UNLIKE their colleagues, Israeli diplomats at the United Nations rarely lobbied in the delegates' lounge. Not that they didn't savor a cappuccino now and then.
But as near pariahs since 1975, they had been all but frozen out of the club. Each year, antithetical delegations challenged Israel's seat in the General Assembly, creating a hostile environment that forced Israel to do business in back offices and frequently outside the UN entirely. But now a thaw is in progress. The recent Arab-Israeli agreements have opened the way for fuller Israeli participation in the UN. Instead of the banishment hoped for by its opponents, Israel is gradually reclaiming its rights as a sovereign member.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sudden cordiality that arose in 1993 after the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organ- ization (PLO). Almost immediately, Israeli Ambassador Gad Yaacobi was shaking hands with the Permanent Palestinian Observer, Nasser al-Kidwa, and attending conferences, lunches, and dinners with an array of Arab and nonaligned delegates who had never before even said hello in the hallways. This ``new openness,'' as Ambassador Yaacobi refers to the improved atmosphere, was underlined when ambassadors of two Muslim countries, Qatar and Pakistan, accepted invitations to the bat mitzvah of his daughter in a New York synagogue.
On an official level, Arab diplomats have lightened up, too, abandoning their two-decades-old policy of isolating Israel. In the bad old days, Arabs would either not appear or stalk out of the General Assembly when an Israeli got up to speak. But last year, the change was palpable. When Foreign Minister Shimon Peres addressed the assembly, no one made for the exit. Only Iran failed to show up.
That is a far cry from the days when, for Israel, the General Assembly resembled more of an inquisition than a global forum. Diatribes, denunciations, and threats greeted any Israeli who had stomach enough to listen.
Welcomed into the UN with fanfare in 1948, Israel quickly became the focus of cold-war antagonisms. The traditionally anti-Semitic Soviet Union threw its weight to the Arab cause, adding to it most of the nonaligned countries. The goal: to delegitimatize Israel. In 1975 this coalition engineered the resolution that equated Zionism with racism. From then on, ritually, at the opening of each General Assembly, the delegation was singled out by an Arab challenge of its credentials, complete with inflammatory speeches and resolutions.
The Soviet collapse in the late 1980s broke the spell. Abandoned by their no-longer-powerful ally, beset by economic and political troubles, Israel's opponents gradually softened their stance. In December 1991, bowing to diplomatic pressures from the United States and others, the General Assembly rescinded the 1975 edict that then-US Ambassador Daniel Moynihan called ``the infamous resolution.'' The atmosphere began to clear.
But it was the PLO-Israel accord that really triggered the UN's new amity toward Israel. Within days, the General Assembly endorsed the peace and resolved to support the negotiations. In an ironic twist, the UN Human Rights Commission condemned anti-Semitism as racism.
Commenting on the new atmosphere, PLO observer Al-Kidwa said, ``We don't make realities at the UN, we reflect them. Last year we agreed with Israel on a few things, disagreed on others. But at least we agreed to disagree in a civil way.''
Since the peace handshake on the White House lawn, Israel has cemented diplomatic relations with 27 states, including Cambodia, Ghana, the Holy See, and Jordan. Recently, Morocco and Tunisia took steps in the same direction. By the end of 1994, official ties had been knotted with 152 nations. New ground was also broken when, for the first time in two decades, Israelis won seats on human-rights and other permanent committees. Contentious language was eliminated from UN documents, and a number of extraneous resolutions were amended or delegated to the trash. Resolutions reaffirmed the UN's support for the peace process and the agreements between the PLO and Israel.
Nonetheless, the General Assembly's 1994 session still wound up adopting anti-Israel resolutions: One called for Israel's pullout from the Golan Heights and another demanded that Israel cancel annexation of Jerusalem. In addition, two vociferously anti-Israeli committees won funding for another year. In a press briefing, the PLO's Al-Kidwa pronounced the proceedings of the 1994 Assembly a success for Palestine and the Middle East. In turn, the Israeli delegation rated the 49th Assembly as less hostile and more conciliatory than in past years.
While the nitpicking continues, both sides demonstrate that economic contacts can beat rhetoric when it comes to advancing regional prosperity and peace. Hosted by Morocco, the October 1994 Casablanca Conference paved the way for cooperative international efforts through private investment. The conference sanctioned the withdrawal of the decades-old boycott against Israel, a step already taken independently by some Gulf States. Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, called the conference ``an attempt to create some kind of common market in the Middle East.''
What Israel wants most is to belong to the UN's Asian geographical group. Without this membership, Israel is denied important positions allotted geographically. Nor can it ever attain nonpermanent status on the Security Council. ``Political realities,'' wrote Yaacobi in a Jerusalem Post article, ``still make this a dream for the future.''
Despite recent terrorism - and stalemates on the issues of Jerusalem, occupied Palestine, and the Golan Heights - nonaligned delegates no longer find it expedient to isolate Israel. They are recognizing that their economic and political salvation lies in cooperation. Israel's close ties with the remaining superpower, the US, add strength to this realization. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.