The World Summit on Sustainable Development will open in Johannesburg, South Africa at the end of August. "Sustainable development" is an international code name for the various critical issues relating to resources such as water, earth and agriculture that are at the forefront of interest to the developing nations and environmental bodies. Normally this would not be a subject that would cause Israeli officials sleepless nights; but coming hard on the heels of last year's United Nation's Durban conference on racism, the combination again of a UN gathering and the location has Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem and international Jewish organizations on the look-out.
The original scenarios spoke of "a second Durban," perhaps even worse than the first if only because of its gigantic size: Whereas Durban drew 10,000 participants from all over the world, Johannesburg is expecting 65,000.
First reports spoke of intentions on the part of the Arab-Muslim bloc to bring to Johannesburg, as they had to Durban, a series of virulently anti-Israeli resolutions (such as charges of harming the water resources of the Palestinian population).
Meanwhile, the alert has been somewhat relaxed. Dr. Avi Becker, director-general of the World Jewish Congress in Israel, says that "contrary to the situation in Durban, at the regional preparatory committees for the Johannesburg summit, there has so far not been an emphasis on anti-Israeli resolutions, even at the Asiatic preparatory committee that was held last month in Bali. Both the UN and the South African government have also sent clear messages that they will not allow the Arabs to `hijack' the conference this time."
But the Jewish organizations are not taking chances in the wake of Durban.
Becker last week called a meeting of representatives of Jewish organizations and Foreign Ministry officials, as well as South African Jewish leaders, to prepare for Johannesburg. Whereas an important part of the Jewish world boycotted the Durban conference, in order to set an example for the U.S., Israel and the rest of the Western world - Israel and the U.S. lowered the level of their representation and only walked out completely at the height of the conference - this time there will be no boycott. The intention is to provide as strong an Israeli and Jewish representation as possible.
As part of the lesson learned from Durban - where the street and the battle for the media and public opinion vied with the diplomats - a strong student delegation will be sent to Johannesburg in the knowledge that they will be the real "soldiers in the field," as they were last year.
The Durban conference was the apex of a process that has become evident: today's international conferences have become one of the central anti-Israeli arenas in the world. With the exception of the first few years when the influence of the Holocaust was still felt, and before the Cold War, the UN has never been a favorable arena for Israel. One example was the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. After the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the current hostilities, this has become even more blatant.
The Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab and Muslim countries have realized the importance of international forums, particularly those that are large and receive wide media coverage, for putting across the Palestinian point of view and attacking Israel. They realize that, at the end of every conference, it is the number of votes that counts (there are 56 countries in the Muslim bloc) and not the strength of the nations participating. That is why Becker believes that even if there are not particularly malicious anti-Israeli resolutions at the official gathering in Johannesburg, the Palestinians will try to get the attention of the street and the media.
The anti-Israeli campaign is waged not only at the mega-conferences but also at smaller international gatherings, both those directly connected with the UN and those of professional organizations such as health, labor and welfare. Yaakov Levy, Israel's ambassador to the UN organizations in Geneva, where many of these groups meet, relates that "the past two years have been particularly difficult. The Arabs try to utilize every opportunity, no matter what the topic, to focus the debate on Israel's `crimes.'"
The tactic is to tie every topic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus when the World Health Organization meets, Israel is charged with preventing free movement of sick and wounded Palestinians; at a geriatric conference, the fate of Palestinian elderly under occupation comes up for discussion; and at an environmental meet, the Palestinians' problems with water are discussed.
Becker stresses that the condemnations of Israel have a clear political aim. "The objective is to turn Israel in the international arena into a second [former] South Africa, a country of pariahs that has to be shunned and disgraced, against whom sanctions must be brought that will interfere with its ability to defend itself. That is why there are repeated attempts to define Israel as an `apartheid state' so that the message will be unequivocal."
Boomerang in Durban
If Durban was the epitome of expressions of hatred against Israel, however, it was also the place where they failed. It was the very extraordinary virulence of the anti-Israel proposals (that spoke, for example, of Israel carrying out "ethnic cleansing" in the territories) that acted as a boomerang. Not only did the U.S. walk out of the conference but the European Union led the process of strong opposition to the proposed resolutions. Since the hosts - the UN and the South African government - feared that the entire gathering would fall apart, counter-pressure was brought to bear and all the anti-Israeli paragraphs were deleted, with the exception of a mild condemnation of Israel's policy in the territories.
Durban thus turned into a watershed; there was a change of thinking and, to a certain extent, a change of direction. Levy also links this to the events of September 11, which came only four days later and which focused world attention in a completely different direction. "At least for a few months, the Muslims became the center of the attacks at international conferences," he notes. "At the Davos [economic] conference held in December 2001 in New York [out of solidarity with the city that was attacked] the Muslims were forced to defend themselves against accusations that they were `enemies of humanity,'" he says.
But they soon made a comeback and resumed their anti-Israeli attacks at international gatherings, Levy notes. Nevertheless, the Durban process appears to be repeating itself. "The more the Arab representatives exaggerate their anti-Israeli expressions," he says, "the more support they lose." This happens particularly when political representatives take part as they have their eyes on their constituents back home, Levy explains. At a recent WHO meeting, attended by Arab health ministers who tried to have Israel condemned, "the Arab resolutions won only 48 votes, fewer than the number of Muslim countries in the world. Countries such as Turkey and Gabon refused to support them."
The Durban conference brought to the fore another arena that was until then less familiar to Israel - that of the non-governmental organizations. The UN gives formal recognition to several thousand NGOs and this enables them to participate in its international conferences (albeit in a separate framework). As the globalization process gains strength, so the nation-states lose status in face of international economic, humanitarian and environmental bodies. Indeed it was expressly because of the avid anti-Israel incitement at the meeting of the NGOs that the Durban conference became such a symbol. It was these NGOs that charged Israel with "war crimes" and "ethnic cleansing" and called for sanctions and an international court to try those responsible.
At Durban another new process started - the decision on the part of Israel and the Jewish world to mount a counter-offensive, both against the UN and against the NGOs. The first target chosen by the Foreign Ministry and the WJC was the United Nations Works and Relief Agency. While the other refugees of the world fall under the UN Commissioner for Refugees, the Palestinians have UNRWA all to themselves. In an article published last month in Ha'aretz, Becker says that the UN tries to find "permanent solutions" for the other refugees in the world but UNRWA's mandate is for humanitarian aid until the problem is solved - that is, in fact, a perpetuation of the problem.
He also mentions a second problem, one raised pointedly in recent weeks by Israeli representatives in the UN and the U.S. - the way in which UNRWA representatives ignore the fact that the refugee camps for which they are responsible have turned into bases for terror and incitement against Israel. [See Letters, page 11.] According to Becker, the joint aim of Israel and the Jewish organizations is to persuade Congress to make American aid to UNRWA (some $90 million per annum) conditional on increased supervision by UNRWA representatives to ensure that the refugee camps are not exploited for devious purposes.
The deputy high commissioner for UNRWA, Corinne Abu-Zayyad, (an American married to a Sudanese), says that "UNRWA was founded about half a year before the general commission for refugees and therefore its mandate is different. It was not possible to integrate it later into the general commission since the problem of the Palestinian refugees is different from that of the others. Most of the refugees in the world are happy to be rehabilitated somewhere else. The Palestinian refugees refuse to, and cannot be forced to do so." Turning to UNRWA's silence in the face of terrorist activities emanating from the camps, Abu-Zayyad says: "We are responsible only for supplying aid in the fields of education, health and welfare. Obviously terrorist activity, by its very nature, is clandestine and therefore we are not aware of it until after it has taken place."
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