Secretary of Agricultural under former President Bill Clinton, is also said to be on the U.N.'s short list of candidates. Sheeran is said to be pursuing a second term.
The United States is the world's largest financial contributor to the World Food Program, providing more than $1.5 billion worth of assistance and food in 2010, which accounts for more than 36 percent of all international giving to the U.N. food agency. The World Food Program's executive director has been an American since 1992, when Catherine Bertini was appointed to the post. The WPF director is selected by the U.N. secretary general and the director general of the FAO, generally on the basis of a recommendation from the United States.
The Rome-based FAO is responsible for feeding more than 105 million people in 75 countries, and employs about 10,000 people.
The eventual winner of the WFP job, though, could potentially be forced to grapple with a Palestinian bid to join the organization's executive board, which is composed of 18 U.N. members and 18 members of FAO. The Palestinians can join FAO if they can get a two-third vote of the membership, which would allow them to mount a bid for membership on WFP's executive board.
So far, the Palestinians -- which have already been admitted as UNESCO members -- have said they are exploring membership bids in some 16 additional U.N. agencies, at some point in the future. They have not yet said, however, whether they would mount a campaign for membership in the U.N.'s food agencies at the next major membership meeting in June, 2013.
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Update: This post has been corrected to reflect an error regarding the nationality of WFP executive directors. The director has been from the United States since 1992, not throughout the entirety of the organization's history.
Sometime this week, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) board will vote to admit Palestine as a state, a move that will automatically trigger a congressional cut off of more than $84 million in its annual contributions to the United Nations.
The Palestinians are expected to follow by seeking membership in three other U.N. organizations -- the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) -- that have reciprocation agreements that would allow UNESCO members in as full members. Consequently, the United States will be required to also cut funding to these agencies, jeopardizing funding to programs that protect international intellectual copy rights and promote trade in the developing world.
A congressional cut off of aid at UNESCO and other U.N. specialized agencies, however, would have no effect on many of the U.N.'s most high-profile operations, including billions of dollars spent on U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian relief work -- since any bid by the Palestinians to secure membership in the U.N. General Assembly would face a U.S. veto.
But the Palestinians have made it clear that they intend to seek membership in other international agencies affiliated with the United Nations, including the International Criminal Court, which receives no funding from the United States, and the World Health Organization, which has played a lead role in preventing the spread of deadly and debilitating diseases like polio, malaria, small pox and avian flu and HIV/AIDS.
The Palestinians would also have a good shot at gaining entrance into several other U.N. specialized agencies, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which require simple majorities or two-thirds majorities votes by the agencies' member states for membership. Ironically, the $238 million annual U.S. funding for the largest U.N. program in support of Palestinians, the U.N. Relief Works Agency, will not be directly affected by the UNESCO bid since it's not a U.N. member-based organization.
Fearing a gradual erosion of funding due to U.S. cuts, the U.N. Foundation, a U.N. advocacy group established by former CNN CEO Ted Turner, has launched a public campaign to raise public awareness about what they see as the risks to U.S. interests posed by two U.S. laws, passed back in 1991 and 1994, that prohibit funding to U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine as a state.
"I think the implications of this are really dangerous for the United Nations and the United States," said Timothy Wirth, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who heads the U.N. Foundation, noting that organizations like WIPO play a vital role in establishing international rules on intellectual property that protect the foreign operations of leaders in the movie, music, and pharmaceutical industry. "Is it really in the United States' interest to have the threat of our being thrown out of these important commercial agreements?" asked Wirth.
Peter Robinson, the head of the United States Council for International Business, the American affiliate of the International Chamber of Commerce, said the U.S. withdrawal from WIPO could hamper the United States ability to protect the existing interests of the U.S. music, film, and pharmaceutical industry, or to shape copyright rules on new green technologies developed to lessen the impact of climate change. But he also expressed concern that this will signal a deepening retreat from multilateral institutions.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
As the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap got under way this week, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) appealed late last night to the Israel military to ensure the release of 164 Palestinian prisoners detained as minors, mostly on charges of throwing stones at Israeli authorities.
The minors were not included in a list of the first round 477 Palestinian prisoners who were released in exchange for one Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit, freed by Hamas after five years of captivity through a prison swap brokered by the Egyptian government. It remains unclear whether the minors will be included in a second round of an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners due to be released in the coming months, according to UNICEF officials.
"As stated in the convention on the rights of the child, the detention of children should be used only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time," said Jean Gough, UNICEF's Special Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. "UNICEF calls on the Israeli government to release Palestinian child detainees so that they can be reunited with their families."
