MY WORD: Kofi Annan’s legacy and the UN

Annan’s legacy shows that even people of principle cannot fix the many inherent flaws in the United Nations.

Kofi Annan delivers a statement upon his arrival at Damascus May 28, 2012.  (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED AL-HARIRI)
Kofi Annan delivers a statement upon his arrival at Damascus May 28, 2012.
I met former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan just once, when he made an official visit to the Knesset in March 1998. Memories came back after I learned of Annan’s death on August 18 at the age of 80. I recalled him as being calm and unflappable, although I couldn’t immediately remember what it was he had been unflappable about.
With the help of Jerusalem Post archivist Elaine Moshe, who located the news story I wrote in those pre-Google days, the incident came back to me.
“UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was greeted by a red carpet and the full VIP treatment when he arrived at the Knesset yesterday. But the red carpet treatment was swept away the minute he entered the visitors’ gallery, where he was given a different view of the House,” I recorded at the time.
Speaker Dan Tichon warned him that unless the UN changes its policy on Israel, it will remain outside the diplomatic process. “Israel is a longstanding member of the UN, but only on rare occasions is it treated in a friendly way. Our country has seen attacks and unbalanced condemnations. The strategy of isolating and legitimizing [Israel] will only go sour,” he said.
An uproar ensued and the opposition loudly accused Tichon of politicizing his “greeting.” Democratic Arab Party MK Abdul Wahab Darawshe, who enjoyed riling right-wing MKs, chose to speak in Arabic when Tichon told him English could not be used, as it is not an official language in the Knesset. Then, as now after the Nation-State Law, Arabic had a special status in the House.
The consummate diplomat, Annan answered Tichon later with carefully chosen words during a festive meal. He ended his speech by saying: “I would like to appeal to the Israeli public to look anew at the United Nations. I know that ‘Oom-schmoom,’ David Ben-Gurion’s catchy rhyme, is used from time to time by Israelis to dismiss a world organization that some see as either irrelevant or hostile to Israel.
“I would hope that Israelis could instead make ‘room’ for ‘oom,’ that they could open their minds to the prospect of a new era in relations between Israel and the United Nations. Israel has much to offer, and to gain, through the United Nations. We have put behind us some of the worst chapters in our history; and Israel is on its way to normalizing its presence at the United Nations. In the end I think you will agree that in today’s interdependent world, without ‘oom’ we shall have ‘kloom’ [nothing].”
In those days, as a member state that did not belong to any regional group, Israel was objectively prevented from serving in any of the UN’s main organs such as the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council. Annan recognized this “anomaly” and under his leadership the UN eventually included Israel in the Western European and Others Group in 2000.
In his speech, Annan said the security of Israel and the region in general “are abiding concerns of the international community,” adding that when the peace process is not moving forward it is sliding backward. “We must move from an era of confrontation to one of cooperation; from despair to development; from enmity to amity.”
Two decades later, 25 years after the Oslo Accords, Annan’s words have been uttered often and by many, but quiet, let alone peace, seem as far away as ever in this region.
ISRAEL HAD an ambivalent relationship with the Ghanaian-born diplomat who rose through the ranks to reach the top position in the giant world body.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a letter of condolence saying, “We will remember him as having been very active in the international arena and as someone who fought antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”
UN Watch, an NGO that monitors the global organization, paid tribute to Annan, while acknowledging that he had nonetheless also been on the receiving end of its criticism: It described Annan as “a revered statesman who will be remembered as the secretary-general who led the move to scrap the UN’s discredited Human Rights Commission, and who was the first UN chief to publicly and repeatedly call for an end to the UN’s obsessive and one-sided targeting of Israel.” (Under Annan, the Human Rights Council in 2006 replaced the commission, but sadly couldn’t get rid of the anti-Israel bias.)
The most unusual Israeli tribute to Annan, made in his lifetime, is the restaurant on the Golan Heights named “Cafe Annan,” a play on his name and the Hebrew words for “Coffee in a cloud.”
Annan’s popularity in Israel was boosted when in 2005 the UN established International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. During his visit to Israel, Annan was accompanied by his equally calm wife, Nane. She is dedicated to discovering the fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, the half-brother of her aunt Nina Lagergren. Wallenberg disappeared in 1945, probably taken to the Soviet Union, having used his position to issue certificates of protection that saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi “Final Solution.”
IT WASN’T only Annan’s death that made me think of the tense relationship Israel has with the UN, however.
On August 17, current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote a report whose main points suggested the deployment of UN-mandated armed forces or unarmed observers to protect the Palestinians in Gaza – from Israelis. The thousands of Palestinian rockets that have rained down on Israel over the years, the “Great March of Return,” whose name says it all; the “fire intifada” that has left the South scorched and hurting economically and environmentally – none of these in official UN opinion mean that Israel is the entity that is under attack. The Gazans are victims not of Israel but of Hamas policy to use the local population, particularly women and children, as human shields.
Not that I would trust outside observers to keep Israelis safe. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was established in 1995 (making a mockery of the “temporary” part of its name). Recently, incidents have come to light in which one TIPH observer was seen slapping a local Jewish child and another was caught on film slashing the tires of an Israeli-owned vehicle.
Neither do UN forces and peacekeepers inspire confidence.
On Annan’s watch as deputy secretary-general in charge of UN peacekeeping missions genocides were perpetrated in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. During his term in office as secretary-general, three Israeli soldiers were abducted and killed by Hezbollah, the evidence suggesting that the terrorists disguised themselves and their vehicles as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to carry out the attack. It is not clear to what extent UNIFIL might have known and ignored the abduction or even had members involved in it. UNIFIL’s presence certainly didn’t prevent the attack.
More absurdly, Israeli soldiers had to help rescue members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) when dozens were captured by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Feeling endangered by the civil war in Syria, UNDOF forces then sought safety in Israel.
The idea of some kind of international peacekeeping force protecting Israel’s borders with a future Palestinian state is regularly floated. As trial balloons go, it has all the appeal of one of the booby-trapped toys let loose from Gaza to wreak as much damage as possible to the Negev communities.
In 2001, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Annan and the UN “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
I doubt anyone other than the Norwegian Nobel committee members associates the year 2001 with peace. Under the UN’s auspices, between August 31 and September 8, 2001, the World Conference against Racism, known as Durban I, turned into an anti-Israel festival of hate, during a wave of Palestinian terrorism. And none of us needs Google to recall what happened on September 11 that year.
Guterres’s report, like Annan’s legacy, shows that even people of principle cannot fix the many inherent flaws in the United Nations. And that the UN cannot guarantee peace.