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NEW YORK - Several American Jewish leaders charge that Israel's Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, didn't see the writing on the wall, and failed to do enough to forestall the UN General Assembly decision of December 8 to transfer discussion of the legality of the separation fence to the World Court in the Hague.

The leaders of Jewish organizations say that Gillerman failed to heed warnings relayed to him about Russia's intention to submit the road map for General Assembly approval - Russia made this move on November 19.

"With advance coordination with the U.S., Russia's action could have been preempted," claims the head of a Jewish organization in New York. "Israel's ambassador was arrogant and over-confident."

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman views a decision to sponsor a UN proposal "on behalf of the Israeli child," which relates to "the right of a child to life without terror," an arrogant, "grave error" which played into the hands of Israel's enemies.

Gillerman, in contrast, is proud of the proposal. In an unusual step, Israel submitted for the first time since 1967 a proposed UN resolution in response to an Arab proposal relating to "defense for the Palestinian child." Amendments incorporated in the Israeli resolution as a result of Egyptian intervention emptied it of substance, and Israel was forced to withdraw it.

In a conversation with Gillerman, Foxman explained that forwarding the counter-proposal was a mistake from the start, and that "Israel effectively conferred legitimacy to the distorted process of submitting one-sided proposed resolutions, a process which Israel's enemies have exploited in the UN for decades."

As a Jewish leader who heads an organization devoted to the fight against anti-Semitism, Foxman was infuriated by what he defines as another "grave mistake" made by Israel's UN team. This involved the Israeli delegation's decision to withdraw its demand that Ireland incorporate in a proposed resolution against religious intolerance (which has been submitted annually for over 20 years) a special, express denunciation of anti-Semitism. In the aftermath of the terror attacks on synagogues in Istanbul, Ireland promised Israel that it would sponsor a separate, special resolution against anti-Semitism; in the end, Ireland's UN team backed out of this promise.

Foxman rejects work done by Israel's UN team on the subject of anti-Semitism as a "failure." Israel's delegation should have insisted that the special anti-Semitism denunciation be included in Ireland's original resolution, he says.

A propaganda card

In a recent discussion held at the UN, a senior Arab diplomat was asked why there is no move afoot to sponsor a new resolution equating Zionism and racism. Without thinking twice, the diplomat replied: "For the time being, there's no need to do this at the United Nations. There are those in Europe who are doing the work for us."

The question had some foundation: it reflects a perception of the UN as an increasingly hostile venue for Israel. This view is held widely by diplomats and commentators, who say that the UN's 58th General Assembly was particularly hard for Israel. The Assembly, say these sources, was characterized by stepped up efforts by Palestinian and Arab diplomats, and by unusual anti-Israel steps.

One such extraordinary move was the PLO effort to repeal Israel's credentials as a member at the UN. Playing a propaganda card which has not been utilized in the decade since the original Oslo Accord signing, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) argued that Israel's delegation cannot represent residents of the occupied territories - they must be represented by the PLO. This resolution was defeated last Thursday at the last minute, owing to stiff opposition put up by the European Union.

Work at the UN General Assembly has never been a joy ride for Israeli diplomats. Even when pro-peace process developments have been in motion, as during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister, UN voting patterns on matters relating to Israel have not changed. But even by these generally anti-Israel standards, the last round of UN meetings witnessed an unusual assault on Israel, one which eradicated any vestiges of sympathy for Israel's positions that lingered from the Oslo era.

Since September, the Security Council has held three special meetings that related directly to Israel. On September 16, discussions were held about reports that Israel had decided to expel Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat; on October 14, a discussion was held about the separation fence. Between these two meetings, Syria's request led to an emergency session of the Security Council devoted to Israel's bombing of targets deep inside Syria in early October. Discovering that they lacked a majority to push through an anti-Israel resolution, the Syrians withdrew their proposal.

