Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1991, Page 44

United Nations Report

General Assembly Elects a Saudi President as 46th Session Opens

By Ian Williams

Speeches to the 46th General Assembly have sounded interesting after decades of party line recitations. Old blocs are collapsing, and new ones are still emerging. The session began with a victory for the Arab world—or part of it, at least. Jerusalem-born Samir Shihabi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, was elected president of the GA, defeating Papua New Guinea's Michael Somare and Yemen's Abdalla Al Ashtal on the first ballot. His campaign was reported to have US support, and some votes were certainly cast in expectation of largesse to follow (see box).

This raises the interesting prospect of an Arab, and a Palestinian at that, chairing a debate to rescind the "Zionism is racism" resolution. Shihabi gave a hint of how things might go when he absented himself from the rostrum during the speech by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy. Still, the Israelis were in no position to complain—their delegation was not present during President Bush's speech pledging to seek the withdrawal of the resolution. The Israelis were celebrating Succoth—not hitherto known as one of the highest of holy days.

Despite Bush's pledge, the issue seems unlikely to be raised this year. While several of the former Communist states have echoed his call, procrastination until after a peace conference would appeal to many. It is, after all, the same logic used so successfully by the White House on the loan guarantees.

Although the US is pushing hard on the issue, it is on procedural thin ice. Opponents could move to postpone a vote. Since it involves overturning a resolution, they could also, under Article 18 of the Charter, move a procedural motion that this is an important question. The motion would only need to be carried by a simple majority, but its result would be that overturning the "Zionism is racism" resolution would require a two-thirds majority.

As a measure of how the original Communist/nonaligned coalition has fallen apart, this summer Israel was admitted to the Economic Commission for Europe in a vote which saw only the Islamic countries holding the line, while others voted with the West or abstained. However, there are enough left to muster more than a third of the General Assembly—and even more who would rather duck the issue.

To avoid that possibility, the US has apparently canvassed the idea of moving the original resolution again, and having it voted down. However, doing so entails the risk of amendments and debate which could be very embarrassing. Arab states could, for example, append a shopping list of demands on Israel's Law of Return, land ownership, etc., which would put Israel in the position of having to prove that discriminating against Palestinian Arabs is not really racist.

"We cannot accept Israeli policy on settlements."

Interestingly, Egypt's Foreign Minister Amre Moussa was firm in rejecting attempts to get Egypt committed to rescind the resolution. "We want to establish a quiet atmosphere conducive to good negotiations, so at this time we should not enter this discussion, " he said at a press conference.

He added, "We are in constant contact with the Palestinians and there are a lot of points discussed. We cannot accept Israeli policy on settlements. It violates international law and 242 in spirit and intention. We call for a moratorium on building settlements, and we also have proposed to exchange such a freeze for the end of the boycott. It will help establish the conditions for a successful peace conference."

Moussa had also used his speech to underline the theme of a settlement, not settlements, making statements which were widely quoted in the US media. He also called upon Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—which was not so widely reported.

As he later put it, " There should be no exceptions for any country or any weapon. We know that Israel has a different approach but if they are not in possession of such weapons, then they should not be concerned by verification and inspection."

Moussa shared with many other Arab speakers a sense of the UN's role in the peace process. "The UN is already there. The whole process of negotiations will be based on UN documents, and when we talk about the principles of International Law and legitimacy, that's the UN."

Worries about the seeming sidelining of the UN are shared by Perez de Cuellar, who told journalists, "I do not know exactly what is going on because I am not periodically informed of what is being negotiated now in the Middle East. " He went on to say that the idea of a United Nations observer "is not enough ... If that is all they are going to offer the United Nations, it is insufficient and unfair. We should not forget that Israel is the creation of the United Nations Organization and that the framework of any Middle East solution has to be the two Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."

Such statements have convinced most people that Perez de Cuellar is not interested in remaining in his present position except on his own terms. "I'm not a masochist," he told one senior official, when an extension of his term was suggested. Among potential replacements, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali is looking like a favorite, not just because he secured the enthusiastic endorsement of a New York Times editorial. The election is a negative beauty contest, in which the contestants have to avoid a veto from the permanent five on the Security Council. The Chinese have threatened to veto a non-African, the French won't tolerate a non-French speaker, and the Americans and British will not be happy with anyone who shows too much independence.

Ghali speaks perfect French, has such moderate credentials that he reportedly has the imprimatur of Israel, and of course Egypt is a longstanding member of the Organization of African Unity. Given seeming American support, the major factor working against him is his age. He is diplomatically said to be approaching 69, but some observers express skepticism.

The Postponed Istanbul Water Summit: Made in Israel?

The Middle East Water Summit scheduled totake place in Istanbul this November was postponed at the beginning of October because of the refusal of Arab states to attend along with Israel. The published invitation lists included Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and US Secretary of State James Baker. There was no mention of Israel, although a spokeswoman for the organizers, the Global Water Initiative, had told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a month ago that Israel was "definitely coming."

