The Obama administration said late Saturday it would participate in planning a United Nations conference on racism, despite concerns the meeting will be used by Arab nations and others to criticize Israel.
The U.S. will decide later whether to participate in "Durban 2," the second UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism.
The State Department said it would send diplomats next week to participate in preparatory meetings for the World Conference Against Racism, which is set to be held in Geneva, Switzerland in April and which some countries including Israel have already decided to boycott.
In a statement released late Saturday, the State Department said the U.S. delegation to the planning discussions would review current direction of conference preparations and whether U.S. participation in the conference itself is warranted.
"This will be the first opportunity the (Obama) administration has had to engage in the negotiations for the Durban Review, and - in line with our commitment to diplomacy - the U.S. has decided to send a delegation to engage in the negotiations on the text of the conference document," the department said.
"The intent of our participation is to work to try to change the direction in which the review conference is heading," it said. "We hope to work with other countries that want the Conference to responsibly and productively address racism around the world."
Officials in Jerusalem expressed concern that Israel and Barack Obama's administration are on a collision course over the U.S. decision to participate in the conference.
The Foreign Ministry has sought to block efforts by senior U.S. officials to convince Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to alter American policy set during the Bush administration not to attend the conference, which is regarded by Israel as a forum of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli vitriol.
Israel is boycotting the conference because a declaration equating Zionism with racism is expected to be made there. In addition, it is expected that the organizers and participants will charge that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, and, like before in Durban, will make anti-Semitic statements.
The Bush administration agreed with Israel last year that the U.S. would not participate unless it received guarantees that the conference would not become a stage for anti-Semitism and one-sided criticism of Israel, as occured during the first Durban meeting in 2001.
Canada also announced that it was boycotting the conference and the Foreign Ministry has tried in recent months to convince European Union countries to also avoid participating.
The Foreign Ministry received confidential telegraphs from Israel's embassies in Washington, the United Nations and Geneva, about a possible change in the policy of the new U.S. administration regarding "Durban 2."
"Iran and Arab countries will once more take over the conference, and if the U.S. participates in 'Durban 2,' it will be a major blow," a senior Israeli diplomat told Haaretz. "This will pull the rug from under us and will lead to the participation of many more countries in the conference."
In one of the telegrams, a number of Obama officials reportedly pressed Secretary of State Clinton to announce the U.S. would participate in the conference.
One of the leading officials pressuring Clinton on "Durban 2" is the new U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who was Obama's close campaign adviser.
Rice is also pushing for the U.S. to join the UN Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. The body had been boycotted by the U.S., in part because of its one-sided criticism of Israel.
President George Bush had accused the HRC of opting to focus on Israel instead of dealing with the genocide in Darfur.
The other official pushing for American participation in "Durban 2" is Samantha Power, another Obama adviser at the National Security Council.
Power participated in the initial Durban conference as the representative of a non-government organization and is known for her strong criticism of Israel. In the past, she expressed support for cutting U.S. military assistance to Israel and transferring the funds as aid to build a Palestinian state.
Senior State Department officials contacted Israeli diplomats and asked them to take swift action to block the Durban initiative.
"This is the time for Israel and Jewish organizations to intervene," U.S. officials said.
While the Obama administration is addressing pressing issues like the U.S.'s economic crisis, Israel which has yet to establish its new government expects a more decisive stance regarding the complex Iranian nuclear issue.
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