Israel said it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland on Monday in protest at a United Nations conference on racism in Geneva attended by Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Israeli officials have also voiced anger at a meeting that Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz held on Sunday with Ahmadinejad, who has questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust happened and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday thanked the Western countries intending to boycott the summit, known as Durban II. Israel had said from the outset that it would boycott the conference and the U.S., Canada, Italy, Holland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have followed suit.
France said Monday that its ambassador to Geneva would attend, but would walk out immediately if the conference turned into a platform for racist comments against Israel. Britain and the Czech Republic had earlier said they would take part in the conference, but without a high-level official.
The opening day of the conference happens to coincide with Holocaust remembrance day in Israel.
"Six million of our people were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Not everyone has learned the lesson, unfortunately," Netanyahu told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.
"While we commemorate them, a conference purporting to be against racism will convene in Switzerland. The guest of honor is a racist, a Holocaust-denier who makes no secret of his intention of wiping Israel off the face of the earth."
Netanyahu's office later said that he and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided to recall Ambassador Ilan Elgar from Berne "for consultations and in protest at the conference in Geneva."
Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust, was the only head of state to accept the United Nations invitation to speak at at the April 20-25 event.
President Shimon Peres said in a statement he was "deeply hurt and ashamed" that Ahmadinejad was invited to speak precisely on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"There must be a limit, even to the neutrality of Switzerland. Today is the day? This is the man to speak? This is the outlook for the future?" said Peres. "I don't want to speak too much about Iran. But in Iran, people are hanged because they are suspected of God knows what - nothing. There is a center of hate, of blood, of terror."
Hamas: Boycotting Durban is result of Israeli, U.S. 'extortion'
Hamas charged Monday that countries' boycotting the conference were caving in to U.S. and Israeli pressure.
"Those countries were quick to respond to the Zionist [reference to Israel] and American pressure and extortion against their leaders," Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas' spokesman, told reporters in Gaza City.
"They shun the conference because it will expose the use by the U.S.-backed Zionist entity of all means of killings and destruction against the Palestinian people," Barhoum added.
The withdrawal of the United States in particular "conflicts with President Obama's calls for peace, security and the respect of human rights" in the Middle East, he charged.
Ahmadinejad met upon landing in Geneva on Sunday with Swiss President Merz, despite vocal Israeli opposition. Ahmadinejad was also due to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, officials of various international organizations in Geneva, and Swiss officials and business executives.
In a radio interview Monday, the Swiss president defended the meeting and said criticism was unjustified.
"Switzerland is neutral and not part of any alliance," Merz said, adding that it is part of the country's national tradition to offer its mediation services.
Israel sends delegates to Geneva to protest Durban II
As part of its publicity campaign, the Israelis will organize demonstrations during the speech, and will distribute materials on human rights violations in Iran - with particular emphasis on public executions and violence against women.
The campaign will be overseen by Israel Ambassador to Geneva Ronnie Lashno-Yaar. He will be assisted by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Weisel, U.S. law Prof. Alan Dershowitz and film actor Jon Voight. A special media room will also be set up in Geneva, to provide immediate responses to anti-Israeli statements.
A special delegation of 14 Israeli students will also be taking part. All the students speak foreign languages and have undergone extensive training by the Foreign Ministry and the World Jewish Congress.
Foreign Minister Lieberman issued a statement on Sunday saying "an international conference in which a racist like Ahmadinejad, who preaches daily about Israel's destruction, is allowed to speak, says all that needs to be said about its character and purpose."
Lieberman added that Israel could not ignore that a Holocaust-denier has been invited to take part in a convention taking place on the very same day that the Jewish people commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day to remember the six million Jews murdered in Europe by Nazi Germany and its accomplices.
U.S. President Obama on Sunday explained that the United States had decided to boycott a United Nations conference on racism because the draft for the summit risked declaring "hypocritical allegations" against Israel.
"I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe," Obama said in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas.
But he said the language of the UN's draft declaration "raised a whole set of objectionable provisions" and risked a reprise of the 2001 predecessor summit in Durban, "which became a session through which folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."
Amnesty International condemns UN racism conference boycott
Amnesty International Monday condemned the decision by leading nations to boycott the Durban Review Conference on racism in Geneva and urged governments not to "politicize" the meeting.
In a public statement on the conference issued in London, Amnesty said it was "dismayed" that Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland had decided to "disengage from" the conference.
The human rights organization said it also "regrets that Italy and the United States have confirmed their decisions to stay outside the Review Conference."
The withdrawal of Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland and the refusal of Italy and the U.S. to join the conference was "very disappointing in light of the long and difficult negotiations" required to reach agreement, said Amnesty.
"True conviction in combating racism requires governments to be there to stand up for what is right and to reject forcefully what is objectionable," said the statement.
Amnesty International urged all governments participating in the Durban Review Conference to remain engaged.
"Governments committed to combating racism and a successful Review Conference must strenuously resist and respond to any renewed efforts to politicize the Conference or to detract from the over-riding objective of addressing all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia or related intolerance in all parts of the world," it said.
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