Norwegian envoy 'won't let Iran hijack Durban II'

Israel accuses parley of overlooking afflicted Third World nations in race to criticize the Jewish state.

Ahmadinejad UN racism conference 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad UN racism conference 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Norway's Ambassador to Israel Jakken Biorn Lian vehemently denied on Tuesday reports that his country's foreign minister had applauded Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech on Monday, which called for the eradication of Zionism. In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, he confirmed that Norway had remained in the room during Ahmadinejad's address to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, even though 23 European Union countries had walked out. Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre drew sharp criticism from Israeli officials Tuesday for remaining while Ahmadinejad excoriated Israel. "Minister Støre chose to remain in the room because he was scheduled to speak right after Ahmadinejad, and wanted to criticize him and reject his untenable assertions," Lian said. Støre indeed spoke after Ahmadinejad and used the opportunity to blast the Iranian president's speech. He said it "threatens the very focus of this conference. Through his message, [Ahmadinejad] has made Iran the odd man out. And Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective effort of the many." In response to Lian's statement, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel "accepts happily the clarification of the Norwegian Embassy to the effect that the Norwegian minister did not join too many other delegates in applauding the speech of Ahmadinejad." But, Palmor added, "we are deeply disappointed that he attended the conference in the first place and stayed in the room when all EU delegations rose and left, thus sending the wrong message to the Iranians and those who support them." Lian told the Post that Norway understood that this was Israel's position, but "on this point we have a difference of perspective. We believe you stand a greater chance to influence an event if you are there. Mr. Støre used strong language [to criticize Ahmadinejad], and he was interrupted several times with applause. Our belief is that he made an impression." According to Palmor, Jerusalem's concerns will be formally delivered to Norway's Foreign Ministry in Oslo by Israeli Ambassador Michael Eligal. Switzerland, which is hosting the conference, also remained in the room during the speech. A political cartoon placed on the front page of the Swiss daily Le Temps on Tuesday showed the country's representative sitting there during the speech cringing in his jacket with sweat dripping off his head, as countries such as Zimbabwe and Libya cheered above him. On Monday, Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland to protest a meeting that President Hans Rudolph Merz had on Sunday with Ahmadinejad. Contrary to reports that it had walked out, the Moroccan delegation told the Post on Tuesday that it had remained in the room, although some of the high-level delegates had been outside the room working on their speeches. On Tuesday, Norway and France were among a number of countries who defended their decision to attend the conference. France - which did walk out of the room during the speech but, like Norway, opted to remain at the conference - sharply criticized the US, which had joined Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands in boycotting the event altogether out of fear that it would turn into an anti-Semitic debacle. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned Tuesday that the US decision to boycott the anti-racism conference could be a mistake and hurt efforts to reach out to Iran. Kouchner's remarks constituted rare public criticism of President Barack Obama's new administration by a French or any foreign official. "The speech by President Ahmadinejad had an electoral, personal character which did not escape us," Kouchner said on France-5 TV. Ahmadinejad faces a presidential election in June. Asked earlier in an interview on Europe-1 radio about the US decision to boycott - taken even though the Obama administration has said it is open to negotiations on Iran's nuclear program - Kouchner said, "It's more than a paradox. It could really be a mistake." He added, "Leaving an empty chair, it's easy. You leave, then you yell at the rest." French government spokesman Luc Chatel defended France's decision to return to the meeting after Ahmadinejad's speech. "If we leave, it is Mr. Ahmadinejad who wins," he said on LCI television Tuesday. "Leaving would have been a disastrous message to all the moderate countries who are in the majority, who also hope that the values that Europe and France incarnate are defended during this conference," he said. In contrast, the Czech Republic pulled out of the conference to protest the speech. It was the only country to do so. "We cannot allow our presence at this conference to legitimize the completely unacceptable anti-Israeli attack," the Czech Republic said in a statement. Its position differed from that of the EU, which on Tuesday announced that it would remain in Geneva. As he sat in the conference on Tuesday, William Cheptumo, Kenya's assistant justice minister, said that like Norway and Switzerland, he thought it was a mistake to walk out. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, should not overshadow the work the conference needs to do on racism. "The conflict can't be resolved here. It is an issue for another day," he said. Israel, he contended, should have come to the conference, and it should not have recalled its ambassador. Cheptumo said he did not agree with Iran, but it had a right to speak, and it was proper for countries to sit and listen. Those who had walked out, he said, represented all those who disagreed with Iran but remained. "Don't be scared of the fact that people remained here," he said, adding that if countries like his had not stayed, the others could not have left. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a note Tuesday thanking those nations that boycotted the Geneva conference. "This decision restored a bit of sanity to a world in which an anti-racism conference turns its stage over to a Holocaust denier who expresses his desire to wipe Israel off the map," the note said, according to his office. The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Tuesday continued to condemn the Geneva conference. "The image that will be remembered from Durban II is not the battle against racism, but Ahmadinejad opening the conference to a walkout of the free countries," said ministry spokesman Yossi Levy. Ahmadinejad has publicly denied the Holocaust multiple times and called for Israel's destruction. Allowing a Holocaust denier to deliver a keynote address at the conference caused irreparable harm to the anti-racism agenda, Levy insisted. "Recognizing the Jewish Holocaust is one of the moral assets of the world. What happened to the Jews was not about the Jews. It was a red light to all humanity," he warned. Levy criticized "those 80 states or so who didn't leave the room" during Ahmadinejad's speech. "They allowed Iran, Malaysia, North Korea and Sudan - the worst regimes in the world - to hijack the human rights issue and prevent the UN from dealing with it honestly," he said. According to Levy, "the greatest loser in Geneva is the Third World. Tens of millions of women were forcibly circumcised in Africa; entire cities destroyed in Darfur; tribes sold into slavery. There are places, including Iran and Gaza, where homosexuals are hanged publicly in the streets. There are countries, including in the Muslim world, where women who are raped are then executed for adultery. Israel doesn't need a conference against racism. It is the Third World that needs it." Holocaust survivor, Nobel Prize winner and renowned author Elie Wiesel called on the UN to apologize for having asked Ahmadinejad to come. In past press conferences, however, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that although she objected to the speech, Iran as a UN member had a right to address the assembly. The UN on Tuesday said that Ahmadinejad had actually dropped language from the speech that described the Holocaust as "ambiguous and dubious." The UN and the Iranian Mission in Geneva did not comment on why the change had been made. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, said he had met with the Iranian president before his speech Monday and reminded him the UN had adopted resolutions "to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust." Ahmadinejad may have decided to drop the Holocaust phrase from his original text to deliver his condemnation of Israel in a more palatable fashion. The original text of his speech said that "following World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust." UN spokeswoman Marie Heuze said UN officials had checked back with the interpreters and the Farsi recording of Ahmadinejad's speech, and determined that the Iranian president had dropped the terms "ambiguous and dubious," referring instead in Farsi to "the abuse of the question of the Holocaust." Adding to the confusion, the live English translation of the speech did not mention the word "Holocaust" at all, while the French stayed true to the spoken words of Ahmadinejad. The English translator was apparently following the prepared text and stopped speaking when the Iranian president changed the wording. In Teheran, some 200 people gathered at the airport to give Ahmadinejad a hero's welcome as he returned home. Iranian state TV described him as having defended Palestinian rights against a racist regime. The official IRNA news agency quoted lawmaker Muhammad Reza Bahonar as saying that Ahmadinejad's speech in Geneva was a "great achievement for [Iran's ruling] system." AP contributed to this report.