Zionism issue marks dip in Third World's power

September 25, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Sun Staff Correspondent

UNITED NATIONS -- A cold silence was all the General Assembly delegates had to offer Monday as President Bush called for the repeal of one of their most provocative votes: the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Beneath the silence, there may also have been a tinge of nostalgia for the heady pinnacle of Third World defiance of both the United States and its irksome ally, Israel.

For the president's decision to issue the challenge demonstrated more than confidence that he could win that issue. It reflected the more profound reality that the balance of power in the world has turned from those days in the 1970s when Mr. Bush himself was the U.S. representative to the United Nations.

"It was an ugly atmosphere," Toby Gati, senior vice president of the United Nations Association, said of the world body in those days. "And now it's gone."

This is not to say that the United States or Israel is much more beloved by the scores of mostly small, impoverished nations that chose the Zionism resolution as a vehicle to vent their frustration. But many of the supporting parts have disappeared.

During the early 1970s, the hostility here was palpable.

There was anti-U.S anger over the Vietnam War and anti-Israel anger over the 1967 Six-Day War. There was the industrialized nations' fear that the Arabs might again use the oil weapon, and a growing resentment of perceived neocolonialism and imperialism.

All of those sentiments and anxieties were aggressively encouraged by the Soviet Union. At the same time, there arose alliances such as the one between Arabs and Africans, who agreed to treat Israel and South Africa as common enemies.

The resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1975 that equated Zionism with racism legitimized the phrase as the era's slogan.

"It was the highest point of the great Third World movement," recalled Brian Urquhart, a 41-year veteran of the United Nations who from 1974 to 1986 was undersecretary for special political affairs. "It was one of the mistakes of their euphoria."

The resolution was promoted by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was granted observer status to the United Nations in 1974. Its language was repeated in hundreds of U.N. documents.

The United States always strongly opposed the linkage between Zionism and racism but was powerless to block it in large bodies, where every country's vote was equal and the Third World had vast majorities.

The tepid response to Mr. Bush's annual address here Monday made it clear that the era of bad feeling is not entirely over and that the decisive repeal of the anti-Zionism resolution is not yet assured.

But the time seemed ripe enough to take on the issue.

The Soviet bloc has disintegrated, and many former members of that bloc have indicated their support for repeal of the Zionism resolution, including the Soviets themselves.

The PLO has been largely discredited as a result of its siding with Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. The likelihood that the Arabs will wield the oil weapon again successfully has diminished.

And many African nations have told U.S. officials they no longer feel compelled to line up against Israel now that progress is being made in ending apartheid in South Africa.

Mr. Bush chose to put his prestige behind a repeal of the resolution in part to soothe bruised feelings in the pro-Israel lobby that he took on so forcefully two weeks ago in an effort to delay a $10 billion loan guarantee program for Israeli housing.

But his administration had been contemplating the move for nearly two years.

"We waited until we felt the moment was right," said a U.S. diplomat here. "Now it's the right moment."

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