That was the message that Syria got also and promptly pledged to boycott the conference while the occupier of the Golan Heights was sharing the table. Turkey was left wriggling on the horns of a dilemma. As one Turkish diplomat explained, "We would like to invite Israel, because we have diplomatic relations with them, but our Arab neighbors have made it plain that they would not come if Israel did—and if we don't invite Israel then America would not come."

Turkey does not have oil—but it does have water, which most of the Middle East lacks. Ankara has tried to play this trump card often, and President Ozal's sponsorship of the Middle East Water Conference is just the latest manifestation. However, as always in the region, water is inflammable stuff.

The Istanbul summit meeting was organized by the Global Water Summit Initiative, founded in 1989 as a non-profit, non-governmental organization. It already has had two regional summits, one for Eastern Europe and one in Cairo in June 1990 attended by African countries and hosted by President Mubarak. It has engaged many UN agencies, from the World Bank to UNDP and UNEP.

However, in the Middle East, paranoia is endemic. Only last year, US educator Joyce Starr, chairwoman and founder of the Global Water Initiative, told a meeting at the Carter Peace Center about her extensive contacts with Israel. She noted, for example, that in the 1970s she had worked with then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to launch a Marshall Aid Plan for the Middle East.

It is that type of background which allows Syria to doubt, in the words of an official statement, the "real purpose of an American organization whose basic goal is to integrate Israel in the region through water projects."

Others have seen the proposal as a payoff for the time in 1989 when AIPAC lent its lobby to Turkey to block Senator Bob Dole's resolution to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Armenian holocaust of 1916.

It might have helped to dispel those doubts if the Global Water Initiative office had not sent out photocopies of press clippings with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee fax signature still at the top.

Such naivete suggests that they may not realize the political implications of what they are trying to do. A more sophisticated view was taken by Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa when asked about it. "Cancellation of the water conference shows the importance of the peace process. Support for the peace conference will bring about success in such negotiations, which will then fall into place."

With Israel taking water from southern Lebanon, Golan, Gaza and the West Bank while blocking Jordan's projects, it would be difficult for the Arab states to take a dispassionate view. You can't lead a horse to water if you have stolen the trough. 

Ian Williams is a British journalist based at the United Nations.



Samir Shihabi

Samir Shihabi was born in Jerusalem in 1925, and studied at the American University in Cairo, and at Yale, Cambridge, and New York Universities. He joined the Saudi Foreign Ministry in 1949. After many diplomatic appointments, including Turkey, Somalia, Italy and Pakistan, he became permanent Saudi representative to the United Nations in 1983. In his opening address, he said, "The tragedy of Palestine, and the rights of the Palestinian people, are a commitment on the United Nations to realize their rights fully in accordance with United Nations resolutions and what the charter and international legitimacy require.

When asked his opinion on the threatened recision of the "Zionism is racism" resolution, he shows his years of diplomatic experience by avoiding the issue. "No one has ever rescinded a General Assembly resolution before, but it is the General Assembly that decides on its own responses. The procedure is clear." He adds that as president he cannot comment on any issue until the assembly has decided, but it is clear that the Palestinian question is of personal as well as diplomatic interest to him.

He has a reputation as a shrewd operator, which suggests that he will be working hard behind the scenes on such matters. And, of course, he is well informed. He confided that he and his wife are long-time subscribers and avid readers of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.

To many people, presiding over the GA sessions would be a hot contender for the world's most boring job, but he loyally defends his diplomatic colleagues.

"No, it isn't really. The speakers have spent a lot of time preparing their speeches and they deserve to have them listened to with attention. And with the end of the Cold War, certainly there's much more interest in the expressions that I heard this year. Compared with the past there have been more constructive words for the future of the world to live in harmony and cooperation."

Job satisfaction, he stresses, is not his main aim. "I look upon the presidency not from the colorful side of it, but from the duty-bound side of it. And, of course it is very important to project the image of Saudi Arabia, and the image of the Arab world."

In fact, his candidacy for the presidency did mark a new departure for Saudi Arabia, which has not traditionally been so prominent in the world body. While pointing out that "Saudi Arabiais one of the founding members," he suggests, "It's just fine that we didn't go for visible positions. Now that the United Nations has played such a major role in the Gulf region we find that this new dimension is necessary for our foreign policy. We went for that and I am very gratified that the world community, as represented in the General Assembly, has given Saudi Arabia a very good welcome."

He dismisses a suggestion that at least some of the electoral success was owed to hopes by member nations for Saudi generosity: "Saudi Arabia, with or without oil, has many friends in the world and our friends stood up for us... We treasure their support, and appreciate their friendship."

On the various proposals for reform, he is again politely non-committal. "It is always desirable to look at the working of the machinery. There's no breakdown in a particular area that needs attention immediately, but there is of course a general desire that attention should continue."

One issue on which he shows his feelings, which he shares with almost everyone connected with the UN, is a belief that the organization is being sidelined in the current Middle East peace conference. "Of course the UN should play a prominent role. To leave the United Nations out might give the wrong impression, since any solution as far as all parties are concerned has to be based on UN resolutions. " When asked if he will have any input into the process, he answers, significantly, "Let us wait and see."


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