Jewish groups hedge on Durban boycott

US organizations refuse to support Livni's call and opt for diplomacy to change summit's agenda.

Durban 248.88 ap (photo credit: )
Durban 248.88 ap
(photo credit: )
The American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations refused to unequivocally support a call by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for "all countries who care about Israel and oppose anti-Semitism" to boycott the second Durban Conference against Racism. On Tuesday, Livni held a conference call with Jewish organizations throughout the world. The participants discussed the foreign minister's statement of November 19, in which she declared that "Israel will not participate and will not legitimize the [Durban] review conference, which will be used as a platform for further anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic activity. We call upon the international community not to participate." Livni's call has been backed by American Jewish leaders including Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz and Bernard Lewis, who have called for an immediate and unconditional boycott of the conference. During the discussion, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice-President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, told Livni that the official position of the Conference was to call for "non-attendance under the current circumstances," the source said. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, denied the report and said it was "completely untrue." He told The Jerusalem Post that the full board of the Conference had voted last week to authorize the organization to call on the US government not to participate in Durban. Hoenlein said the organization was not explicitly calling for a boycott because it objected to the use of the word. "We don't like the word boycott because it conjures up a lot of connotations, especially vis a vis Israel," Hoenlein said, adding that the Conference had been in touch with both the Bush Administration and the Obama transition team about not participating and had previously expressed support for Israel's decision not to attend. Hoenlein said that if the Durban II agenda were changed the Conference might be willing to reverse its view. "But none of the indications so far are that it can be taken in that direction. We clearly see that all the red lines that have been enumerated by the Europeans have been violated," Hoenlein said. The president of the Conference, Harold Tanner, is the former head of the AJC. Current AJC executive director, David Harris, believes that it is too early to give up on Durban II. During a visit to Israel in March, Harris said the conference could still be salvaged. "We can't afford to declare Durban II lost without more focus on diplomacy, especially towards the European Union countries and others influenced by them." In September, a senior AJC official issued a similar statement. According to one allegation, the AJC is in contact with State Department officials who oppose boycotting the Durban conference. Israel and the US walked out of the first conference held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, after the governmental declaration equated Zionism with racism. The government conference was also preceded by a conference of NGOs from all over the world which turned into a hate fest against Israel. The NGO declaration accused Israel of apartheid and ethnic cleansing and called for a policy of totally isolating it, including cutting off all diplomatic, economic, social, and military links. Israel and Canada have already announced they will not attend the follow-up conference, nicknamed Durban 2, which is set to be held in Geneva in April. Livni announced the decision at a meeting of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in February. AJC Executive Director David Harris called the comments "malicious gossip" and "backstabbing," and called efforts to shame organizations into calling for a boycott "muscular posturing" at a time when organizations like the AJC are still pursuing diplomacy in hopes of changing the final Durban 2 agenda. "This is not about competitive concern; we're all concerned," he said. "If Durban 2 is going to happen it's going to have to look very different than it's appearing to look right now, and the one wild card in this is whether the Obama administration believes it can transform it by using its political capital and whether it wants to expend that capital." Harris said the AJC has not endorsed a boycott at this stage because the organization, which is affiliated with UN Watch in Geneva, is still trying to work out whether the red lines established by the Europeans have been violated before it calls for non-attendance. "If so we can go to the Europeans and say, ah-ha, by your own standards you should not participate," Harris said. "All of us want to proceed on the most solid ground possible." He said it is not yet clear how the Obama administration will approach the question. We are going to have to be very smart about how we handle it with them," Harris said. He flatly denied any knowledge of "shenanigans" in Washington on the Durban issue.