Presidents and premiers from around the world sat down together to dine and offer toasts to peace Saturday night in a citadel of American finance, kicking off a four-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
But all was not harmonious. Yasser Arafat, uninvited to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s opening-night dinner, had to make do on his own - at a banquet across the street with his Palestinian friends.
The Saturday-to-Tuesday diplomatic jamboree of meetings, speechmaking and motorcades through chaotic city streets is history’s greatest gathering of world leaders - and New York’s biggest security nightmare.
“It will probably be the largest security force ever implemented in the city,” said the local FBI chief, James Kallstrom.
Outside the World Financial Center, site of Saturday’s gala dinner, hundreds of city police and federal agents wrapped a security blanket around the downtown Manhattan district. They had rooftop anti-sniper teams, bomb-sniffing dogs and police boats on the nearby Hudson River at their disposal.
Inside, beneath the vaulted, 120-foot-high glass ceiling of the center’s Winter Garden lobby, dozens of world leaders sat down to a main course of chicken, lamb or vegetable timbale.
Settling on a menu for dignitaries from more than 170 lands wasn’t easy. Chief caterer Liz Neumark had to cross beef, veal, pork and shellfish - the politically or religiously incorrect - off the list.
The setting, in a headquarters complex for major Wall Street companies, was both monumental and mundane.
Tables were arrayed before a vast, 42-step marble stairway that served as a speaker’s podium, and beneath a dozen 50-foot-tall California palms. But the diners also were surrounded, in typical lobby “mall” fashion, by shops selling everything from shoes to art to cosmetics.
Across the street, at the Vista Hotel, Arab-American groups organized a dinner to honor Palestinian leader Arafat and to raise money for causes connected with the emerging Palestine “entity” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Giuliani’s “uninvited” list also included Fidel Castro, but the Cuban president won’t be idle. Business leaders are flying in by corporate jet from around the country to meet with Castro to explore economic opportunities in Cuba if the U.S. embargo is lifted, said John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“By Wednesday, he will have seen close to 200 business executives,” he said.
Castro also will travel to Harlem and its landmark Abyssinian Baptist Church today to address American activist supporters of improved U.S.-Cuban relations. He can expect to hear loud contrary voices from Cuban emigre protesters, including his defector daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta.
Castro arrived in New York on Saturday, as did Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Arafat arrived Friday night.
In faithful U.N. fashion, the half-century-old Middle East conflict has dominated even the anniversary celebration.
Arabs were still wrangling with the Americans and British on Saturday over wording in the three-day special session’s final declaration, particularly a paragraph reaffirming peoples’ rights to “self-determination” under “foreign occupation,” phrases long linked to Israel’s occupied territories.
The declaration, a recommitment to U.N. ideals, will be adopted Tuesday, the anniversary of the Oct. 24, 1945, ratification of the U.N. Charter. It will climax an unprecedented marathon of five-minute speeches by more than 200 kings, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other leaders of U.N. member states and international organizations.
The visiting heads of state and government also will attend a black-tie Clinton reception this evening in the marble-columned New York Public Library, and a New York Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Monday night at Lincoln Center.
But the nitty-gritty business of this diplomatic extravaganza will be conducted in numberless “bilats” - one-on-one meetings between government chiefs to discuss bilateral concerns.
Clinton tops the list with his summit sessions with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Monday in upstate Hyde Park and with Chinese President Jiang Zemin back in New York on Tuesday. But all in all, probably more than 500 bilateral meetings will take place, as cavalcades of armored limousines and black security vehicles race - or crawl - across midtown Manhattan.
City officials issued a “full gridlock alert” for Monday and Tuesday, warning motorists to stay away.