(photo credit: AP)
Judging by the headlines of New York's major newspapers, one might have assumed that the only international visitor to have made waves in the city over the last two weeks was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Forget climate change, forget the Middle East conflict, forget Security Council reform and Darfur. Ahmadinejad's appearance in New York, and especially his event at Columbia University, was by far the most covered aspect of last week's 62nd Session of the United Nation's General Assembly.
The media frenzy began even before Ahmadinejad had set foot in the city, with his request to visit Ground Zero, and gathered pace with Columbia's decision to host him as part of its School of International and Public Affairs' annual World Leaders Forum.
The question of whether the university should have extended the invitation was massively and publicly debated, as was the appropriateness or otherwise of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's opening remarks, calling the Iranian president a "petty and cruel dictator" among other epithets.
Ironically, the substantive issues for which Ahmadinejad is so controversial in the first place - namely his repeated Holocaust denial, his incitement against Israel and his country's insistence on continuing to build its nuclear arsenal - were often sidelined amid the public hubbub. That's not to say that those matters - especially the Iranian nuclear drive - were not addressed. They were, in the many diplomatic meetings that take place each year on the sidelines of the GA, where ministers from around the world meet to address issues privately.
Days after the UN Security Council postponed a vote on imposing tougher sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni berated the world for being silent on Iran. "Too many see the danger but walk idly by, hoping that someone else will take care of it," said Livni in her address to the GA. "What is the value of an organization which is unable to take effective action in the face of a direct assault on the very principles it was founded to protect?"
Iran was a topic of conversation in all of the 71 meetings the American Jewish Committee held with leaders from across the globe in New York.
"The good news is that all the countries we met with recognize the seriousness of the issue, and the gravity of the threat," said David Harris, executive director of AJC. "In the past, some said they weren't sure of the intelligence data, or that Iran is misunderstood. This year none said that. Every time the president [of Iran] opens his mouth he only manages to persuade more countries of the danger of nuclear Iran."
The bad news was the lack of urgency. Many countries, said Harris, explained their lack of action by saying they are not part of the "inner circle" - the five permanent members of the Security Council - and therefore are without power. "Of course we are watching it carefully, but we are not one of the permanent members nor are we one of the rotating members who would be asked to vote," Harris said several leaders told him. "In a way, that's the easiest answer."
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, with EU support, agreed last week they would delay a new UN resolution to toughen sanctions against Iran until November. The AJC used its meetings over the past 10 days to try to address other ways in which countries could take action. Said Harris: "Individual countries have relations with Iran, and shouldn't they be reviewing their bilateral relations to show dismay?"
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, echoed the concerns: "Many are disappointed by the lack of urgency on the part of some," Hoenlein said, speaking by phone from Israel. "It doesn't seem to have the momentum that it warrants at this time. Nobody says it's a false issue, but what do you do about it?"
Wider Middle East issues were also much discussed by the diplomats in Manhattan.
In the roughly 40 meetings that Livni held with world leaders, said Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman, there were noticeable signs of improvement in the approach and response to the Jewish state. "I think what we detected was a new mood, a new atmosphere of optimism toward the [planned Annapolis] peace conference [next month]," said Gillerman. But the ambassador was quick to redefine this as "cautious optimism." And there was a lot of "expectation management" going on, in an effort to prevent the conference causing disappointment, said Gillerman.
Israel was looking to the international community and the Arab and Muslim world "to offer support, not to stipulate conditions," said Livni in her GA address.
Israeli officials said the overall mood at the GA was better this year than last. "What we found on the Arab side was a realization that there is a window of opportunity to advance toward a final status agreement," said Gillerman. "They are willing to be more pragmatic and realistic about a settlement."
Gillerman compared this year's meetings with those in 2006, which came on the heels of the war against Hizbullah. "The war was very much a wake-up call, a preview soon to be seen in a theater near you," he said. "Now, a year later, people feel they don't want a repetition; they want to see the crisis settled."
In this light, Gillerman approvingly noted the willingness of "so many Arab heads of state" to meet with Livni both publicly and privately.
Moderate Arab countries had an important role to place in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by "reinforcing decisions" and "strengthening bilateral channels," Livni told Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at one such unscheduled meeting that took place on the sidelines of the GA. The meeting was the highest-level contact ever held between Israeli and Qatari officials, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Livni also appeared with Sayyid Badr, secretary-general of Oman's Foreign Ministry - the first time an Omani official has appeared in public with an Israeli - at an AJC event commemorating the 10th anniversary of Oman's Middle East Desalination Research Center.
In several meetings, the AJC stressed the role of Arab countries when it came to providing security in the West Bank. "Here the international community can play a helpful role to narrow the gap between will and capacity," said Harris.
But it could be a "roller coaster" between now and the scheduled November conference, warned Harris. Potential participants "are still trying to understand the nomenclature," he said. It was still not clear whether this would be a "conference" or a "meeting," who would attend, and what were the parameters and hoped-for outcomes. "There are still a number of question marks," said Harris. "All the more reason why we were at least trying to encourage manageable expectations."
The idea is not to "seek to impose high expectations on a process that is still in evolution, but to encourage the process as a new development."
Of course, the AJC is by no means a negotiating body. Instead it sees itself as "preparing the psychological and practical dimension" for the upcoming conference. "It is impossible to enter negotiations without understanding what makes Israel tick - the red lines, sensitive issues, what's negotiable and nonnegotiable," said Harris. "This is diplomacy 101 for anyone in the business, but even so it's important to remind people, and paint the picture of where we think Israel is at this moment in time, so that those genuinely committed to advancing the peace process can play a constructive role."