Ahead of New Confirmation Hearings, UN Ambassador Bolton Blocks Measure Condemning Lethal Israeli Attack on UN

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US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has blocked a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s killing of four UN observers in Lebanon. UN commanders say that Israel ignored 10 calls to stop attacking the UN base. Meanwhile, the Senate holds confirmation hearings for Bolton today. We’re joined by author Phylis Bennis. [includes rush transcript]

On Tuesday, four UN peacekeeping troops died in an Israeli airstrike in Khiam in southern Lebanon. UN commanders say their outpost came under attack for hours and that Israel ignored 10 calls to stop. By the time the assault ended peacekeeping troops from Canada, Finland, China and Austria had died.

Israel is denying its troops were targeting the UN. But the Consul General of Israel in New York, has accused the UN troops of being sympathetic to Hezbollah.

Last week interim U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton dismissed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, and today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding hearings on Bolton’s nomination to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Last year President Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment after he failed to win enough support in the Senate.

Phyllis Bennis joins us from Washington, D.C. — she is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. She is the author of several books including 'Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power.'

  • Phyllis Bennis. Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. She is the author of several books including “Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is Ambassador Arye Mekel, speaking on CNN.

ARYE MEKEL: I can tell you that when I represent Israel at the UN, not a week went by without me going over there to complain against UNIFIL and their being in cahoots with Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Arye Mekel, consul general of Israel, former Israel ambassador to the United Nations. Phyllis Bennis joins us now from Washington, D.C., Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, specializes in Middle East and United Nations, author of a number of books on the UN. Her latest is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you both.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with what’s going on in Lebanon right now, and particularly look at what happened to the UN workers, the four that were killed.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The four UNIFIL observers were killed after somewhere between six and eight hours of consistent shelling, during which there were ten separate phone calls made by UN officials to the Israeli military, who agreed they knew it was underway and each time told them it would stop. It didn’t stop. Instead, it culminated in a so-called precision-guided missile that led to the death of the four that you mentioned.

It bares a striking resemblance to the 1996 incident in which an Israeli missile killed UN peacekeepers in Lebanon at the town of Qana, where 106 Lebanese refugees were also seeking shelter in a UNIFIL observation post. In both those cases, in 1996 through a drone plane, a pilot-less plane, with a camera that was circling in the area and was visible in the photographs that were taken, and in this case, because of the phone calls, there is absolutely no question that Israel knew that these were staffed UN posts with live people in them who were UN officials. They knew that they were where they were supposed to be. They were well marked. They were both longstanding, not brand new, observer posts. So there is really no question here that Israel knew that they were firing on these UN posts.

And in both cases, I think we can look and say there was a message designed here. We just heard from the consul general in New York from Israel, who tried to justify it, who said, not unrelated obviously to the killing of the four peacekeepers, that there was never a week when I didn’t have to complain about UNIFIL. This is an unbelievable outrage. Certainly, it’s no more tragic when UN peacekeepers are killed than when Lebanese civilians are killed. It’s the same human unnecessary death. But what is different here is that this was sent as a direct message to the United Nations: a UN force is not welcome here. There are indications that the Israeli government may be feeling the pressure to give in to accept an international peacekeeping operation of some sort on their terms, occupying South Lebanon, not inside Israel, not on the border. But even that, this is a message: they will not go unscathed, they will not go unpunished.

