Obama Officials Meet U.S. Jews to Explain Their Durban II Policy

Human rights groups urge Obama to engage in Durban II conference; Israel calls on U.S. to boycott summit.

Officials from the Obama administration met with U.S. Jewish leaders on Monday to explain why the government has decided to participate in planning the controversial World Conference Against Racism, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

Jerusalem fears that the "Durban II" summit, set to be held in Geneva this April, will be used by Arab nations and others as a forum to criticize Israel as was its predecessor in 2001.

The closed-door talks were led by the White House and the State Department, according to the JTA, and the content of the meeting was off-the-record.

The meeting was held after the State Department sent a high-level team to an informal preparatory session in Geneva this week, but declared that a "change in direction" was required before it could commit to full participation in the April meeting.

"If you are not engaged, you don't have a voice," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said on Tuesday.

"We wanted to put forward our view and see if there is some way we can make the document a better document than it appears it is going to be," he said. "That does not mean, however, that we will take part in future meetings or indeed in the conference itself."

Delegates to the talks on Monday told the JTA they were organized to give the Jewish leaders a chance to voice their concerns and for the Obama administration to explain its policy about the controversial event.

The decision to attend the planning sessions sparked some criticism from Jewish groups but drew praise from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged all member states "to engage constructively on all the outstanding issues" at the conference.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Durban process was biased against Israel.

"While we understand the pressure on the U.S. to go to Geneva, we urge America not to participate in a fatally flawed UN racism conference that demonizes Israel by singling it out for condemnation," he said.

U.S. human rights organizations have been urging the Obama administration to engage in the conference in order to tackle the issues that will be discussed during the meeting.

Human Rights First, the leading human rights organization in the U.S., on Tuesday issued a statement welcoming Obama's intention of participating in the summit.

"We urge the administration to work to ensure that the conference advances rather than undermines the protection of fundamental rights, and to engage with others to press for that outcome," the statement reads.

"This session provides an opportunity for the United States to lead efforts to address problems with language proposed for the current draft of the outcome document," said the statement. "The United States should also encourage states to review the implementation of their international commitments to combat racism. Although this is the stated purpose of the conference, states have put in very little effort so far to engage in any meaningful review."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday appealed to the U.S. not to participate in the UN-sponsored conference. Speaking before a delegation of visiting American Jewish leaders, Livni said that "Israel expects the free world not to participate in Durban II."

Israel and Canada have announced they are boycotting the April 20-24 conference in Geneva, a follow-up to an acrimonious meeting in 2001. Canada said the conference was likely to descend into anti-Semitism while Israel said it would be an "anti-Israel tribunal".

European Union (EU) countries including Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are under pressure from Jewish lobbies to follow suit. But they have stayed engaged while struggling to tone down a final UN text to be issued by the conference, diplomats say.

The 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban was meant to lay down a blueprint for nations to address sensitive issues.

Israel and the United States walked out in protest over a draft text branding Israel as a racist and apartheid state, language that was later dropped.