NEW YORK - When the General Assembly commemorated the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" last week, a routine annual event turned into a political firecracker reverberating inside and outside the building.
The General Assembly's outspoken President, Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, told the Israelis what they have always refused to hear: "What is being done to the Palestinian people seems to me to be a version of the hideous policy of apartheid" (which was once practised by the white minority regime in the former South Africa).
|Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann
"I believe," the Assembly President said, "that the failure to create a Palestinian state as promised is the single greatest failure in the history of the United Nations. It has been 60 years since some 800,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and property, becoming refugees and an uprooted and marginalized people."
Rarely or never has a General Assembly President plucked up political courage to damn both the Israelis and the world body for the plight of the Palestinians. The General Assembly, 61 years ago this month, adopted a historic resolution (181), calling for the creation of a Jewish State and an Arab State. "The State of Israel, founded a year later in 1948, celebrates 60 years of its existence," D'Escoto said, "Shamefully, there is still no Palestinian State to celebrate."
D'Escoto, who as the Assembly President ranks higher than the Secretary-General in the UN totem pole, set off a virtual political uproar outside the world body triggering protests from Jewish groups. At international conferences, it's the elected President of the General Assembly, not the Secretary-General, who represents the U.N.'s 192 member states.
But running true to form, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon diplomatically distanced himself from D'Escoto's statement. Asked for a response, his spokeswoman told reporters: "The Secretary-General cannot comment on a statement by the President of the General Assembly. The statement is his own. And the Secretary-General made his concerns about the Palestinian issue clear in his statement. I think his statement stands."
Not surprisingly, the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) condemned the General Assembly for commemorating Palestine Solidarity Day and "deplored" D'Escoto's remarks that compared Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories to South Africa's apartheid policies.
JCPA Chair Andrea Weinstein said: "It is terribly sad that the members of the General Assembly find it necessary to spend two days participating in programmes criticising a member state's existence. It is even more abhorrent that the Assembly's current president would seek to de-legitimise Israel by comparing its policies to those of apartheid South Africa. These programmes and baseless rhetoric demonising Israel do nothing constructive to find a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and instead harm these efforts by creating a toxic atmosphere," Weinstein added.
Besides the longstanding plight of the Palestinians in the repressed Israeli-occupied territories, the humanitarian situation in besieged Gaza worsened during the last two weeks because of a blockade of food supplies, later lifted under international pressure. At the same time, the Israelis banned foreign journalists from entering Gaza to prevent any reporting of the unfolding events.
D'Escoto, a former Foreign Minister of the left-leaning Sandinista government in Nicaragua, also came under attack for embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the General Assembly sessions in September. The Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev responded by calling D'Escoto an "Israeli hater."
Although Israel has violated scores of UN resolutions, including those adopted by the Security Council, it is still considered a "sacred cow" because it is protected first by the United States, and then by Britain and France, all veto-wielding permanent members. Under normal circumstances, countries that violate Security Council resolutions are punished or penalized with sanctions, including apartheid South Africa in days gone by.
But Israel has got away scot-free -- primarily because of the US, Britain and France. The two other veto-wielding permanent members, Russia and China, gave the Western powers a dose of their own political medicine when they collectively vetoed recent resolutions aimed at imposing sanctions against Zimbabwe and Myanmar (Burma).
Meanwhile, D'Escoto also broke diplomatic protocol by blasting the heads of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund last week for skipping a key UN conference on Financing for Development taking place in the Qatari capital of Doha through December 2.
Without identifying the US by name, he said the two Bretton Woods institutions "are controlled by a member of the United Nations who is anti-United Nations."
"It's a shame," he added. At a news conference last week, he also said that President George W. Bush came to the United Nations twice to address the General Assembly. "But they did not even have the minimum politeness to acknowledge me -- not once, but twice."
"He (Bush) spoke before the General Assembly, but he ignored me. He was the only world leader to do that. But I still love him, anyway," D'Escoto added.