We should note that John Bolton , who is going through his hearing again today to possibly be appointed on a permanent basis to become the UN ambassador for the United States, said years ago, and I quote here, “For 50 years we have tried to keep the UN out of the Middle East, because it is not an honest broker.” An extraordinary hypocrisy from John Bolton. Nothing unusual for him, of course. But I think that it would be a mistake to see this as anything but a very conscious and deliberate Israeli message to the United Nations and to the world community as a whole.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Phyllis, the Israelis are, of course, saying that it was not deliberate, that it was an operational error. But some of the reports that are now surfacing indicate that not only did attack continue for all those hours, but then even after Israeli commanders had given safe passage to rescuers, that the shelling continued on the rescue unit that went to try to see what happened to the four peacekeepers.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s right, Juan. What happened, the story as we understand it, and I spoke about 2:00 this morning with Khaled Mansour, who’s the main spokesman for the United Nations in Beirut — he was then in Tyre — he’s quoted this morning in the New York Times. Apparently what happened was that after the UN officials lost contact with the peacekeepers, who had been killed by then, and notified the Israelis in the most recent of the six to eight phone calls where they did manage to get through to the Israeli commanders, they said, “Okay, we’re opening a safe passage for rescuers now to go in.” And at that point, when the rescuers went in, they did, as you say, continue shelling of the outpost.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There have also been some reports that Secretary General Kofi Annan has withdrawn his allegations that this was deliberate. Any comment on that, from what you’ve been able to tell?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It was very careful language from the secretary general. At first he said that it did appear to be deliberate. Later, when he was challenged — “How can you say that?” — he said that he accepts that Israel is claiming that it was not deliberate. That’s a far cry from saying that it wasn’t. It’s his usual cautious form of diplomacy, particularly when it comes to Israel. But it is significant that he has not withdrawn his earlier statement. And I think that we’re going to hear much more about how this was inevitably a deliberate act. There was simply too much information flooding the Israeli military commanders for them to claim that they didn’t know that this was simply an operational issue.

There’s a particular irony, given that there are U.S. planes, from three days ago and again yesterday, en route to Israel, filled with exactly this kind of supposedly precision-guided missiles. If they are so precise, there’s no doubt that Israel intended the target to be this UN outpost.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, I wanted to ask you about John Bolton. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as you said, is holding hearings today on the nomination of John Bolton to become the U.S. ambassador to the UN. Last year, President Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment after he failed to win enough support in the Senate. Last week, Bolton dismissed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon.

JOHN BOLTON: The notion that you just declare a ceasefire and act as if that’s going to solve the problem, I think, is simplistic. Among other things, I want somebody to address the problem, how you get a ceasefire with a terrorist organization. I’d like to know when there’s been an effective ceasefire between a terrorist organization and a state in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Bolton. Phyllis Bennis, your response.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: John Bolton’s position. There are two reasons that his position is now being decided again. One is that the one Republican who opposed him, [George] Voinovich, has changed his position and said he would vote for him. The other reason is that there are indications that leading Democrats, particularly the New York Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, are prepared to change their vote and support Bolton, because, as they’re putting it, Israel is under attack. And leading supporters of Israel are putting pressure on them, and they may succeed in convincing them to support Bolton as the main defender of Israel.

John Bolton, of course, is the one who has called the United Nations a, quote, “target-rich environment,” particularly ironic in this moment of the UN actually being a target of the Israeli military, something that Bolton seems to think is fine. Bolton, of course, has also said that the United Nations is only an instrument of American policy. We are faced with a situation where the current crisis in Lebanon, which is leading to a massive congressional onslaught of trying to see who can be more defensive of the Israeli war against Lebanon than the other, could lead to a permanent appointment for John Bolton.

I think that what we’re seeing at a moment when Condoleezza Rice is representing the United States’s position that it is not time for a ceasefire — we want to ask her how many more people have to die before it’s time for a ceasefire — but nonetheless John Bolton’s position has been absolutely in synch with that. No longer, I think, can we say that John Bolton is too extreme, that John Bolton somehow doesn’t represent this administration. John Bolton’s extremism has become the mainstream of the Bush administration, particularly on this issue of Israel’s war in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: As those hearings are going on, Phyllis, I wanted to play an excerpt of an event you were at, a 1994 presentation given by John Bolton at the United Nations.

JOHN BOLTON: The point that I want to leave with you in this very brief presentation is where I started, is there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interest and when we can get others to go along. And I think it would be a real mistake to count on the United Nations as if it’s some disembodied entity out there that can function on its own.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Bolton speaking about the United Nations, not at the United Nations in 1994. Final comment, Phyllis Bennis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: John Bolton said that in a debate with me and with the late Erskine Childers back in 1994, and I think at the time we were shocked that a former official would say something so boldly opposing the legitimacy of the United Nations. We now have that bold denial of legitimacy in the presence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That is what U.S. diplomacy has become. Madeleine Albright’s longtime statement, “The UN is a tool of American foreign policy,” has been brought to new fruition in the Bush administration, and with John Bolton potentially becoming the ambassador for another two years, I think that we have a great deal to worry about. The only saving grace is that with Bolton at the United Nations, it strips away any illusions in the rest of the world about what U.S. foreign policy really does represent.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Among her books, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power.

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