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, reacted sharply to the U.N. agencies appeal, telling Turtle Bay in a statement that "this press release demonstrates UNICEF's clear bias and double-standards when it comes to Israel. Its timing is mind-boggling."
Prosor said that while Israel is willing to discuss the concerns of any humanitarian agency UNICEF "should use its time and resource to focus on real violators of children's rights in the Middle East."
‘Gilad Shalit just lost more than five years of his youth as a hostage. Why hasn't UNICEF condemned Hamas?" Prosor continued. "Where is its condemnation of the missiles that continue to rain down on Israeli kindergartens and school buses? Where is its outrage at Hamas' cynical use of children as suicide bombers and human shields? Where is its condemnation of the hate that continues to be spread in Palestinian classrooms and textbooks?"
Israel's detention of minors has been a sore point for the U.N. children's agencies and other children's rights groups, who maintain that children should not be tried by military courts and that governments should only jail minors under the most extreme circumstances. "Military tribunals are not required to treat children's best interests as their primary concern, and, therefore, are not an appropriate forum for hearing cases against children," according to a September report by the U.N. secretary general special representative for children and armed conflict, Radikha Coomaraswamy.
"Seven thousand Palestinian children have been detained, interrogated and prosecuted and imprisoned in the Israeli military system over the past ten years," Catherine Weibel, a spokeswoman for UNICEF said in a phone interview today.
Weibel said that 35 of the detained minors are between the ages of 12 and 15 but that most are 16 or 17 years of age. Under Israeli law, minors over the age of 14 can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for throwing a stone at an individual, and up to 20 years for hurling it at a moving vehicle. In practice, Israeli military courts rarely sentence minors to more than 2 months, and typically hold them for a period of a couple of weeks to about 3 months. Children under the age of 12 are released from custody without being charged.
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It's not only that Iran refuses to recognize Israel.
The Islamic Republic's official representatives are generally barred from speaking with Israeli diplomats or even uttering the word Israel, preferring to describe their regional enemy as "that Zionist entity."
But sometimes you just really need a place to sit.
Iran's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, is pictured here at an IAEA meeting last month, seated at the Israeli delegation's desk while conducting his official business.
Soltanieh is engaged in a discussion with a member of the delegation of Ireland, which presides over the IAEA's nuclear safeguards committee, and a Cuban diplomat. He is accompanied by two other Iranian officials, according to a source who furnished Turtle Bay with this photograph.
It's hard to imagine how the top Iranian diplomat, after serving more than six years as Tehran's envoy to the atomic agency, wound up in the Israeli seat without an alarm bell going off in his head. You'd think there was a protocol office within the Iranian foreign mission responsible for avoiding such a diplomatic faux pas.
If not, maybe there will be from now on.
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The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's 58 member executive board voted on Wednesday to recommend the Palestinians as a new member, setting the stage for a high-stakes vote on the Palestinians admission later this month.
But U.S. law prohibits funding for U.N. bodies that grant membership to entities without "internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
It remains unclear whether the law would apply to admission of a Palestinian state. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States sets out four criteria for a new state -- a defined territory, a permanent population, a functioning government, and the wherewithal to "enter into relations with other states."
But Israel's backers in Congress warned that UNESCO's recognition of a Palestinian state could cost the Paris-based agency tens of millions of dollars in U.S. financial assistance. The United States gives UNESCO about $80 million dollars in funding, accounting for 22 percent of the organization's budget.
On Tuesday, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), pressed the Obama administration to inform the Palestinians that "any decision to upgrade the Palestinian mission's status by UNESCO or any other U.N. entity will let to a cutoff of U.S. funds to that entity."
The United States, along with Germany, Latvia, and Romania, voted against Wednesday's recommendation by UNESCO's board. France, which has not recognized a Palestinian state, abstained on the grounds that UNESCO is not the right place to determine the question of Palestinian statehood.
The Obama administration argued that any Palestinian drive for statehood that didn't result from direct talks with Israel could undermine the peace process. Speaking to reporters in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called the UNESCO board action "inexplicable" and counseled them to "think again" about the measure.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that government lawyers are studying what impact the Palestinian's admission would have on U.S. funding for UNESCO. The United States, she said,would use its diplomatic influence to seek to prevent the matter from coming to a vote.
"This is not the way to establish a Palestinian state," she said. "Once we've had a negotiated solution, once we have two states living in peace, with mutually agreed borders, then the Palestinian state will be in all of these organizations."
The United States and Israel both faulted the Palestinians for jeopardizing the outcome of an intiative by the Middle East Quartet, which includes representatives from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, to persuade the Palestinians and Israelis to restart political talks in the coming weeks.
