'Trusted' Annan adopts lead role in fight for peace

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The Independent Online

The United Nations, which has for years been frozen out of the US-brokered Middle East peace process, found itself yesterday with a crucial role in the attempt to end the rising violence in the region. The secretary general, Kofi Annan, rushed to Israel to spearhead international diplomatic efforts.

The United Nations, which has for years been frozen out of the US-brokered Middle East peace process, found itself yesterday with a crucial role in the attempt to end the rising violence in the region. The secretary general, Kofi Annan, rushed to Israel to spearhead international diplomatic efforts.

Mr Annan, who has repeatedly warned in recent days of the danger of a full-out war in the Middle East, was expected to see the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, during his visit. Whether he will meet them together or separately is unclear. He may travel to see other regional leaders.

Such a mission by a secretary general would have been unthinkable until recently, because of years of poisoned relations between the UN and Israel. It would not have been countenanced either by Israel or the United States. The friction was fuelled by decades of anti-Israel resolutions in the general assembly, and the UN's history of aggressively promoting the rights of the Palestinian people.

Much has changed since Mr Annan assumed the leadership of the UN three years ago; he saw a double standard in UN treatment of Israel, setting himself apart from his predecessors and most certainly from the man he succeeded, the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He expressed his view vividly in a speech last year, when he said: "It sometimes seems that the United Nations served all the world's people but one: the Jews."

Diplomats confirm that trust has been established between the UN and Israel in a way never before seen.

A senior UN source said: "Kofi Annan has made an enormous effort to reach out to Israel and, almost more importantly, to the Jewish communities in the US."

This is about more than just atmospherics, however. In June, the isolation of Israel inside the UN was ended when it was offered conditional membership of an important regional caucus within the organisation, named, in UN jargon, the Western European and Other Group, or WEOG. It is still barred, however, from seeking a security council seat.

Similarly important was the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in June. By pulling out, Israel was at last honouring the provisions of a UN resolution that dated back 22 years. Moreover, the UN operation overseeing the withdrawal was widely regarded as highly successful.

Mr Annan's decision to go to Israel arose from a flurry of telephone calls he received at UN headquarters in New York at the weekend. Shashi Tharoor, one of his political advisers, said: "It was his idea. But, of course, he didn't make the final decision to go until he had consulted with all the governments involved."

Washington, clearly, will have been one of the capitals that cleared the mission. Like the peace process itself, the fate of Israel's place in the UN now hangs largely on what can be salvaged from the violence of the past 12 days.

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