Foreign Ministry trusts US 'Durban II' involvement
"We see eye to eye with the Americans on the subject;" others call US participation "troubling."
By ABE SELIG
The Foreign Ministry said on Sunday it will take a "wait and see" attitude after learning the Obama administration will participate in planning for a UN conference on racism dubbed "Durban II," despite concerns that the meeting will be used by Arab nations and others to demonize Israel.
While the US has said it would decide at a later date whether to participate in the conference, the State Department on Saturday said that it would send diplomats to participate in preparatory meetings being held next week for the 2009 World Conference Against Racism, which is set to be held in Geneva on April 20-24 and which Israel and Canada have already decided to boycott.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry, however, played down the development, telling The Jerusalem Post they had faith in the decisions of the US administration.
"I think that we see eye to eye with the Americans on the subject of Durban II, and given statements made both by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the matter, it doesn't appear that they would continue taking part in the conference if they see outright anti-Semitism or the singling out of Israel by other members of the forum," said Eitan Levon, the Foreign Ministry's coordinator for the conference.
"If you look at the State Department's official statement, it says that their intent is to try to 'change the direction in which the review conference is heading,' and that their involvement now does not indicate that they will participate in April in the World Conference Against Racism itself, so I think that it's quite clear that they will walk away if they see the same kind of hate-fest developing as was the case in the previous forum," Levon said.
During the Bush administration in 2001, the United States and Israel walked out of the first UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, over efforts to pass a resolution equating Zionism to racism.
Those efforts failed, but there are signs the resolution may be reintroduced at the so-called "Durban II" meeting in Geneva and Israel has been actively lobbying the United States and European countries to stay away from this year's meeting.
Nonetheless, the apparent departure from the Bush administration's outright rejection of the conference has fueled speculation that Obama administration officials are at odds with one another over how to proceed.
One official who is reportedly pressuring Secretary of State Clinton to take part in Durban II is the new American Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who was Obama's close campaign adviser and has pushed for the US to join the UN Human Rights Council, which was boycotted by the Bush administration, partly because of its one-sided criticism of Israel.
The other official reportedly pushing for American involvement in "Durban II" is Samantha Power, an Obama adviser at the National Security Council who participated in the initial Durban conference as the representative of an NGO and has a history of making controversial statements about Israel. In the past, Power expressed support for cutting US military assistance to Israel and using the funds as aid to build a Palestinian state.
Power resigned from the Obama campaign in March 2008, after a statement attributed to her appeared in The Scotsman newspaper, in which she called Hillary Clinton "a monster." Power retracted the statement in the wake of public reaction, and was brought into Obama's transition team after the elections.
"The secretary of state has clearly said in the past that the US should not take part in the conference," said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, executive director of the Jerusalem-based watchdog NGO Monitor. "So apparently there are different points of view being exchanged within the administration."
Steinberg said the move was "troubling."
"The Obama administration has taken a very bold and risky plunge by attempting to change the hate-filled agenda," he said.
"It's a strong litmus test for the administration. Success [in changing the agenda] or an American-led walkout will restore moral leadership and US influence. But a failure which reinforces the first Durban attack on human rights will do long-term damage throughout the world."
There were no indications that Durban II would be any different than its predecessor, Steinberg said.
"This time around it could be even worse," he said. "In 2001, there were two parallel sessions, a governmental forum and then an NGO forum. It was the latter that used the wording of 'apartheid' and 'racism' against Israel, but now it seems that, even though it's unlikely that the NGOs will have a strong showing because of a lack of funding, the governments of Iran and Libya - who are heading the governmental forum - have adopted the same language as used by the NGOs in 2001."
Based on that, the Americans were facing an uphill battle, Steinberg said.
"The Europeans haven't succeeded in changing the language, and there have been negotiations going since October," he said.
"But the real question is, has the Obama administration really thought this through? I'm concerned that going into this blindly will cause a lot of damage, and could even have a negative impact on the peace process. It will be hard for any Israeli government to accept a proposal by Senator [George] Mitchell if the US is involved in this, because if the same Arab countries that are part of the Saudi peace plan are the ones leading this demonization of Israel, and the rest of the world is part of the process, it's incompatible. You can't say that Israel is an apartheid state, apply the South Africa model - which basically aims to annihilate Israel as a Jewish state, and then continue with peace negotiations."
"If the US has not changed the language or the direction of the forum in two to three weeks," Steinberg said, "they will need to lead a walk-out for it to have any significance. After that, it will be too late."
AP contributed to this report.
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