But the Palestinians have asserted that their drive for statehood could run on a parrallel track to any possible resumption of peace talks. At this stage, it remains unclear whether those talks will in fact resume.
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As Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas prepared to submit his application for membership in the United Nations last week, a group of Palestinians paraded a mock blue U.N. seat around the Turtle Bay headquarters to symbolize their quest for a seat at the U.N. table.
But there is another chair that the Palestinian leader aspires to sit in -- it's small and blond, with wooden arms and a white leather seat, right next to the U.N. General Assembly podium. It is reserved for heads of state during the annual U.N. General Assembly debate. Foreign ministers, ambassadors, and the Palestinian leader must stand.
The photo above, which was taken by a U.N. photographer, Mark Garten, minutes before Abbas addressed the General Assembly, shows the Palestinian leader conferring with the U.N. chief of protocol, Desmond Parker. They are in the green room, where world leaders wait before being called to speak.
In the foreground, we see the backup chair, which is to be moved to the General Assembly in case the other one breaks. But the instruction -- Please do not sit on this chair -- still applies to President Abbas, at least for the time being.
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Mark Garten/U.N. Photo
Less than 24 hours after the Middle East Quartet issued a statement calling for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, the new Egyptian government, speaking on behalf of the nonaligned movement, doused it with cold water.
Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egypt's foreign minister, said in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that "we have witnessed yesterday another failure by the Quartet to come up with a balanced vision to achieve the goal that we all know and approve of yet differ on how to realize it."
It remained unclear whether the Egyptian statement represented the start of a major move by Palestine supporters to undercut the peace talks, or was simply pre-negotiation posturing designed to bolster the Palestinians' quest for a better deal.
But the Quartet statement's failure to include a clear framework -- or parameters -- for talks, and the absence of a call for an end to settlements has infuriated key powers, including Russia, which is a member of the Quartet, and France, which is represented by the European Union envoy, Catherine Ashton. Some diplomats said that Russia had at one point during the talks threatened to pull out of the discussions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy meanwhile was said to be furious that Ashton had refused to fully brief the French in the midst of the high-pressure talks and that she had failed to add stronger reference to the parameters to the statement. Last week, he pre-empted Ashton by presenting her proposal as his own. But after the deal was struck, France's foreign minister issued a statement saying they were pleased with the direction the Quartet was pursuing.
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The Middle East Quartet statement calling for a resumption of political talks between the Palestinians and Israelis fell silent on a critical provision in previous statements -- that is, a comment on Israeli settlements.
Glenn Kessler, a colleague at the Washington Post, who has covered Middle
East peace efforts for years, drew my attention to the omission, saying he
couldn't "recall a major Quartet statement that was so silent on settlements." Kessler, who now
writes the Post's Fact Checker
column, recalled that the Obama administration "ramped up the language" after
it came into power, marking a shift from the milder criticism in statements
adopted during Bush administration. "But now to have nothing on settlements,
well, that's a big switch," he said.
The Quartet noted that the commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation. The Quartet recalled that unilateral actions by either party, including settlement activity, cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community.
Or the year before:
The Quartet urges the Government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem,
or when Barack Obama first became president:
The Quartet urged the Government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including home demolition and evictions.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
This afternoon, I conferred the award for the longest U.N. General Assembly speech to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spent 39 minutes, 23 seconds, beating up on Israel, Syria, and the Greek Cypriots.
Then the Palestinians and Israelis hit the podium.
Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas breezed easily past the Turkish leader, announcing the Palestinian intention to pursue membership at the U.N. in a speech that lasted 41 minutes, 11 seconds.
Not to be outdone, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back with a defiant rebuke of his Palestinian counterpart that went on for a whopping 48 minutes, 30 seconds, more than triple the time allotted for General Assembly speeches.
Lost in the struggle for words was the Southern Sudanese leader, Salva Kiir, who delivered the brand new country's first speech before the U.N. General Assembly. He knocked it off in all of 14 minutes, 40 seconds -- a mere 20 seconds short of the allotted time. Who knows, maybe the new guy on the block has something to teach the old timers.
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The Obama administration, which played a discrete behind-the-scenes role in helping to strike the deal, threw its weight fully behind the Middle East Quartet statement today calling for a resumption of political talks, and publicly pressed the Israelis and Palestinians to participate.
"We urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks and the United States pledges our support as the parties themselves take the important next steps for a two state solution, which is what all of us are hoping to achieve," Hillary R. Clinton, said after meeting with the Quartet.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and the U.N. Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, said that they would meet with the two sides to persuade them to return to talks within the next month.
