September should be a season for change

Ten years ago, NGOs squandered an opportunity to promote universal human rights, now they have a chance to make up for past wrongs.

Abbas 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
Abbas 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
Winston Churchill once said that the further backward one looks, the further forward one can see. His advice should be heeded as September’s UN events approach. The questions of General Assembly recognition of Palestinian independence and the Durban III conference are an opportunity to examine the events of the past decade that foreshadowed these moments.
Ten years ago, the delegitimization campaign against Israel was boosted by the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Some 1,500 NGOs united to adopt a political war plan against Israel. They produced a document that “declare[d] Israel as a racist, apartheid state in which Israel’s brand of apartheid [is] a crime against humanity” and “call[ed] upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” They also attempted to reinstitute the “Zionism=racism” resolution, which had rightly been repealed in 1991.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric and inflammatory call to action were surprising. But equally as shocking – particularly at a conference meant to fight racism – was what the document omitted.
There was no call to build mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, no charge to take steps to foster coexistence, and no implementation of programs – business, cultural or other – that would lead to practical changes in how Israelis and Palestinians perceive one another. Similarly there was no call to build Palestinian society and infrastructure, or to take tangible steps to achieve a state living in peace with Israel. No, the sole focus was on strategies to delegitimize Israel.
This September’s events will continue this Durban legacy. Now, as then, it is driven by NGOs.

For example, Al-Haq, a Ramallah-based organization, has admitted that the goals are increased political attacks against Israel, not recognition of a Palestinian state. In a “legal brief” about the forthcoming initiatives, Al-Haq writes: “The issue at stake in the context of the ‘September initiatives’ is not statehood as such, but a strategy to strengthen Palestine’s position in the international legal order... by bringing international claims [sic].”
In his anti-Israel (as opposed to pro-Palestinian) May 16 New York Times op-ed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas echoed this approach: “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”
The Durban strategy defined the tactics and goals that Abbas and Al-Haq are pursuing this September. They are primarily concerned with isolating Israel and perpetuating the conflict.
Along with Al-Haq, other anti-Israel advocacy NGOs, such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), perfected this strategy. They devoted extensive funding from foreign governments to promote bogus legal cases against Israeli officials. At the same time, the most vocal proponents of the Durban strategy, including BADIL and PCHR, support a “onestate” solution and reject two-state proposals such as the Road Map for Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative.
The various elements of the Durban strategy are linked by the nefarious goal of destroying Israel – from the NGOs that promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), to those that invoke the false claims of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.” To reverse this trend, the Durban strategy must give way to a new era. Instead of flotillas, the Goldstone Report, lawfare cases and calls for BDS – none of which would exist without NGOs – NGOs should hold international conferences that promote a two-state solution. A core component of these efforts would be recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
Ten years ago, NGOs abused a United Nations framework and squandered an opportunity to promote peace and universal human rights. A declaration based on those principles would have fostered an environment conducive to eliminating demonetization. But, of course, that did not occur. As a result, September 2011 will see two events that, if anything, make a negotiated, two-state solution seem farther away now than it was in 2001.
The writer is managing editor for NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.