Israel keeps low profile ahead of Durban II

Israeli officials say laying low is justified, as there's no sign of change in the conference's tone.

durban anti-israel 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
durban anti-israel 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The seeds for more Israel bashing were sown in Geneva this week, during planning meetings ahead of the US's 2009 anti-racism conference, Israeli officials said. Concerned that 2009's meeting could go the way of 2001's conference, held in Durban, South Africa, which focused exclusively on criticizing the Jewish state, Israel decided this week to keep a low profile at the planning conference. As of Thursday, Israeli officials said they felt that laying low was justified, as they saw no change in the tone of the conference, even as they held out hope that future planning meetings would take a different tack. Israel, along with the US, walked out of the 2001 to protest the extent to which anti-Israel nongovernmental groups had dominated the debate on Israel, with statements that equated Zionism with racism. Israel and UN watch dogs have stated their objection to Monday's vote in the opening session to confirm Libya as chair of the preplanning committee, Cuba as assistant chair and Iran as one of the 20 participating states. Votes in the preplanning conference this week, which ends Friday, have been open to all 192 UN member countries. On Monday, Pakistan called for the 2009 conference, dubbed Durban II, to focus on the plight of Palestinians. A number of countries also spoke of expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to cover all Semitic people, i.e. Arabs. Still, the bulk of the discussions focused on sweeping human rights statements and procedural matters, such as the venue for the conference and the parameters for NGO participation. "This week has not been comparable in any way to the hate fest we saw in September 2001," said Hillel Neuer, who is the executive director of the Geneva-based group, UN Watch. "This is only the organizational session, and we shouldn't compare an organizational session to the final events that happened in 2001," he added. Shimon Samuels, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's director for international liaison in Paris, said the absence of nongovernmental organizations from this week's forum had helped. In Durban I, the most virulent anti-Israel language and proposals came from the NGO's, he said. The formal declaration that emerged in 2001 was relatively mild in tone, and discussions by member states have stayed mostly on target, with talk of the larger issues of racism and xenophobia. Islamic countries have pushed to re-open the 2001 Durban declaration to include provisions for new forms of religious based racism that specifically targets Muslims, such as Islamophobia. They have also protested the racial profiling that some Western countries employ to combat terrorism. The UN General Assembly has mandated that the 2009 conference stay within the guidelines of the original Durban I declaration. In Jerusalem, Labor MK Michael Melchior, who was the deputy foreign minister in 2001, and in charge of Israel's participation in Durban I, said he didn't believe that the original Durban had been a total failure. "The official Durban conference was a turning point and a success for Israel and the Jewish people," said Melchior. "While it's true the sessions were dominated by anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric, particularly from nongovernmental groups, most of those elements were absent from the final action plan that emerged from the conference." In the final 61 page summary document and action plan, Israel and the Palestinians are only mentioned twice. The document called for a Palestinian state, but at the same time recognized Israel's right to security. It also called for a resumption of the peace process so that both Israel and the Palestinians could prosper in freedom and security. "While I wouldn't say the final statement was perfect, it was very different from what had been planned," said Melchior. The Durban process was not a lost cause, Melchior said.