"Our objective is to help the parties to reach through negotiations the peace and security that their peoples both deserve," Ashton said. "We hope that the parties will react positively."
Lebanon's U.N. ambassador, Nawaf Salam, who is serving this month as the Security Council rotating president, said that he received the Palestinian statehood request from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and that he would distribute it to other Security Council members on Monday.
"I have the profound honor, on behalf of the Palestinian people, to submit this application of the state of Palestine for admission in the United Nations," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in the letter. "This application for membership is being submitted based on the Palestinian people's natural, legal and historic rights" and successive U.N. resolutions.
Diplomats said they did not expect the Security Council to act on the decision any time soon, if at all. The council's main powers, including the United States, Britain, and France, are expected to bury it in bureaucratic limbo. In any event, the United States has made it clear it would veto any resolution on statehood.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have assured European mediators that they will not push immediately for a vote, allowing time for the Quartet to make progress on political talks, according to diplomatic sources.
In exchange, the Europeans have pledged to look favorably on any potential future Palestinian bid to seek a General Assembly vote on a resolution making Palestine a non-member observer state, roughly the same status as that of the Vatican, though not a full-fledged U.N. member.
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The Middle East Quartet, which includes representatives from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and United Nations, has reached agreement on a statement calling for the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians within one month. Both sides would present detailed proposals within three months, and negotiations would be completed by end of 2012, according to U.N.-based sources.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to hold a Quartet session this afternoon, followed by a public statement at about 3:45 p.m. by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief foreign affairs official. Ashton has led talks with the Palestinians and Israelis about a return to talk.
But it remains unclear whether the final statement would spell out the basis for such talks, which officials said would initially focus on borders and security. The U.N. secretary general's office, meanwhile, announced the U.N. chief had transmitted the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the Security Council, where it faces almost certain defeat.
But Ashton and other European officials have been pressing the Palestinians to back down and not force the matter for a vote. Instead, the Europeans would support a bid by the Palestinians to secure a General Assembly decision recognizing the Palestinians as an non-member observer state, a status similar to the Vatican, but not a full-fledged member.
Update: excerpts from the Quartet statement below.
"The Quartet reiterated its urgent appeal to the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions," reads the Quartet statement. "But it accepts that meeting, in itself, will not reestablish the trust necessary for such a negotiation to succeed."
The statement details a specific proposal for a timeline for direct talks, beginning with a "preparatory meeting" in the next month to "agree an agenda and method" for the talks. "At that meeting there will be a commitment by both sides that the objective of any negotiation is to reach an agreement within a timeframe agreed to by the parties but not longer than the end of 2012."
The Quartet "expects the parties to come forward with comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security, and to have made substantial progress within six months. To that end, the Quartet will convene an international conference in Moscow, in consultation with the parties, at the appropriate time."
The Quartet "recognizes the achievements of the Palestinian Authority in preparing institutions for statehood," the statement said. It also calls on the two parties "to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally presented U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon an application for Palestinian membership as a state in the United Nations, setting the stage for the certain defeat of the measure in the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has threatened to block it.
The move marked the culmination of several months of a high-stakes diplomatic drive to secure Palestinian recognition at the United Nations. It set the Palestinian leadership on a collision course with Israel and the United States, which have insisted that the only path to Palestinian statehood is through direct negotiations.
As the drama played out U.N. headquarters, U.S. European diplomats engaged in intensive negotiations with the Palestinians and Israelis on a compromise deal that could lead to the resumption of negotiations between the two sides.
A compromise proposal, which has been hammered out by the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, would permit the Palestinians to secure recognition by the U.N. General Assembly as an observer state, giving it roughly the same status as the Vatican, but not making it a full fledged U.N. member state.
The European proposal -- which was outlined in a speech this week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- would also set the stage for resumption of political talks within a month, and set a one-year timeline for the talks to be completed. It would also require the Palestinians not to mount a concerted effort to press the Security Council in the coming weeks to vote on the initiative it just presented to the United Nations today.
It remains unclear whether the Israelis or the Palestinians are prepared to accept the deal.
President Barack Obama and his top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pleaded this week with Turkey to turn down the volume in its public statements on Israel. Not that long ago, it seemed that Jerusalem and Ankara were getting along rather well, but the two regional powers have had a bitter falling out of late.
Today, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave his answer, delivering a sharply worded rebuke of Israeli policies before the U.N. General Assembly, and suggesting it was unfair that Israel is not sanctioned for its violation of U.N. resolutions while other countries -- including Sudan -- without powerful patrons, must endure them.
