EU Nations Walk Out as Iran Leader Addresses Durban II

Representatives of most European Union countries walked out of the Durban Review Conference against racism yesterday during an anti-Semitic address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The diplomats left the hall in Geneva on the conference's first day as Ahmadinejad launched his tirade against the Israeli government. The Iranian leader also blasted the United States for its invasion of Iraq.

Ahmadinejad, the only head of state who will appear at the conference, also known as Durban II, called Israel "the most cruel and racist regime." He accused the West of dispossessing the Palestinians "on the pretext of Jewish suffering from World War II."

After his speech, which was interrupted by demonstrators, Ahmadinejad held a press conference in which he denounced the decision by many Western nations to boycott the conference. The conference's first day fell on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Israel, for its part, said it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland "for consultations and in protest of the conference in Geneva." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman said Ambassador Ilan Elgar will return from from Bern for consultations after Ahmadinejad met with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz on Sunday.

Netanyahu thanked the Western countries that plan to boycott the summit. "Six million of our people were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Not everyone has learned the lesson, unfortunately," Netanyahu said.

"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."

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."

The Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d'affaires of the Swiss Embassy in Israel, Monika Schmutz-Kirgoz, for an urgent meeting to express Israel's protest against the meeting with the Iranian president.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and a long list of European leaders condemned Ahmadinejad for his tirade against Israel.

Ban said the Iranian leader "used his speech to accuse, divide and even incite, directly opposing the aim of the meeting." The Israeli Foreign Ministry, however, criticized Ban for meeting with Ahmadinejad.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Ahmadinejad's speech an "intolerable appeal for racist hatred."

Sarkozy "totally condemns this speech of hatred," his office said in a statement, adding that he "is calling for an extremely firm reaction by the European Union."

The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland joined Israel in boycotting Durban II, while other European countries sent low-level representatives and promised they would walk out if the Iranian president repeated his anti-Semitic rhetoric. The crowd cheered the diplomats as they left.

"Such outrageous anti-Semitic remarks should have no place in a UN anti-racism forum," said British Ambassador Peter Gooderham, whose country chose not to send a minister to Geneva.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Ahmadinejad's statements were "offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable."

But he defended Britain's decision to take part in the conference, saying that "nor should we leave the international stage only to those, like President Ahmadinejad, who would take global efforts against racism backwards."

Some European diplomats immediately walked out of the room when Ahmadinejad said Israel was "created on the pretext of Jewish suffering from World War II." The Czechs announced they were leaving the conference entirely after hearing Ahmadinejad speak.

"The UN Security Council has stabilized this occupation regime and supported it in the last 60 years, giving them a free hand to continue their crimes," Ahmadinejad said.

"What were the root causes of the U.S. attacks against Iraq or invasion of Afghanistan?" the Iranian president asked. "The Iraqi people have suffered enormous losses .... Wasn't the military action against Iraq planned by the Zionists ... in the U.S. administration, in complicity with the arms-manufacturing companies?"

The U.S. deputy envoy to the UN called Ahmadinejad's speech "vile and hateful."

"It does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people, and we call on the Iranian leadership to show much more measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region," U.S. Deputy Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said.

Norwegian Foreign Minster Jonas Gahr Store, who was the first speaker to take the floor after Ahmadinejad's speech, said he "strongly rejected" the Iranian's remarks.

Store said Ahmadinejad had set himself apart from others, violating the spirit of the conference.

"Norway will not accept that 'the odd man out' kidnaps the efforts for the many," he said. But the Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized the Norwegians for not leaving the hall during the speech.