As he sat in a holding area just off the U.N. General Assembly’s historic meeting hall — the same General Assembly that condemns Israel about 20 times each year — Ariel Sharon discovered that he had far more friends at the United Nations than he might have known.
In the minutes before the Israeli prime minister’s speech, aides to approximately 15 world leaders approached Sharon’s entourage and asked if their bosses — presidents and prime ministers from around the globe — could shake his hand.
For Sharon, long snubbed by many U.N. member states, it was a reception that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago, according to those who follow Israel’s treatment at the United Nations. However, in the glow of Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a controversial and politically contentious move at home, Sharon found he had become popular in U.N. halls.
With about 170 international leaders in New York for the U.N.’s three-day World Summit this month, even some moderate Muslim nations opened their arms a bit wider to Israel and the Jewish community.
So many leaders asked to meet with Sharon, in fact, that he didn’t have time to accommodate them all. He had to get home to face a challenge for the Likud Party leadership from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a contest threatening to split the party.
“I never talked so much as I did … here,” Sharon said at a meeting with American Jewish leaders. The pullout, he added, “changed in many aspects the opinion of the world.”
While top Israeli officials insist the withdrawal was not undertaken for public relations purposes, Sharon confidante Dov Weisglass said in an interview that while “Gaza was not given away to please the world or not to please the world,” it was clear that the world was paying close attention.
With the withdrawal complete and the excitement of the U.N. summit fading into memory, some Middle East observers now ask whether the unusually warm reception for Israel is likely to last.
“Israeli leaders get rewarded for giving things away — and then, within a short period of time, the question is, ‘What do you do next?'” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum think tank. “You can get a nice reception at the U.N. but harm your long-term war efforts.”
Morton Klein, Zionist Organization of America president, concurred, saying, “The superficially positive feeling that countries show toward Israel will dissipate rapidly as soon as Israel stops making extraordinary one-sided concessions.”
Israel, for its part, seems to believe the new openness could be long-lasting.
“These are optimistic times in the Middle East,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the General Assembly last week. “The iron wall that has defined Israel’s relations with most of the Arab and Muslim world for generations is coming down. Israel’s contacts with Arab and Muslim states are growing at a rate never seen before.”
While in New York, Sharon met with, among others, President Bush, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, representatives of the European Union leadership and American Jewish leaders.
He also exchanged pleasantries in a U.N. hallway with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who later in the week addressed American Jewish officials.
In addition to taking part in many of the Sharon meetings, Shalom met with the EU’s high representative, Javier Solana; U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and the foreign ministers of Mexico, the Netherlands and Ghana. Shalom also said he had met with representatives of more than 10 Muslim and Arab countries over the last week in New York, and planned to visit Tunisia.
Meeting Shalom, Qatar Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al-Thani said his country was considering establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel, without making the establishment of a Palestinian state a precondition.
Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Al-Thani said some Arab leaders went too far in saying they would never make peace with Israel.
“The Arabs — some of them — they went too far with their people that they would not talk with the enemy by any way,” he said. “And I think this is, again, wrong policy. There is no enemies and no friends, but there is always not only responsibilities, but interests.”
The Gaza pullout has altered the lay of the political landscape in the region, Sharon adviser and spokesman Ra’anan Gissin said.
“As a result of the disengagement, the rules of the game have changed,” he said. “Now the onus is on the Palestinians” to show they can run a country.
Still, even Shalom acknowledged that the world will not be satisfied if Israel gives up nothing beyond Gaza.
“For the long-term, Israel will be asked to make more concessions,” he told a group of Jewish journalists last week.
Nevertheless, both Israeli government insiders and American Jewish leaders say the pullout has provided cover for moderate Muslim nations to inch closer to Israel and the American Jewish community.
The withdrawal from Gaza gave us a good opportunity, but it’s a better opportunity for the Muslim side,” said Ilan Ostfeld, senior adviser to Shalom. “They wanted always to do it undercover, but now they can say, ‘There has been a result.'”
Tunisia’s foreign minister seemed to acknowledge as much in a short interview before an appearance with the World Jewish Congress (WJC).
“It is psychologically and politically a very important step,” Abdallah Abdelwaheb said through a translator. “It’s very important for peace and stability in the region.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Muslim move toward Israel already had been slowly under way.
“This process began before disengagement,” he said. “I think many of them are tired of being exploited by the Palestinians” into making political moves that are costly to them.
Jewish organizations met and are continuing to meet dozens of world leaders, including the presidents of Senegal, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Poland, among others.
The WJC met with the president of Senegal, which chairs the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Shai Franklin, the WJC’s director of international organizations, called the meeting “friendly and candid.”
Groups also met with the prime ministers of Turkey and India, among others, and the foreign minsters of Egypt, Cyprus, France, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, Spain and Russia.
Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou was described as extremely knowledgeable about Israel’s political history, and Cyprus’ ambassador to the United States speaks Hebrew from a posting in Israel.
The meeting with Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov was described as relatively testy, according to several people with knowledge of it. Lavrov offered unsatisfactory answers “dealing with issues related to Iran’s nuclear program and Hamas’ participation in elections,” Hoenlein said.
Meetings were scheduled with the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Morocco and Vietnam.
Though they didn’t always get the answers they wanted on issues from anti-Israel incitement to Palestinian Authority elections to Iran, those involved said the meetings provided an important opportunity to air their views and understand the positions of their interlocutors.
“There definitely has been for many of these countries positive movement over the last year as a result of these meetings,” said Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “Many of these countries value these meetings and their access to the American Jewish community.”
Members of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) had meetings planned with leaders from nearly 70 countries. Among them were about half the members of the Arab League, according to David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director.
Other groups who took part in meetings included the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti- Defamation League, the Claims Conference and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.
Perhaps the most prominent of the encounters was Musharraf’s address to American Jewish leaders at an event sponsored by the American Jewish Congress’ Council for World Jewry.
Musharraf said Pakistan could not open full diplomatic relations with Israel until the Palestinians had a state, and blamed a significant portion of world terrorism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, he also praised Sharon for the Gaza pullout and insisted that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any cause.”
His mere presence before a Jewish audience, broadcast on Pakistani television, earned praise from both Jews and Pakistanis.
“Pakistan’s coming out of the closet, going from behind-the-scenes contacts to a public event, is an important step, and I think it may prompt others to follow suit — over time, not overnight,” Harris said.