US may join 'Alliance of Civilizations'

Israel sources baffled by reports, say group has strong anti-Israel, anti-Western history.

By AP
May 14, 2010 06:12
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security

Obama nuke summit 311. (photo credit: AP)

Israeli officials expressed surprise and bewilderment on Thursday at reports the Obama administration is preparing to join an international advisory group called the Alliance of Civilizations. The US has hitherto largely shunned the group due to concerns over its anti-Israel and anti-Western stances.

US officials said the administration plans to announce as early as this week that it will begin a formal relationship with the five-year-old, UN-backed organization that has as its expressed aim easing strains between societies and cultures, particularly between the West and Islam.

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The Bush administration boycotted the group when it was founded in 2005, amid worries it would become a forum for bashing Israel and the US. Those concerns were magnified a year later when the alliance released a report that officials in Washington said unfairly blamed Israel and the US for many of the world’s problems.

One Israeli official said it was odd that the US would join a body that is “completely insignificant.”

He said it was one thing for Israel to join the OECD, as it did earlier this week, and another for Washington to join a group that on the international stage “is about as important as the Ramle Friends of Hapoel Tel Aviv.”

This is something that doesn’t need to concern Israel, the official said, but should leave Americans wondering what the administration is doing.

Another government source said it was not inconceivable that the decision to join the group was yet another hint to Israel that Washington could make things uncomfortable for Jerusalem if it chose, without causing a public rift.

The source said this move, along with the reports that the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency will take up the question of Israel’s nuclear capabilities at its board meeting next month, something that has never happened before and which the US could have prevented had it chosen to do so, indicated to a certain degree a change of tenor coming from Washington.

“I’m not saying the US is deciding to join the organization to send a message to Israel, but it clearly was mindful of how this would be interpreted in Jerusalem,” the source said.

Since President Barack Obama came into office last year, the US has slowly opened the door to informal dealings with the Alliance of Civilizations, including attending some of its meetings as an observer.

But the US had yet to join the alliance by becoming a member of its “Group of Friends,” countries and organizations that have lent their names and support to its goal of countering the rise of religious extremism and cultural polarization.

The decision to join grows out of Obama’s desire to broaden US participation in international groups and improve its standing in the Muslim world.

Earlier moves have included Obama’s thus-far failed outreach to Iran and Syria, his speech last June to the Muslim world in Cairo and the US decision to join the much-criticized UN Human Rights Commission.

The US also participated in preparatory meetings for a UN conference on racism – the Durban II conference – that the administration ultimately boycotted over concern about anti-Semitism.

The US had been the only member of the Group of 20 major advanced and emerging economies to refuse to join the friends group, which now includes 118 countries and organizations.

Many nations in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia are members, along with multilateral blocs including the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Israel and the US have been among the conspicuous holdouts.

The officials said earlier fears about the “imbalances” in the group, which was set up by Spain and Turkey, had been addressed after the US expressed “serious concerns” about the alliance’s 2006 report. That document focused on the Middle East and identified Israel’s “disproportionate retaliatory actions in Gaza and Lebanon” as a main cause of Muslim-Western tension.

The officials said the administration had been assured by its current leader, former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio, that it would take a “more positive” approach to its work.


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