U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's decision to lay a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat while on his way to the dedication of a Holocaust museum in Israel is infuriating New York politicians and Jewish leaders, some of whom are labeling Mr. Annan's gesture "outrageous," "grotesque," and an example of "mindless incompetence."
The secretary-general joined world leaders in Israel on Tuesday to commemorate the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. His visit Monday to Mr. Arafat's grave rankled some representatives of the United Nations' host city, who said Mr. Annan had damaged the world body's already poor public image and may have further imperiled U.N. plans to expand into neighboring parts of Turtle Bay.
Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who represent parts pf Brooklyn and Queens in Congress, said yesterday: "It is almost grotesque to travel to Israel to pay tribute to the 6 million Jews massacred in the Shoah and use the opportunity to pay tribute to a terrorist who is responsible for murdering thousands more."
"Just when I think the U.N. and its leadership had reached a new low," Mr. Weiner added, "I am reminded that when it comes to Israel, and sensitivity toward the Jewish community, there is no bottom to their pit."
Many of Mr. Weiner's fellow congressmen from the New York metropolitan area echoed his sentiments.
Rep. Peter King, a Republican of Long Island, said yesterday that Mr. Annan "is the worst type of world leader. He's arrogant and tone deaf; considering all that's gone down in the U.N., for him to be commemorating Arafat in this way is incredibly insensitive."
"I have said for months now that Kofi Annan should step aside," Mr. King added. "For a person who's supposed to be a world-class diplomat, he's showing an amazing lack of skills."
Mr. Annan is also harming the organization for which he is responsible, according to Rep. Vito Fossella, a Republican of Staten Island.
"I'm disappointed that Annan chose to honor Arafat when he could have spent his time more productively. The U.N. remains unwilling to make the distinction between forces of good and bad. This has damaged its credibility and detracted from its mission of promoting democracy and freedom," Mr. Fossella said in a statement to The New York Sun yesterday.
Long Island Democratic congressman Steven Israel, too, issued a statement to the Sun: "It's outrageous that on his trip to Israel to attend the opening ceremonies for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial's new museum, Annan went out of his way to visit the grave of a man who murdered countless Jews."
To Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Mr. Annan's tribute to Arafat was symptomatic of the anti-Semitism ailing his organization. "A lot of what is wrong with the U.N. is nicely summed up by the fact that Kofi Annan, who goes to Israel to participate in the dedication of a memorial museum to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, lays a wreath at the grave of someone whose career was murdering Jewish civilians," Mr. Nadler said.
One of the city's representatives in Albany, State Senator Martin Golden, Republican of Brooklyn, expressed weary disappointment in Mr. Annan.
"I can't honestly tell you I'm surprised," Mr. Golden said, adding: "If anyone's looking for a set of reasons why Kofi Annan should step down ... here's another perfect example of mindless incompetence." Mr. Golden is one of the state senators thwarting the United Nations' ambitions to renovate and expand its headquarters in Manhattan. He has said on multiple occasions that his opposition to the project would dissipate were Mr. Annan to resign.
For the time being, however, Mr. Annan appears firmly planted in his post. The U.N.'s public image has suffered amid scandals over corruption in the oil-for-food program for Iraq and reports of rape by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo. Some of the staff at the level beneath the secretary-general has changed amid vows by the U.N. to improve its relations with Washington and its image with ordinary Americans. Mr. Golden, however, said that wasn't enough: "We need to clean house at the top," he said, adding that the Arafat tribute showed how, despite recent gestures, what's going on in Turtle Bay is just "more of the same."
Mr. Golden was not alone in his assessment that the Arafat tribute would endanger the world body's attempts to upgrade its facilities.
"If I have anything to say about it, Kofi Annan is going to have to answer for these types of things before a spade is put in the ground on a U.N. expansion, and we as New Yorkers should use every opportunity we can to express how outrageous we think their behavior has been," Mr. Weiner said. Mr. King said of the expansion plans: "This can only hurt them - it's the type of thing that reminds people why they dislike the U.N."
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld - one of the members of the United Nations Development Corporation, the city-state entity overseeing the expansion - was also outraged by Mr. Annan's gesture. "It's certainly not in his self-interest, nor in the interest of the image of the U.N., to put a wreath at the grave of such a vehement Jew-hater," Mr. Wiesenfeld said, adding that he would be no more appalled if Mr. Annan had honored the grave of Hitler henchman Adolf Eichmann, who implemented the Nazis' "Final Solution."
"As far as Jews are concerned, the only difference between Eichmann and Arafat is that Eichmann mechanized Jewish murder, and Arafat would do it, as they say, on the installment plan. The concept is the same," Mr. Wiesenfeld, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, said.
The UNDC director - who, despite his criticisms of the United Nations, maintains that the city should support the world body as long as it exists and is located in New York - disagreed that Mr. Annan's wreath-laying would further endanger the U.N.'s expansion plans. While Mr. Wiesenfeld labeled the secretary-general's decision "stupid," he said it couldn't do much damage to the U.N.'s public image, which "can't get worse anyway."
Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration is strongly supportive of the U.N. expansion, was unavailable for comment yesterday because he was en route from Israel, where he was participating in the Holocaust museum events, according to spokesman Jordan Barowitz. Mr. Bloomberg's sister, Marjorie Tiven - commissioner of the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, and a director of the UNDC - declined to comment for this story. The president of the UNDC, former state senator Roy Goodman, did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for Mr. Annan, Fred Eckhard, responded to the Sun yesterday: "Kofi Annan is secretary-general of an organization made up of all nations, and so he could not be in the region without also paying a call on the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat's grave lies within the compound of the president's residence, and the secretary-general, like every international visitor to the residence, paid his respects at Arafat's resting place."
The executive vice chairman of the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, however, questioned the need for the diplomatic community to honor a figure Palestinians themselves are trying to forget.
"I find it troubling when people elevate the status of a terrorist, especially at a time when the Palestinian people have put him behind them. There's no yearning for the good old days. People are still angry about the corruption and the raping of the country in terms of economic exploitation. You can go without laying a wreath," Mr. Hoenlein said.