Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

United Nations Report: Jesse Helms Personified the Confluence of Mideast, Domestic American Politics

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

United Nations Report: Jesse Helms Personified the Confluence of Mideast, Domestic American Politics

Article excerpt

UNITED NATIONS REPORT: Jesse Helms Personified the Confluence of Mideast, Domestic American Politics

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.

August saw yet another debate on the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As usual, however, it was full of sound and fury but signified nothing, except to show how isolated the U.S. position in support of Israel is. While paying lip service to the Mitchell report, Israel balked at the question of observers and the cessation of settlement activities recommended in it. Since when Israel balks, Washington vetoes, the resolution, after days of open debate, was not put to the vote.

Not only is the Middle East standoff tragic for the participants, it also poisons the whole system of global diplomacy, hindering efforts to establish a more secure world. At times it seems there is hardly a diplomatic conference or issue immune from its baneful influence.

The August announcement by veteran North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms that he was not going to run again is good news for the United Nations and bad news for the Israel lobby. It also illustrates dramatically how the Middle East issue intrudes upon the most insular and parochial backwaters of politics--like the tobacco fields of Carolina.

Helms was never a friend of the Palestinians or the Arabs--or, come to think of it, of many other foreign peoples. In fact, there were many Americans he never expressed much liking for either, ranging from African Americans to gays and liberals. Not many people suspected him, therefore, of harboring warm sentiments for Jews.

At least Helms was consistent, however: he opposed pretty much all foreign aid bills. Inevitably, this ran him up against the Israel lobby--which, of course, is not desperately concerned about foreign aid in general, but sees it as a useful camouflage for its subventions to Israel.

In 1990, the lobby saw its chance--and took it. That year Helms was almost defeated by Harvey Gant, a liberal African-American who drew a lot of liberal money for his campaign, much of it Jewish. After a few words, the senator changed his otherwise obdurate and obstinate stand and became the lobby's most fervent attack dog in the Senate.

One thing Helms always shared with the lobby, however, was a deep suspicion of the United Nations and all international organizations, which he saw as a threat to American sovereignty and the lobby saw, equally, as a threat to Israel's right to defy international law and resolutions with impunity. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms used his position to poison relations between the U.S. and the U.N.--effectively, thus, with the rest of the world. From 1990 onward, He proved properly grateful for the support of the lobby, which, with equal loyalty, supported Helms, even though his reactionary views on almost every domestic issue were anathema to most American Jews. In his 1990 and 1996 Senate elections he received $26,000 in pro-Israel PAC contributions.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Washington's refusal to honor its legal obligations as a U.N. member first surfaced around Middle Eastern issues, when Congress refused to authorize U.N. estimates of the cost of its Palestinian program. Beginning with that ominous precedent, Congress has expanded its bilking habits to include a much wider range of issues. While Helms' real aim was to destroy the U.N., or at least to withdraw American participation in it, he made "reform" a condition of paying U.S. dues, and found that lots of people who should have known better were prepared to go along.

So while the U.N. still exists, and the U.S. is still a member, Senator Helms and his friends in many respects have had their way. Starved of funds, the U.N. cannot take initiatives, and both it and its member states often tend to defer pre-emptively to what they think Washington's wishes will be. In some ways even America's friends treat it carefully, like an eccentrically acerbic neighbor who may fly off the handle at any random incident. …

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