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Barbara Crossette, United Nations bureau chief for The New York Times and author of three well-received books on South Asia, addressed a Middle East Briefing on January 12, 2000.

The General Assembly

The record of the General Assembly (GA) toward the Middle East, particularly its relationship vis-à-vis Israel, has been highly biased. The GA's are characterized by a unified opposition to Israel; the Soviet bloc was instrumental to this when it existed, and it is still a keystone of the so-called nonaligned movement (currently known as the G-77). Arab states seem to have a disproportionate voice in setting the agenda at the GA and have often used the latter as a platform to push forward pro-forma anti-Israel resolutions. On a more positive note, some of the larger nonaligned countries, such as India and Indonesia, have improved or are seeking to improve their relations with Israel.

The classification of geographic groups by continent within the U.N. also presents a problem. "Asia" as a regional group reflects, not a useful working category, but an outdated Orientalist concept encompassing a vast region from Lebanon to Japan. This oddity of classification constitutes an abiding problem and illustrates the urgent need for institutional reforms at the U.N.

This classification has two implications for the Middle East. First, it does not recognize the Middle East as a region but splits the Arab countries between Africa and Asia. This means, for example, that the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) currently lacks an Arab Middle Eastern representative. Bangladesh and Malaysia are holding the Asian seats; and although Tunisia is one of the two states representing Africa, it must represent Africa, not the Middle East, despite its much deeper cultural affiliation to the Middle East.

Second, this unfortunate system of apportionment leaves Israel as an orphan. Differing excuses have been voiced for why Israel has not been welcomed as a member of any regional group at the U.N. Arab states will argue that Israel would become part of the Asian group once a final settlement of all outstanding issues between Israel and its Arab neighbors is reached. Israel would rather become a member of the "Western Europe and Others Group" (WEOG), which includes not just western Europe but also such diverse countries as the United States and Australia. Yet it has been thwarted from membership in WEOG by European countries that say it is part of the Middle East - which makes no sense if New Zealand is part of WEOG.

The Secretary-General

The current secretary-general of the U.N., Kofi Annan, is much less vexed and troubled over Middle Eastern issues than was his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (an Egyptian with long experience in the region). Annan is willing to upset both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He views the Middle East as an important region and, to the extent he can, he tries to view it from various points of the spectrum.

In 1999, he appointed the Norwegian diplomat Terje Larsen as the U.N.'s envoy to the Middle East. Larsen, nominally a humanitarian envoy of the secretary-general, is certainly not apolitical, given his background in arranging the secret Oslo meetings between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. His return to known territory has drawn criticism from Israel, albeit muted and not across the board.

At the same time, Annan has been willing to call attention-more forthrightly so than any of his predecessors-to the situation Israel finds itself in the U.N. In several speeches he has given, including one in Jerusalem in late 1999 and one before the American Jewish Committee in New York, he has made it clear that Israel's orphan status in the U.N. is unacceptable. He expressed particular disappointment with WEOG's lack of decision on whether to accept Israel into its ranks.

Security Council

With the exception of Iraq, actions taken on behalf of the UNSC on issues related to the Middle East have minimal importance. This is because Washington has tried - and largely succeeded - in keeping the Middle East out of the council's deliberations. The Clinton administration has been especially vehement in keeping the Arab-Israeli peace process run out of the State Department and the White House and kept away from the UNSC.

It may surprise you to learn that the Arab states show a notable lack of cohesion in promoting their interests in the UNSC, despite their many stated common positions and the existence of some very distinguished diplomats in this group. The Arab states, as a group, have accounted for few creative ideas at the U.N. and little behind-the-scenes activity. To an observer like myself, the lack of a unified Arab voice on so many issues is a pity, for it stymies genuine discussion and promotes the pro-forma resolutions the Arab states get passed in the GA.

The Iraq crisis offers an example of a lost opportunity to bolster a unified Arab voice. The Arab world is not pro-Saddam Husayn but genuinely concerned with the Iraqi people and the future of Iraq. The Arab diplomats, however, have had only a small role in formulating the UNSC's Iraq policy.

Iraq has also been a problem for the United States. In 1990-91, Washington managed to pull together an extraordinary alliance, but then it failed to retain this coalition in the years after the Gulf war. Instead it found itself, as future crises such as Kosovo occurred, with almost nobody on board. Washington made another mistake when the sanctions dragged on for too long, and the Iraqi people paid an ever-higher price for Saddam Husayn's behavior. As it became more and more obvious that the sanctions had to be reevaluated, Washington stuck to the same policy, lost support in the UNSC, and simultaneously stopped caring itself. Washington is now left with a policy that almost no country supports.

Can the United Nations Fix the Middle East?

The U.N. could help fix the Middle East on developmental, regional, and economic issues, such as water arrangements. On other issues, the U.N. will never be able to fix the Middle East, for the simple reason that the United States would not let it. The more the United States gets involved in the U.N., the more effective an organization it will be. The repeal of the Zionism-equal-racism equation, for instance, was the outcome of strong American diplomatic work. So was the gathering together of the Gulf war coalition. In fact, after the Gulf war the U.N. was in a state of huge euphoria.

More effort will be required from the United States to make the U.N. a more effective organization when it comes to solving problems related to the Middle East. The Clinton administration, however, is gradually less involved in the work of the U.N., for both internal and external reasons.

Summary account by Assaf Moghadam