Turkey's relationship with Israel has deteriorated since May 2010, when Israeli commandos raided an aid flotilla seeking to deliver supplies to the Gaza Strip in violation of an Israeli naval blockade. Nine people were killed.
In recent weeks, Turkey has downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Israel. Erodgan reiterated his demand that "Israel must apologize, pay compensation to the families of our martyrs and lift the...blockade on Gaza. Until Israel meets these demands and takes steps in this direction our position will not change."
Israel has maintained that it has the right to control international ships entering waters near Gaza on the grounds that its rival, Hamas, has imported illegal arms through the area. A U.N. panel, established by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, found that Israel was within its right to enforce the naval blockade, but that it had used excessive force in the raid.
The United States has sought to ease diplomatic tensions between Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, and Turkey, one of Washington's most important Muslim allies.
It has had little success.
And judging by Erdogan's performance today, the relationship may be long in repairing. Erdogan portrayed the Israeli government as the source of paralysis in the Middle East peace process, saying that they have failed to emulate the spirit of change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa.
"This country takes steps every day, which instead of paving the way for peace, build new barriers preventing peace," he said. "It is Israel that uses disproportionate force to solve its problems."
Erdogan also blasted Israel's rival, Syria, saying its brutal crackdown on protesters was "unacceptable."
"One cannot prosper through persecution," he said. "It is important to listen to the demands of the people and not direct or point the gun at the people. Unfortunately, the Syrian leadership has persisted in not listening to our warnings."
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Critics of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's U.N. statehood drive have highlighted the pointlessness of the initiative, saying it will bring the Palestinians no closer to their dream of an independent state, and may in fact delay it.
But the move is anything but meaningless.
A General Assembly declaration recognizing a Palestinian state may provide the Palestinians with a powerful weapon to use in its ongoing struggle with Israel: the right to invite the International Criminal Court prosecutor to investigate alleged Israeli crimes against Palestinians, according to legal experts. But it could also expose Palestinian militants to prosecution for launching missile attacks against Israeli towns.
In a sign of concern, the Obama administration has appealed to the Palestinians to cease the effort, according to a secret U.S. cable released by Wikileaks and published recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz. A top Israeli military lawyer, meanwhile, urged the Obama administration to go further by publicly declaring that the International Criminal Court has no legal authority to pursue alleged crimes.
In a February, 2010, meeting with James C. Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces military advocate general, Avichai Mandelblit, "noted concern with the Palestinian Authority's effort to undermine Israel through the International Criminal Court and hoped the U.S. would weigh in with both the PA[Palestinian Authority] and the ICC, and publicly state our view of the ICC's lack of jurisdiction. He warned that PA pursuit of Israel through the ICC would be viewed as war by the GOI [Government of Israel]."
If the General Assembly adopts a statehood declaration, the Palestinians intend to seek membership in the International Criminal Court, according to senior diplomats. But they have also sought to assure the United States that they are not seeking a confrontation with Israel, and are hoping the ICC can protect them from future military operations. They have insisted that by joining the ICC they are simply doing what scores of other law-abiding states have done with little controversy.
Until now, the International Criminal Court has had no authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because Israel has not joined the court and the Palestinians have not been recognized as a state with the right to join the world's various treaty bodies. Another path to prosecution of Israeli war crimes would require a green light from the U.N. Security Council, a development that is highly unlikely given the United States' veto power.
In January, 2009, in the midst of an Israeli military Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians took advantage of an obscure provision in the Rome Statute (the treaty establishing the ICC) that allows states that have not joined the ICC to grant the prosecutor authority to investigate crimes on its soil. The provision, Article 12.3, says that a state "which is not a party" to the Rome Stature may lodge a declaration to the ICC registrar accepting the "exercise of jurisdiction by the court with respect to the crime in question."
But the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has yet to reach a decision on whether to accept the investigation and is unlikely to do so before the General Assembly acts. A decision by the General Assembly recognizing Palestine, while not legally binding, will increase pressure on Moreno-Ocampo to make up his mind, according to legal experts.
The U.N. General Assembly's "recognition of Palestinian statehood would likely bolster the argument that the Palestinian territory is a state for purposes of Article 12 of the Rome Statute," said James Goldston, a former ICC trial attorney and executive director of the Open Society's Justice Initiative."Once the statehood legal hurdle were surmounted -- by no means a sure thing -- the question would arise of how far back jurisdiction attaches."
The Palestinians asked the prosecutor to exercise jurisdiction over major war crimes dating back to 2002, opening the door to possible investigations of Operation Cast Lead. But legal scholars remained divided over whether the prosecutor can open cases dating back that far.
