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U.N. Chief May Hold Key to Successful Talks In Mideast

By Maggie Farley

At first, his presence in the Mideast peace talks was a matter of lucky timing.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan happened to be in Paris the day that Madeleine Albright was trying to convince the Middle Eastern leaders to salvage their faltering peace. She invited Annan along. At one point, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat stormed out of the meeting and came back only when Albright yelled for the guards to shut the gates to keep his limousine from leaving the U.S. Embassy compound.

By the next morning, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak weren’t speaking to each other at all, and Arafat would hardly take calls from Washington. But he would talk to Annan, who had a good record with the Palestinians and a softer approach.

Following the failure of the Paris talks on Oct. 5, Monday’s summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, might not have happened if not for Annan’s efforts. While it may seem natural for the U.N. leader to play peacemaker, the United Nations has never been considered neutral in the Middle East. For both Israel and Palestinians to consider Annan an honest broker is the result of a concerted campaign on his part to win Israel’s trust.

As the fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinians shattered, Annan jetted to Tel Aviv to try to put the pieces back together. In three days last week, the secretary-general met Barak and Arafat four times each, shuttling between Gaza, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to persuade them to set aside their preconditions and simply come to the table.

He called on President Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, the European Union’s foreign-affairs chief Javier Solana, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. He made countless phone calls and worked through the night.

In the end, Annan did it. This time, his presence at the summit wasn’t simply good timing.Annan has “opened the door to Israel,” said Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry. “He is perceived by Israel as a man of reason, displaying the greatest moral authority possible. That is why his role this week is so precious.”

It was a U.N. resolution that partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab halves in 1947, and a series of U.N.-brokered cease-fires have stopped fighting in the decades since.The majority of nations that make up the United Nations have supported the Palestinians, considering Israel an occupying force that has flouted past U.N. resolutions and is sheltered under Washington’s wing.

In turn, Israel has considered the United Nations too pro-Arab to act as a impartial mediator.

But when Annan became secretary-general in 1996, he pledged to normalize Israel’s status at the United Nations, hoping that could boost chances of peace in the Middle East. Without fanfare, he has gone out of his way to meet with Israeli leaders, speak to Jewish groups in the United States and make clear that the United Nations wants to play a balanced role.

“It’s not something he’s done very dramatically, it’s something he’s done very systematically,” said David Malone, the president of the New York-based International Peace Academy and a Middle East specialist.