New York Affairs: Coming UN-hinged

Less than 2 weeks after the Saudi king extended his hand to President Peres at the UNGA's interfaith conference, his ambassador joined others in bashing Israel from the same podium.

'One step forward, two steps back," remarked Gregory Esau, a tourist visiting UN headquarters in New York earlier this week, after wandering through a small exhibit of photographs taken in the Aida camp in the West Bank. The images - grinning children flying homemade kites, families arrayed on sofas, minarets outlined against tiger-lily sunsets - were mainly portraits of optimism and resilience. Only one shot, of a graffito on the concrete barrier wall depicting a rudimentary system for catapulting stick figures over the top, spoke to the frustration roiling below. Esau, a US Air Force veteran, was making a general observation about the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations shortly after border crossings into Gaza were reopened for humanitarian relief. Two floors up, in the grand wood-and-marble dome that houses the General Assembly, UN diplomats were decrying Israeli actions against Gaza, and the absence of a final peace agreement allowing for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. UN General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann caused a stir among Jewish watchdog groups by invoking apartheid and calling for consideration of divestment and boycott of Israel until peace is achieved, adding with a flourish that Israel could be held accountable, despite "the protective shield of the United States and the Security Council." Yet it was the speech given by the Saudi ambassador that really proved Esau's point. Reading hastily from a written page, he called peace with Israel "a farfetched possibility," in light of continued building in the settlements, the construction of the barrier wall, and the demolition of Palestinian homes. That was on Monday, less than two weeks after Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah spoke from the same podium, telling Israeli President Shimon Peres and other heads of state that he wished to extend his hand to all those seeking peace. Peres responded in his own speech by breaking with precedent - and his speechwriters - to thank the king, and later spoke of "a new air" between Israeli and Arab leaders. "The feeling is that the time has come to try and have an overall peace in the Middle East," he told reporters after the session, and credited the Saudis with presenting a "totally different," and decidedly moderate, Arab voice than he had heard in the past. "We can see the shore of peace closer than ever before," Peres added. YET THIS week, the shore receded into the mist somewhat. The Gaza border was swiftly shut in response to renewed rocket attacks, affirming the criticisms offered by Arab interlocutors at the UN. Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev found herself chiding her colleagues for "bashing Israel" instead of treating it like a full and equal negotiating partner - in other words, nicely - even as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Washington assuring reporters and US officials that a peace deal was within reach. "I ask my distinguished colleagues to engage in soul-searching," she added. "Do you wish to continue holding one-sided debates and passing biased resolutions that reflect nothing more than the negative political dynamics of this organization?" Shalev accused her fellow diplomats of a failure to acknowledge reality "on the ground" - both in terms of rocket attacks and the ongoing bilateral negotiations happening largely outside of New York's purview. Upstairs, Palestinian representatives agreed - but from the opposite side. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said he wanted the Security Council to force the question of the Gaza blockade, telling reporters, "We expect more." Downstairs, in the ad hoc photo gallery, Esau, bundled up against a chilling November rain, just shook his head and said he was glad to be on his way home to Florida.