By JP O’ Malley
In a new memoir and an interview with The Times of Israel, the former UN chief says it was a mistake not to work with Hamas, blames the US for siding with Israel, and says Syria is headed for ‘the abyss’
It seems ironic today that when David Ben-Gurion read
out Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948, the text mentioned the
United Nations seven times. In effect, the organization had given Israel its
international birth certificate half a year earlier, when it passed Resolution
181, which declared the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
Despite this life-giving early role, the UN’s
relationship with Israel quickly grew fraught, and has remained so for most of
the 64 years since. Low points included Yasser Arafat’s 1974 address to the
organization, while wearing a gun holster, and the passage the following year of
Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a form of racism.
As secretary-general, Kofi Annan paid his first trip
to Israel in 1998, determined to improve relations between the UN and the Jewish
To begin with, Annan called for normalization of
Israel’s status within the organization, condemning the anti-Semitism of the
1975 resolution (which the organization rescinded in 1991). He did so, he says,
because the UN’s role in the Middle East peace process had become non-existent.
“For some time, the secretary-general had not been at
the table of negotiating in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When I got
involved, I wanted to change that,” he told the Times of Israel earlier this
month, speaking at a hotel overlooking London’s Hyde Park.
‘Terrorists are a reality,’ Annan says. ‘You have
to deal with them to bring peace’
In conversation, Annan comports himself with the
formality you would expect from a man who has given five decades of his life to
diplomacy, but looks considerably younger than his 74 years. Maybe it’s his
smart attire. Or it could be his affable smile, which gives him enormous powers
We’re here to discuss “Interventions: A Life in War
and Peace,” a new memoir in which Annan speaks candidly about the peaks and
troughs of a career spent trying to persuade governments to bring about peace
around the globe.
Annan joined the United Nations in 1962, and served as
secretary-general from 1997 to 2006. Much of that time was spent negotiating in
the Middle East, where he made several attempts to end regional strife.
In the book, Annan describes the dilemmas he faced as
a diplomat and negotiator, including how to deal with Israel’s democratically
elected governments, which he felt violated international law by building
settlements. He also describes his struggles with whether to give voice to
movements like Hamas, which embrace violence and glorify terrorism, but also
claim widespread support.
In Annan’s view, the last convincing attempt at
forging Israeli-Palestinian peace — from all sides of the negotiating table —
ended more than a decade ago, in southern Egypt.
“It was in Sharm el Sheikh, in October 2000, [three months] before President
Clinton left office,” he says. “It was at this meeting that myself, [Egyptian
leader] Hosni Mubarak, Ehud Barak [Israel’s prime minister at the time], King
Abdullah II of Jordan and others tried to resolve the peace process. We couldn’t
do it, but I think that was the last general real effort to resolve this issue.”
By December 2000, negotiations had stalled, and
Clinton, desperate to be remembered as the president who achieved Middle East
peace, offered Israelis and Palestinians a last-minute solution.
The so-called Clinton Parameters proposed a
Palestinian state on 96 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as
compromises on Jerusalem, refugees and other central issues. In the years since,
both Clinton and Israel have claimed that Barak accepted the terms, and that
responsibility for the talks’ failure — just as the region was spiraling into
the second intifada — lay with Arafat.
In his book, Annan paints a more complicated picture,
arguing that both Barak and Arafat were open to a deal, but that each side
needed additional time to address opposition from within their own camps. The
Palestinian leader did indeed deserve part of the blame, but Israel wasn’t
without fault, Annan says.
“Sure, there were problems on Arafat’s side, but there
were problems on the Israeli side, too,” Annan says. “The role of the mediator
is to bridge their differences. Both sides had problems in this conflict, but
often [the Americans] tended to forget the problems on the Israeli side, and
finger-pointed to the Palestinians and Arafat.”
The US tendency to side with Israel would again prove
an obstacle, Annan says, as he pursued the so-called road map for peace half a
At every stage of the negotiations, Annan says, he
felt the US was unwilling to fully cooperate with its nominal partners — the UN,
EU and Russia.
“The road map wasn’t implemented in a way that we had
expected it to be,” he recalls. “Even though we were a Quartet, the US held more
control than the rest, and where the US did not lead, it was extremely difficult
for the Quartet to move forward.”
When Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in
January 2006, the US and the EU — the Quartet’s major funders — said they would
not work with the organization, which both classify as a terrorist group. Annan
believes this was a mistake — that governments, whether they like it or not,
must eventually talk to terrorists if they want to end violence.
“You come to realize terrorists are a reality,” he
says. “You have to deal with them to bring peace. We have seen this in Northern
Ireland and in other places. In the end, you have to talk. The same thing is
going to have to happen in Syria.”
‘He is a very good and able negotiator,’ Annan
says of his successor on Syria. ‘I hope he will get the sustained, united
support that I did not get’
Annan is well-positioned to know. In August, the
Ghanaian-born diplomat resigned as the joint special envoy of the UN and Arab
League to Syria, following just five months in the role. He blames the mission’s
failure — and the violence that continues in Syria — on the lack of agreement
between the five permanent members of the Security Council.
“I resigned because of the divisions at the
international level,” he says, “but you should see my resignation as supporting
the Syrian people. I wanted the world, and the member states, to know that the
way we were going about the issue of the divisions was not going to help the
Syrians or the region.”
Predictably, Annan uses diplomatic language in
describing the abilities of Lakhdar Brahimi, his replacement in the role. But he
does not sound optimistic.
“He is a very good and able negotiator,” Annan says.
“I hope he will get the sustained, united support that I did not get. It is that
united effort, along with pressure on the parties, which will make a difference.
But now we are heading towards the abyss, unfortunately.”