After meeting with Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese leaders, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he believed all were interested in advancing peace in the region, according to Israel’s UN ambassador, Dore Gold.
In an interview from Jerusalem, Gold said Annan made the comment after expressing appreciation for Israel’s pledge to withdraw from the 9-mile-wide buffer zone it maintains in southern Lebanon.
The withdrawal, which would be in compliance with Security Council Resolution 425, is predicated upon Lebanese troops filling the vacuum left by approximately 1,000 Israeli troops who have been protecting Israel’s northern border from Shiite Muslim Hezbollah terrorist attacks since 1985. Rocket attacks and cross-border raids have kept the northern communities on edge over the years.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised in the past to leave Lebanon, such a move was always linked to an overall peace agreement with Syria. But in a meeting Tuesday with Annan, Netanyahu made no such linkage and said he expected his cabinet to consent to the withdrawal “within the context of security arrangements.”
Annan replied that he saw it as “significant that the Israeli cabinet will be taking a decision on the implementation of 425,” which was adopted in 1978. And he promised that the UN would work with “all the parties concerned to insure that [the] withdrawal is implemented effectively.”
Despite Gold’s optimism, Syria apparently remains skeptical. Annan heard negative reactions to the initiative in Damascus, according to Israeli officials, although the Israelis believe it will remain on the international agenda. Syria is the de facto power in Lebanon.
Annan still believes the United States must be the primary mediator in the region, Gold noted, but that “if the UN was asked, it would provide any services requested.”
Since 1978, the United Nations has kept troops in southern Lebanon as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. They have been deployed as peacekeepers in the buffer zone.
Gold said that before arriving in Israel, Annan had been “very careful in his trips throughout the Middle East to make statements that build confidence.” He noted that in answer to those who questioned why the UN was enforcing its resolutions against Iraq and not Israel, Annan said the two cases were not comparable.
“He established a high degree of confidence before he arrived here,” said Gold. “He was very careful in his wording, but he wanted to establish a warm relationship with Israel and was very effective. He had good meetings here.”
Contrary to published reports before his arrival, the secretary-general did not carry with him any proposals for Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The thrust of the meetings might be best characterized by the comments of Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai, who said after meeting with Annan, “We agreed he will study the matter and we will stay in touch.”
Mordechai said he told Annan that Israel wanted the Lebanese army to bear the responsibility for providing security along the Lebanese-Israeli border and Syria to safeguard the rights of residents in southern Lebanon and the pro-Israel army there.
“If we see that security, law and order are maintained in Lebanon, we shall redeploy until we reach the international border,” Mordechai promised.
After spelling out his plan, he said, the “principles appear to me to be acceptable to the UN secretary-general.”
Annan arrived in Israel Tuesday following a rousing reception the previous day by Palestinians in Gaza. He then went out of his way to display his friendship for Israel, Gold said.
Although UN protocol permits only one wreath-laying ceremony per state visit, Annan overruled his aides and said he would lay two wreaths as requested by Israeli officials. One was to be placed at the monument to the unknown soldier outside the Knesset, the other at Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance.
Before Annan decided to break with protocol, it had been decided that Annan’s wife, Nane, would place the wreath at Yad Vashem. She is the niece of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to the Nazi death camps.
While at Yad Vashem, the Annans were slated to stop at a memorial to the children slain in the Holocaust and plant a tree in honor of Wallenberg.
Annan’s decision to lay both wreaths, said Gold, was an “important demonstration of his friendship. It showed he did not stand on principles of protocol that could be misinterpreted in Israel.”
Mordechai was to fly to Washington later in the week to present Israel’s proposal to the Clinton administration. Among those he was to meet was Dennis Ross, the special U.S. mediator in the Middle East, who is slated to travel to the region this week to try to break the stalemate in the peace process.