My Word: Whose war is it, anyway?

The UN, Spain, Latin America - everybody wants to tell us how to solve our problems.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and I have something in common. I have just turned down a trip to Rio de Janeiro. And so, after mass demonstrations led by local Jews in the Brazilian city, has he. Ahmadinejad, obviously feeling on a roll after his Geneva appearance at the UN "anti-racism" conference last month, was hoping to air his vision of the future for the Middle East in a tour of South America. I was invited to participate in a peace seminar, partly sponsored by the UN and partly by the Brazilian government. The theme: "Latin America and Peace in the Middle East." And that's where my possible trip, tempting though it might be, hit a snag. Try as I might, I couldn't think of any convincing speech I could give on how - or why - Latin America should get involved in the already difficult enough Mideast process. Before sending the reply e-mail politely turning down the offer, I decided to sleep on it. I had nightmares. In my dreams, I saw images of Ahmadinejad's smile in Switzerland, like that of some manic, atomic-powered Cheshire cat. And I saw Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who, like Ahmadinejad, has very definite ideas on how to solve the Middle East problem. Scenes from documentaries on the "disappeared" of Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Guatemala replayed in my fitful mind. The poverty of Sao Paulo and Rio's shantytowns and the fearful violence in the highly divided society also sprang into my sleeping subconscious. In the background, I heard voices screaming insults at me in Spanish and Portuguese. For a wild moment I thought it might be some kind of collective memory dating back to when my family was ignominiously expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1400s. It turned out I'd fallen asleep with the radio on and the morning news broadcasts included reports that Spain would prosecute Israeli leaders concerning the 2002 operation in which arch-terrorist Salah Shehadeh was killed, tragically along with 14 civilians. This gave rise to another fear in my still sleepy mind. Suppose I were to be arrested for war crimes? At this rate, any soldier who donned IDF fatigues seems to be a possible target for investigation (unlike NATO, whose forces accidentally killed some 2,500 civilians during the fighting in Yugoslavia of the 1990s, or the US, which just last week appeared to have bombed Afghan civilians). Do I gain any points for having served in the IDF Liaison to the UN Forces, my first contact with the UN? Later, in part influenced by this period of my military service, I studied for a BA in international relations at the Hebrew University. I even took a course in international law with the outstanding Prof. Ruth Lapidot. The subject of war crimes came up, but today's definitions seem to differ from those we learned. Maybe I just missed the relevant section as I was busy concentrating on the issues surrounding MIAs and their treatment. I still am, in fact, and wouldn't mind seeing the UN, The Hague or Spain investigating the fate of Israel's soldiers. MY RELATIONSHIP with the UN, like its connection with Israel, has known ups and downs. My faith was shaken when, leading up to the First Lebanon War, I had to write a letter to be distributed to the UN forces warning them that Israeli troops would be passing through their territory and not to interfere. I couldn't get rid of this niggling feeling that if the IDF could write a nice polite letter like this, Yasser Arafat's "army," Amal terrorists and the Syrians (Hizbullah had not yet been conceived) could also demand the UN do nothing. And probably the peacekeepers would comply. Ever since, I have had my suspicions concerning the true power of international monitoring forces. With unfortunate timing, the UN last week also published one of its numerous reports on the IDF's activity during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. I'm sure that Israel's behavior did not fall into the category of war crimes we studied in Lapidot's lessons. The UN, however, has its own version of events, based it seems, on Hamas's "narrative." Much has been said in this paper about the international body's failure to lay any of the blame on Hamas. What is even more perturbing is the absence of any self blame. After all, wasn't the purpose of the UN to prevent hostilities, rather than investigate them? What pressure was placed on Hamas before the campaign to stop showering rockets on southern Israel in ever-growing concentric circles of fire? Now, it is basically instigating more violence by hosting people like Ahmadinejad and treating Israel like a pariah. The UN and the Spanish inquiries bring to mind the old Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch in which one character, on being asked a question, would declare: "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!" The "cardinals" would then burst into the room and the Michael Palin character would exclaim, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" It was easy growing up in Britain to ridicule the Inquisition, Monty Python-style. It's less funny living in an Israel under threat not only of Kassams, Katyushas, Grads and Iran's race for nuclear arms, but also with the feeling that any measure of self-defense will be investigated by some international court - bouncing like a kangaroo over the facts - in something resembling a parody. Now into all this will step the pope - not the Pythonesque character, but the genuine figure, with pronouncements of brotherhood and peace and the need to stop the "cycle of violence." MORE THAN THE violence, it seems the rhetoric is going round in circles. While I pondered what I might nonetheless contribute to the Rio seminar, I was struck by the thought that I already knew the speeches of the Palestinian representatives, and if I countered the claims one by one, I wouldn't have time left to say anything original. (Is there anything original to say, anyway?) The pity of it is that I do believe there is a need for meetings and discourse. As Prof. Naomi Chazan wrote in an op-ed a week ago, "Today, there is little desire and virtually no possibility for Israelis and Palestinians to meet. Without heavy investments in people-to-people links - once the cornerstone of fostering a favorable climate for negotiations - no official progress will gain traction in these two fractious and mutually wary societies." True, the UN gatherings provide an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to meet in non-threatening surroundings - often pulled together by the need to navigate in a non-Semitic language and environment. But Rio de Janeiro is a long way from home. The distance might give the Israelis and the Palestinians a certain perspective. However, it emphasizes the strangeness of the supposition that Latin America should have a say in what goes on here. Still, if anyone wants to know how to solve South America's problems, I've been giving the matter some thought. No wonder I don't sleep well.