Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

29th October 2000

Israel the burning issue

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New York is perhaps the only city in the world which exercises the self-imposed right to profess its own foreign policy. Every single politician running for or staying in office has only one agenda cast in stone: the survival of the state of Israel, irrespective of whether it is right or wrong.

All other foreign policy issues relating to ethnic New Yorkers ranging from fighting in the Balkans and Northern Ireland to sanctions against Cuba and the potential for a nuclear war in the Asian subcontinent are way down the list.

So when an estimated 15,000 pro-Israelis and perhaps an equal number of pro- Palestinians held two separate rallies outside the United Nations recently, the line-up of speakers on the two platforms clearly gave an indication of how the political winds were blowing in New York city.

The pro-Israeli rally was teeming with politicians bending over backwards to prove their Jewishness: New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York State Governor George Pataki, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, her Republican rival Rick Lazio and a former New York city Mayor, Ed Koch. But of the five, only Koch is Jewish.

The Palestinian rally, which included Muslims of different ethnic groups, did not have a single local politician, all of whom turned down their invitations fearing the wrath of the strongly pro-Jewish lobby.

Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Discrimination Committee says that both candidates for the New York Senate seat, Clinton and Lazio, are "pandering most shamelessly by demonising the Arafats."

Lazio has been attacked for shaking hands with Yassir Arafat during a visit to the Middle East while First Lady Clinton has been crucified for having embraced Arafat's wife during a meeting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

In the US, handshakes and embraces can make or mar political careers depending on who is at the receiving end.

Last month President Clinton came under heavy fire by Cuban-Americans in the US for having casually shaken hands with President Fidel Castro at the Millennium Summit at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman observes that the Israeli demonstration seemed bigger than the march by Arabs and other Muslims. "But it wasn't vastly bigger", he says.

"Time was, not so long ago, when any comparison between the two would have been a joke."

As the ethnic composition of New York city kept changing, politicians of the 1950s and 1960s paid homage, first to the Italian-Americans, and then to Irish-American and Greek-American voters, as their populations kept growing.

By the 1970s, the Jewish factor became one of the most powerful elements in New York politics. Anyone who defied was politically dead.

According to the American Jewish Committee, the city's current Jewish population is about one million-strong compared with about 500,000 Muslims, including Arabs, South Asians, African-Americans, Albanians and Yugoslavs. But that population is growing and growing fast. Projecting the growing power of the Muslims, Haberman predicts that "it would not come as a shock if, one day, senior elected officials in New York discovered themselves shouting not only "Am Yisrael chai" in Hebrew the people of Israeli live but also "Allahu Akbar" in Arabic - God is Great."

It's a possibility, but it could be a long way off. Giving the city its international flavour is the physical presence of the United Nations where the overwhelming majority of the 189 member states root for the Palestinians against the Israelis.

But a single country with veto powers the United States has defied that majority even as it preaches democracy to the rest of the world.

Last week, despite strong opposition from the US, the General Assembly adopted a resolution critical of Israel. The vote was 92 in favour to six against, with 46 abstentions.

But since the US has veto powers only in the Security Council, it could not prevent the General Assembly from adopting the resolution which condemned Israel for the excessive use of military force against rock-throwing Palestinians.

Unlike the Security Council, the Assembly resolutions, unfortunately, have no force of law. Still, at voting time, the countries that stood by the US (besides, of course, Israel) were not its longstanding Western allies, but four tiny Pacific island states: Nauru (population about 10,400), Micronesia (about 126,000), Marshall Islands (about 59,000) and Tuvalu (about 10,200).

None of the tiny states is of any political significance. Or are even known to exist in the minds of people outside the United Nations.

The fast food chains in the US perhaps have a far bigger staff on their payrolls than the combined population of all four states which voted against the resolution.

Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and virtually all of the Asian countries voted for the resolution standing by the Palestinians.

Last Wednesday, the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN, formally asked the Security Council to send peacekeeping troops to protect Palest inians.

Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian Observer to the UN, has also called for another urgent meeting of the Security Council to discuss the crisis in the occupied territories and to create a new UN peacekeeping force.

But the US has already shot down the request. US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had the last word: "I want to make it absolutely clear that if there is a resolution, we will veto it."

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