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Tuesday, January 2, 2007

'Israel-Palestinian conflict is key'

'Israel-Palestinian conflict is key'

Ban Ki-Moon, the new secretary-general of the United Nations, said on Monday that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was at the core of solving all the problems in the Middle East.

In an interview with the South Korean Hankyoreh newspaper, he followed the lead of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, and other international leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair by focusing on "Palestine."

"If the issues with the conflicts between Israel and Palestine go well, [resolutions of] other issues in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria, are likely to follow suit. I will meet with the concerned parties as soon as possible," Ban said in an interview posted on the paper's English Web site Monday.

This position is widely at variance with Jerusalem's position, which is that the roots of the problem in the region are terrorism, Islamic radicalism and extremism, and hatred of the West.

Despite Ban's comments, Israel warmly welcomed the new secretary-general, who officially took office on Sunday.

Roni Leshno Ya'ar, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for the UN and international organizations, said Israel has been familiar with Ban from the time he was South Korea's foreign minister from 2004-06, and was favorably impressed by his fairness and willingness to study the issues. He said Israel welcomed Ban's putting the situations in Darfur and Lebanon at the top of his agenda. Ban said in the Hankyoreh interview that his first overseas visit would be either to Lebanon or Darfur.

Israel has had contacts with Ban since he was elected secretary-general in October, as well as beforehand. He was the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Israel. Ban came here in 2005, but he is not known to have developed expertise on the Middle East.

The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, has learned that the UN Secretariat in New York is discussing possible widespread changes in personnel, which may affect UN operations in Israel and the West Bank. The UN Secretariat is also considering streamlining its bureaucracy in the region.

On Sunday, Ban announced his first two appointments: veteran Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar, who has been a special adviser to Annan, as his chief of staff; and award-winning Haitian journalist Michele Montas, the head of the French unit of UN Radio, as his spokesperson.

Ban said in a statement that he will be making more appointments in the coming days. The most important will be his choice for deputy secretary-general - widely expected to be a woman from a developing country.

Ban is the first Asian to lead the UN in 35 years. Burma's U Thant served from 1961-71. It will also mark a milestone for South Korea, which only joined the United Nations in 1991 and still has UN troops on the tense border with North Korea.

A 62-year-old career diplomat who grew up during a war that left his country divided, Ban has promised to make peace with North Korea a top priority. He said he will travel there when necessary and cautioned that the reclusive communist nation must be talked to - and not just punished with sanctions for conducting a nuclear test.

Ban is temporarily residing at a hotel. He will not move into his official residence - an 85-year-old neo-Georgian town house on New York's fashionable Sutton Place overlooking the East River - until renovations (the first since 1950) are completed. The General Assembly recently approved $4.9 million to modernize the residence's heating, air conditioning, plumbing, kitchen and security, which is expected to take about nine months.

AP contributed to this report.

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