"The Palestinian initiative at the United Nations this month indeed can transform the whole dynamic. For two and one-half years the prosecutor has deliberated, or perhaps sat on, this very delicate and controversial issue and rendered no opinion whatsoever," said David Scheffer, a legal scholar who represented the United States during negotiations on the Rome Statue under the Clinton administration. "If the General Assembly grants non-member observer state status, however, to Palestine, the decision is no longer necessarily his to make -- he can lean on the General Assembly's decision and accept the declaration."
Goldston and Scheffer said that even if the Palestinians are recognized as a state there are other hurdles to launching a prosecution. The ICC prosecutor, who is charged with investigating only the most serious crimes -- including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity -- would have to determine whether any crimes allegedly committed on Palestinian territory are serious enough to merit his involvement. He would also have to determine whether the local justice system, either Israeli or Palestinian, has failed to make a good faith effort to prosecute alleged crimes themselves.
Scheffer argued that the Israelis' best defense would have been to negotiate an exemption from ICC prosecution as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"Otherwise, tensions and conflict can easily and needlessly be stoked in the future," he said. "Israel should be negotiating an arrangement with Palestinian authorities whereby either the peace agreement (if there were to be one) or some other international agreement between Israel and Palestine be concluded that would waive any right to apply to the ICC for past actions.... Israel should leverage this kind of arrangement while it still can, before it's too late. That alone counsels for a more serious attempt at resuming peace talks."
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First the good news: U.S. President Barack Obama is more than twice as popular in Egypt as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.
Now, the bad news: the American president's standing has never been worse in Egypt, plummeting since 2008, when he received a 25 percent favorability rating, to 12 percent in 2011. Even Osama Bin Laden, the late al Qaeda leader, was more popular this year, with a 21 percent favorability ranking. The Iranian leader fared worse, dropping from 21 percent favorability rating in 2008 to a miserable 5 percent.
The findings are drawn from a public poll of Egyptian views in the aftermath of the public uprising that brought about the resignation of Egypt's fallen leader Hosni Mubarak. The poll was commissioned by the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank with close ties to the United Nations and Arab governments.
The poll seeks to capture the mood of the country in the lead up to the Egypt's first post-Mubarak election, and to handicap the presidential campaign. It shows that Egyptians currently fret over issues like the economy, stability, and government corruption more than they worry about the course of the country's democratic transition.
According to the poll, conducted by Charney Research and based on interviews with 800 Egyptians, Amr Moussa, the outgoing Arab League chief, has emerged as an early frontrunner. Thirty-two percent of respondents say they would vote for Moussa, who once served as Mubarak's foreign minister.
Essam Sharraf, an engineering professor who is serving as the country's interim prime minister, finished second with 16 percent of votes ( though his favorability ranking is higher than Moussa's). And Mohammed Tantawi, the army chief, finished third with 8 percent of those questioned saying they would vote for him. Mohammed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who emerged from retirement to serve as Egypt's best known pro-democracy advocate, finished seventh, with only 2 percent of respondents pledging to vote for him.
The poll shows that the Egyptian army, which refused orders to fire on public demonstrators during the country's popular uprising, remains "extremely popular" with 90 percent of Egyptian respondents expressing a favorable view. Egypt's various secular parties also did well, garning 25 precent of respondents' votes, while Islamist parties gained 19 percent. The best-known political parties, the New Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, received respectively 40 percent and 31 percent favorability ratings. The Brotherhood's unfavorability rating, at 29 percent, was 10 points higher.
"The military right now is riding a wave of popularity because it is seen as playing two key roles [in Egypt's popular revolution]," Craig Charney, the pollster, told Turtle Bay. "It delivered the coup de grace to Mubarak and did it in a way that maintained a substantial degree of stability."
Charney said that the findings also demonstrated that fears of a religious take over by Islamists are overblown. "The much feared green-tide just isn't there, with the Muslim Brotherhood receiving 12 percent while the Salafists for all their sound and fury came away with only 4 percent," Charney said.
While an exiled Egyptian national, Ayman al Zawahiri, has been selected as the new leader of Al Qaeda, the poll suggested that the terror organization would have been better at influencing events in Egypt under the leadership of their late Saudi leader, Osama Bin laden, who was killed by elite U.S. commandos in Pakistan.
According to the poll, bin Laden's favorability ratings rose from 18 percent of those questioned in 2008 to 21 percent in 2011. In contrast, Zawahiri scored a favorability rating of only 11 percent this year.
