Israel and the United States pulled out of the UN's World Conference Against Racism yesterday, after efforts to soften the anti-Israel language of the conference's draft summary statement failed.
"The Durban conference is a farce," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters in Jerusalem last night, terming the conference's activities an "unbelievable attempt to smear Israel."
"We regret very much the very bizarre show in Durban. An important convention that's supposed to defend human rights became a source of hatred," he said.
Peres blamed the Arab League in particular, saying it had led a concerted effort to single out Israel and blame it in unacceptable terms for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The Arab League, all of it, has come out against peace," he said.
In contrast, he lauded the U.S. "I want to thank the United States of America, which took an extremely courageous position in order to make the world look more responsible, more balanced, more truthful. I think the United States has saved the honor of our world, of our time," he said.
He thanked U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell for their "unhesitating leadership," as well as the 43 countries that also "saved the world's honor" by taking "a clear position against this unbelievable attack to smear Israel with false colors." These nations included Russia, the European Union, most of eastern Europe, most of Latin America, India, Japan, Singapore and some African states, he said.
Powell, in a statement released in Durban, also denounced the draft declaration in uncompromising terms. He assailed the attempt to single out "only one country in the world, Israel, for censure and abuse," and said that conferences could not combat racism by drafting declarations with "hateful language" that was a throwback to the days when the United Nations equated Zionism with racism.
"Today I have instructed our representatives at the World Conference Against Racism to return home. I have taken this decision with regret because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that this conference could have made to it," Powell's statement said. "But following discussions today by our team in Durban and others who are working for a successful conference... I am convinced that it will not be possible."
The draft text termed Israel's treatment of Palestinians "a new apartheid" and a "crime against humanity," stated that the conference "recognized with deep concern the increase of racist practices of Zionism" and said that Zionism is based on racial superiority. Israel was the only country mentioned specifically in the document.
The Israeli-American withdrawal followed days of intensive efforts, led primarily by Norway, to convince Arab and Muslim delegates to remove the anti-Israel statements from the draft resolution and replace them with a general statement calling on all parties in the Middle East to end the violence and return to negotiations and stressing the right of all peoples in the region to self-determination. Though Israel had initially objected to any reference to its conflict with the Palestinians in the document, it had agreed to this compromise.
Yesterday, however, it became clear that the Norwegian effort had no chance of being accepted by the Muslim bloc. "Today we reached the conclusion that the efforts [to remove the offending articles] had been exhausted, so we decided to leave," said Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, who was in charge of Israel's preparations for the conference.
"From the beginning, we debated over whether to attend the conference at all," he added. "Our decision to participate stemmed from intensive pressure by friendly states, who wanted to try to remove the Arab proposals during the conference itself."
Foreign Ministry sources said the Muslim bloc's rejectionism was spearheaded by Arab League Secretary-General and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa and current Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. Though the U.S. did not publicly blame anyone, off the record, American government sources also said that Amr Moussa had been the main troublemaker.
Shimon Samuels, of the Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, who has been coordinating the lobbying effort by Jewish nongovernmental organizations at the conference, said he heard similar assessments from the black American leader Jesse Jackson, who had also attempted to mediate on the issue. "The Egyptians returned to ground zero regarding the equation of Zionism with racism, the Syrians denied the existence of the Holocaust, and the Iranians objected to any mention of anti-Semitism in the conference resolutions, on the grounds that the conference is dealing with the problems of the present, and anti-Semitism is not a problem nowadays," Samuels said.
But Palestinian UN representative Salman Herfi said the Arab delegations had been very reasonable; it was the U.S. delegation that refused to compromise. "It's sad. It's sad they didn't leave room for dialogue, they didn't leave room for flexibility," he said.
Though Israel has not asked any other states to join the walk-out, Melchior said that Canada, Australia and New Zealand were considering doing so, and if they did, other Western countries might follow. Foreign Ministry sources said that some eastern European countries - Hungary, Romania, Latvia and the Czech Republic - were also considering leaving.
But a British Foreign Office spokesman said the European Union had no plans to withdraw. "This conference is an opportunity to address racism and xenophobia in the world. The problem of the Middle East should not have been imported into the conference," he said.
Other than in Israel, Jerusalem's withdrawal passed largely without comment. But the American withdrawal sparked criticism from several directions. South Africa, the conference host, termed the decision "unfortunate and unnecessary," and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, secretary-general of the conference, said she regretted the U.S. decision. Human rights organizations at the conference also condemned the withdrawal, as did Jesse Jackson.
But Tom Lantos, a Democratic U.S. congressman who was a member of the delegation, supported the decision. "A conference that should have been about horrible discrimination around the world has been hijacked by extremist elements for its own purposes," Lantos said. "The conference will stand self-condemned."
Within Israel, there was some disagreement over Jerusalem's decision to withdraw. Opposition leader Yossi Sarid supported the decision, saying the conference had proven to be a premeditated political lynching of Israel, Zionism and Judaism. But former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the government for "abandoning the arena" and urged it to at least keep a public relations team in Durban. "Imagine what would have happened if then Israeli ambassador to the UN Chaim Herzog had come home instead of tearing the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism to shreds?" Netanyahu said.