Wednesday, September 20, 2006

As Bush, Iranian Clash at U.N., Israel Comes Under New Pressure

Benny Avni, The New York Sun:
What was billed as a clash at the United Nations between President Bush and President Ahmadinejad over Iran's nuclear ambitions is being at least partially upstaged by new calls for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

Mr. Bush and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both spoke here yesterday at the United Nations General Assembly. Mr. Ahmadinejad's vision of solving the dispute by eliminating Israel altogether received attentive hearing yesterday, and even some cheers at the General Assembly. And instead of shunning that vision by leaning on Iran to halt the race to acquire the nuclear weapons that might enable the mullahs to make it come true, President Chirac of France called for more "dialogue." READ MORE

At the assembly, Mr. Chirac proposed launching an international conference to help ease the concerns of Israel and Palestinian Arabs. President Bush said he directed Secretary of State Rice to launch a new "diplomatic effort," even as Israeli and American officials are privately cautioning that the realities in the region make progress unlikely.

European members of the group known as the quartet, meanwhile, contemplated starting to ease sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority as early as today. The Arab League also planned to steal the quartet's thunder by convening a meeting of the Security Council tomorrow. The quartet consists of the U.N., America, Russia, and the European Union.

Mr. Bush reminded the General Assembly in his speech, however, that Palestinian Arabs must "abandon terror, recognize Israel's right to exist, honor agreements, and work for peace," prior to receiving any more aid or diplomatic contacts. His speech, nevertheless, was much closer than in previous years to the spirit of the annual Assembly gathering, which is always filled with calls for dialogue and harmony.

The nuclear issue was not totally sidelined. "Dialogue must prevail," Mr. Chirac thundered in his speech to the General Assembly, referring to concerns on Iran's nuclear ambitions."Let us talk in order to enter into negotiations."

Earlier, after meeting his Parisian counterpart, President Bush told reporters that Europeans can renew talks with Iran, in order to try to convince the mullahs to stop enriching uranium. But when America's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, was asked by CNN if America has the capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program with military force, he said, "I think they should believe that."

Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a speech filled with religious allusions, called for a world "replete with love and compassion." Although he received a round of applause from many in the hall, the only American present was a junior-level note taker. Israeli diplomats said they missed the speech altogether.

"The fact that Iran's president receives a stage here is shameful," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told The New York Sun prior to the speech. "A denier of the Holocaust who has organized a cartoon contest on the subject, and who has called to wipe Israel off the map to boot, should not be seen in the community of nations."

Mr. Ahmadinejad stopped just short of repeating his calls to wipe Israel off the map and denials of the holocaust. He detailed his bizarre view of history according to which "some of the survivors" of World War II drove "millions of the rightful owners" out of Palestine. He denounced the U.N. for ever allowing the Jewish state to exist, and he also decried the "abuse" of veto power by America and Britain to protect "the Zionist regime."

His view was not widely shared.

"I've directed Secretary of State Rice to lead a diplomatic effort to engage moderate leaders across the region," Mr. Bush said, "to help the Palestinians reform their security services, and support Israeli and Palestinian leaders in their efforts to come together to resolve their differences."

Mr. Chirac went even further. "Let us define a global strategy the key to which is an Israeli-Palestinian settlement," he said. "The quartet should meet shortly to start preparing for an international conference."

Diplomats familiar with meetings between mid-level quartet officials told the Sun yesterday that Europeans want sanctions on the Palestinian Authority to be eased. American officials, however, were skeptical about President Abbas's ability to form a unity government with Hamas that would be able to agree to the three conditions set by the quartet.

Mr. Bush expects to meet Mr. Abbas today, and according to one official, he might even relay possible legal problems involved in renewing aid, including the status of the Palestinian Authority's office in Washington, in case it represents a government that includes Hamas, which is recognized as a terror organization buy the State Department.

While vowing to maintain closer ties with Mr. Abbas, Ms. Livni said the conditions cannot be negotiated or compromised. "We will not accept word games," she said. Recognition of Israel must be true, as well as sticking by signed agreements and renouncing terrorism in all its forms. "I don't care if they call it terrorism or resistance."

Referring to tomorrow's proposed meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Security Council, Mr. Bolton said he was not sure yet at what level America would be represented. "We still don't see the utility of it."

Ms. Livni, speaking of that meeting, as well as Mr. Chirac's idea of an international conference, which was echoed by some State Department officials as well, said that contact with the Palestinian Authority should be bilateral. "You do not need the world and his cousin in order to achieve progress," she said.