Charney said that while other polls have found somewhat higher support for President Obama's response to the Egyptian uprising, he has suffered from a generally dim view of American policy throughout the region.
"Despite President Obama's words and measures in support of Egypt's revolution, he only narrowly edges out the leaders of al Qaeda and Iran in popular regard there," Charney said in a statement. "But our findings do clearly show that Egyptians have little regard for the likes of al-Zawahiri and Ahmadinejad."
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Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, today lodged a complaint against the U.N.'s top humanitarian relief official Valerie Amos, following Amos' highly critical assessment of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories and along its borders.
Amos, a former British politician who serves as the U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, issued a series of highly barbed public statements and tweets criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians during a four-day visit to the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
She also took issue with Israel's shooting deaths of about 15 "innocent" Palestinians who crossed the defacto border into Israel Sunday from Syria and from southern Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinians sought to cross the borders to commemorate the 1948 Naqba, or catastrophe, which marks the displacement of Palestinians during the birth of the state of Israel.
"I am extremely concerned at the level of violence today, and at the number of deaths and injuries in the region" Amos said on Sunday. "The situation cannot continue in this way. It is innocent people who are losing their lives."
Israel maintains that the border-crossings were instigated by the Syrian government as a way of distracting attention from its bloody crackdown on nation-wide protesters challenging the government rule. The White House has stated that Israel has the right to defend its border from unauthorized border crossings, and that Syria and Lebanon have an obligation to prevent them.
In a meeting today with Amos, Ayalon challenged her characterization of the victims as innocent. "Those from enemy countries who breach our borders while using violence and calling for Israeli's destruction, cannot be considered innocent, but an immediate and present danger to the citizens of Israel," he said, according to a statement released by the Israel foreign ministry. "Israel has the right and duty, as does any nation, to defend itself and its borders. It is disappointing that the person in charge of humanitarian affairs at the UN requires explanations on why defensible borders are a fundamental right of Israel's citizens."
Ayalon also took issue with Amos agency's characterization of the plight of Palestinians, saying "there is not now, nor has there been, a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, these reports are inflaming the atmosphere and hurting regional stability."
Amos, meanwhile, faulted what she called restrictive Israel building practices which prevent Palestinians from rebuilding crumbling schools and other vital facilities in Israeli controlled lands. "Palestinians are utterly frustrated by the impact of Israeli policies on their lives. They are evicted from their homes Their homes are regularly demolished," Amos said. "I don't believe the people of Israel have any idea of the way planning policies are used to divide and harass communities and families. They would not like to be subjected to such behavior."Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The Israeli government and the American Jewish Committee clashed this week with Hollywood filmmakers and the United Nations over Monday evening's premier of a new film, Miral, at the U.N. General Assembly hall. The movie provides a sympathetic portrayal of a young Palestinian girl coming of age in the era of the first Palestinian Intifida (1987-1993).
Israel's deputy U.N. ambassador, Haim Waxman, wrote a formal protest on Friday to the U.N. General Assembly president, Joseph Deiss of Switzerland, for agreeing to host what he characterized as a "politicized" film, directed by the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and distributed by Harvey Weinstein. But Deiss rejected the Israeli request to cancel the event, according to U.N. officials, who said he defended the film as a "love story." He sent invitations to all the U.N.'s 192 member states, including Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declined the invitation to attend the viewing, according to a U.N. official.
"We find it very troubling that the U.N. has chosen to feature this film in the GA Hall," Waxman wrote. The U.N., he said, has a "clear duty to carefully select all programs that are hosted on its premises in order to maintain a spirit of impartiality. The screening of Miral constitutes an inappropriate use of the hall of the GA, which already deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict excessively and obsessively."
The U.N. General Assembly was established to provide a forum for the world's government to debate and adopt resolutions on the most pressing issues of the day. But it occasionally lends its space out for special events, including concerts and observances. The GA hall recently hosted a memorial for the United States' former U.N. ambassador, Richard C. Holbrooke.
But for Israel, the U.N. General Assembly has been a symbol of its marginalization on the world stage, a forum that manufactures numerous resolutions criticizing Israel, including the notorious 1975 resolution that "determines that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." The resolution was rescinded in 1991.
Starring Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire, Miral is based loosely on the life story of the Palestinian-born Italian journalist, Rula Jebreal, who wrote the film's screenplay. It is based on Jebreal's 2004 novel of the same name.