During the other two discussions, the Americans used their veto powers to quash Arab proposals opposing Arafat's expulsion, and the construction of the separation fence. In response, Nasser al-Kidwa, the PLO's observer at the UN, arranged emergency sessions of the General Assembly in which a large majority of members approved a resolution that would ban Israel from expelling Arafat, and another resolution calling on Israel to cease construction of the separation fence. Two weeks ago, at another emergency session spearheaded by al-Kidwa, the Assembly voted to relay discussions about the legality of the fence to the World Court at the Hague.

"The last General Assembly meetings were held under the shadow of Jenin; Israel was exposed to a wave of condemnations at the UN" owing to IDF operations in the West Bank, a seasoned Western diplomat explains. "This General Assembly will be remembered for discussions of the separation fence, which yielded a precedent-setting decision to transfer an issue which is on the UN's agenda to the World Court in the Hague."

The diplomat described what he regards as the UN dynamic that leads to anti-Israel resolutions - during the latest round of UN meetings, this dynamic reached its peak, he said. The first step, the diplomat said, occurs when al-Kidwa brings an idea to a group of UN ambassadors from Arab states. This group then adopts the idea, but not necessarily because all of its members agree with its substantive contents; instead, the Arab diplomats vie with one another for the honor of coming across as the most stridently pro-Palestinian advocate. The group then turns to the non-aligned nations, and asks for support on the resolution; these countries fall into line, and vote in favor of the Arab-Palestinian resolution.

UN diplomats explain that the last round of meetings were fertile ground for pro-Palestinian activity because the U.S. wasn't around during General Assembly discussions. One senior Israeli official in New York complains that "the Americans are virtually nowhere to be found during the Assembly meetings."

"Apart from the subject of Iraq, American diplomats at the UN don't care about anything," another well-placed source says.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte has not been active at General Assembly meetings this year. Filling in the gap left by his absence, European diplomats have been hard at work, often showing special interest in Middle East matters.

Israel's Deputy UN Ambassador Aryeh Mekel, a seasoned Foreign Ministry hand, says that there "were originally hopes that steps could be taken to create a new sort of UN General Assembly."

In the weeks preceding the Assembly opening, Abu Mazen took the reins as PA prime minister; Israeli diplomats hoped that the change would lead to a less hostile atmosphere at the world body. These expectations were bolstered by reports that Abu Mazen intended to remove al-Kidwa as the PLO's UN observer. Al-Kidwa, an active diplomat, is known for leading an anti-Israel front at the UN.

As it turned out, by the time the General Assembly opened, Abu Mazen was no longer PA prime minister. Violence escalated in Israel. And al-Kidwa remained at the UN.

Israeli Ambassador Gillerman concurs that the Assembly turned out to be a tough one for Israel. Yet he rejects interpretations held by Jewish leaders and others in New York by which Israel is depicted as limping away bruised and battered from the UN. "You have to keep the circumstances in mind," he says. "The escalation of violence, the assassinations, the road map, the separation fence" - when such factors are kept in mind, Gillerman says, "this General Assembly will be recalled as an improvement for Israel, compared to previous ones."

"Work at the UN is a continuation of the war on terror," says Israel's UN Ambassador. "Just as Israel takes initiatives against terror operatives, and forces them to find a new place to sleep each night, so too have we in the UN decided to discard the defensive posture, and move to a more aggressive, attack position. We forced the PLO and the Arabs at the UN to look for solutions to moves which we made."

Gillerman believes that Israel's delegation has set out "new standards for activity and initiatives at the UN. As example, he cites Israel's proposal "for the Israeli child," the same initiative which has been castigated by Foxman and other American Jewish leaders. Gillerman's interpretation is very different: "We know in advance that this proposal on behalf of the Israeli child would not be approved. But we took a considered risk. Egypt's intervention derailing the resolution, exposed the UN's hypocrisy."

Gillerman dismisses charges leveled against him as a reflection of internal power struggles among American Jewish leaders. His view is supported by colleagues in Israel's UN delegation. One stated: "The heads of the Jewish organizations, particularly Foxman, are the ones who failed in the attempt to recruit active American diplomatic activity on behalf of UN resolutions against anti-Semitism."