- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

Gesture of peace

The annual U.N. General Assembly “debate” opened last Tuesday with no major crises, lots of speeches and the usual bouquet of ironies, surprises and delights.

President Bush and Secretary-General Kofi Annan made their remarks, as is traditional, on the opening day of the event, but it was a little-noticed handshake that sent brief reverberations throughout the Middle East.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi, briefly clasped hands on Tuesday morning — possibly the first time in more than a generation that high officials from those countries have exchanged pleasantries.

Mr. Shalom — who apparently offered his hand first — said he was just being polite and noted that Iraq and Israel sit side by side in the assembly’s alphabetic seating plan.

The handshake, initially reported by the Associated Press and picked up worldwide, caused tremors the Middle East, where symbols have great meaning.

Hezbollah issued a statement calling the gesture “an insult to the Iraqi people.”

Speaking before the handshake, Mr. Shalom told reporters that Israel “would like not to be the only democracy in the Middle East,” adding, “We would love that Iraq will join us, and after that, the rest of the countries in the Middle East. It would bring more stability to the region and more stability to the entire world.”

Meetings, meetings

Diplomats have many words for meetings: There are bilaterals, regionals, consultations, pull-asides and, in an appropriation from their military attaches, the “talk-and-walk.”

And then there’s the speed-greet, of which Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a master.

He has to meet and greet the heads of nearly every delegation. But if you divide only-so-many-hours in the day by up to three dozen delegations addressing the General Assembly daily, you don’t have a lot of time left to ask about the wife and children or seek restaurant recommendations.

Deducting the minutes used up in Security Council meetings, receptions, luncheons and so forth, one is left with a 20-minute window for some of the most powerful men in the world.

“We’ve had tell something like 28 foreign ministers ‘No,’” a harried staffer said. The secretary-general “simply doesn’t have time to meet them on this trip.”

Last week Mr. Annan received an average of two dozen foreign dignitaries a day, ranging from the most polite of courtesy calls to the meatiest of meetings.

Every one of those handshakes occurs against a formal backdrop of the U.N. logo and is recorded by the traveling dignitary’s photographer as well as U.N. television and sometimes the international wire services.

All those courtesy calls also are broadcast on in-house television channels.

Only in the United Nations can a channel that broadcasts 14 hours of handshakes be considered reality TV.

The grads return

It is a truism around these halls that the United Nations is something of a finishing school for foreign ministers, with every diplomat worth his pinstripes yearning to follow Madeleine K. Albright up the career elevator in the Foreign Ministry back in their own capital.

Among foreign ministers who returned to their former post last week: Kamal Kharrazi of Iran, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, Antonio Monteiro of Portugal, Celso Amorim of Brazil and quite likely quite a few others.

Then there’s Theo-Ben Gurirab, a former ambassador and General Assembly president who is now prime minister of Namibia.

Mr. Amorim, who left Turtle Bay for a posting in London before being appointed foreign minister in Brasilia, said it is always a pleasure to return to New York, where he spent three years, including a stint on the Security Council.

“I always see so many people here that I know,” he said, making slow progress between the second-floor council chamber and a distant elevator.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at UNear@aol.com.

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