Miral tracks the history of the Dar Al-Tifel orphanage, which was established in 1948, the year of the partition of Palestine and the birth of Israel, to educate Palestinian orphans. It portrays the struggle of Miral, a 7-year-old girl who is sent to the orphanage in 1978, between the values of the orphanage's founder, Hind Husseini, who sees education as the key to a better life, and those of the young Palestinians who battled Israeli forces on the streets. She also falls in love with a young Palestinian militant who ultimately becomes a peace proponent. The book received cool reviews at the time of its publication.
Schnabel, the Brooklyn-born director of the film, has directed several acclaimed films, including Basquiat, about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat; Before Night Falls, an account of a gay Cuban novelist suffering discrimination under Castro's reign; and the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story of a French magazine editor paralyzed by a stroke. But none have generated the degree of controversy as this film.
"Miral is a story about human beings, Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, and it explores how we all react differently to the violence around us, whether physical, emotional, political or otherwise," Jebreal said in a statement. "It is a film about love, education, understanding and peace. That seems like a good thing to show at the United Nations."
In a letter to Deiss, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the movie was political propaganda. "The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light," Harris. Showing the film in the U.N. General Assembly hall "will only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the U.N."
In response to Harris on the controversy, Schnabel said in a statement that he had made the film as a friend of Israel. Schnabel, an American Jew, has noted that his mother, Esther Greenberg, was the president of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization in America. "I love the state of Israel," he said in the statement.
"I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it," Schnabel said. "Understanding is part of the Jewish way and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don't listen to the other side, we can never have peace. Instead of saying 'no,' I ask the AJC to say, 'yes,' see Miral and join the discussion."
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The Obama administration on Friday cast its first ever veto in the U.N. Security Council, blocking a Palestinian backed draft resolution that denounced Israel's settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East.
The U.S. vote killed off a resolution that enjoyed overwhelming backing at the United Nations, securing 14 votes in favor in the 15-nation council, and isolated the United States on a crucial Middle East matter at a time of political upheaval in the region.
U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice said that the U.S. veto should not be seen as an endorsement of Israeli's settlement policies, which the Obama administration has repeatedly denounced. But she said the adoption of the resolution "risks hardening the positions of both sides" and undermining U.S. led efforts to pursue a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
"We reject in the strongest term the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity," Rice said after the vote. "For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel's security and corroded hopes for peace and security in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects of peace."
The U.S. action brought an end to an urgent last minute diplomatic campaign, involving conversations between President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to convince the Palestinians to drop their resolution in favor of a milder statement rebuking Israel for constructing new settlements in seized Arab lands.
It was the first time that the U.S. government has cast its veto in the Security since 2006, when the Bush Administration vetoed a resolution calling for a halt to Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.
The diplomatic dispute played out against a backdrop of deepening political crisis in the Arab world, as governments in Algeria, Bahrain and Libya have used force to put down protesters. The United States, which has sought to identify itself with the demonstrations aspirations for freedom, may see its standing bruised by the veto.
The defeated resolution reaffirmed that all Israeli settlements established since 1967 "are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace." It also demands that Israel "cease all settlement activities.
On Tuesday, the U.S. offered to support a presidential statement saying that Israel's ongoing settlement activities lacked legitimacy. The U.S. also pledged to consider undertaking the first visit by the U.N. Security Council to the Middle East since 1979, and including a strong language in a future Middle Quarter statement asserting that peace talks need to proceed on the basis of the 1967 borders.
The Palestinians rejected the compromise as inadequate. Efforts by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to convince the Palestinian leader to abandon the resolution and support a compromise failed.
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Conservative Republicans today lined up together to denounce the Obama administration's offer to support a U.N. statement criticizing Israel's settlement policies.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the Chair of the House Foreign Affair's Committee, issued a statement that read:"Support for this anti-Israel statement is a major concession to enemies of the Jewish State and other free democracies. It telegraphs that the U.S. can be bullied into abandoning critical democratic allies and core U.S. principles."
But the Bush administration has also joined with its U.N. colleagues in urging Israel to stop its construction of new buildings. None other than John R. Bolton, one of Israel's most enthusiastic champions, urged an end to Israel's settlements policies while serving as president of the Security Council in February 2006, just days after an electoral victory by Hamas fueled concerns of instability in the region.
"The Security Council underlines the need for the Palestinian Authority to prevent terrorist attacks and dismantle the infrastructure of terror," Bolton said in a statement on behalf of the 15-nation council. "It reiterates its view that settlement expansion must stop and its concern regarding the route of the barrier."
So what does Bolton think now about the latest U.S. move? Earlier today, Bolton tweeted: "Obama's reported offer to rebuke Israel in UN Security Council will embolden Israel's enemies at time of dangerous instability in region."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.