US attendance at Durban II still in balance

By Nathan Guttman, February 26, 2009

As the Obama administration attempted to engage with organisers of the UN World Conference against Racism this week, a troubling picture emerged of the resolutions expected to be adopted at the conference.

The April event (dubbed Durban II after the first conference, held in South Africa in 2001) has been high on the agenda of Jewish leaders and Israeli diplomats for more than a year, as they worry it will serve once again as a platform for accusations against Israel of racism.

While the Bush administration was leaning towards boycotting Durban II, scheduled to take place in Geneva, President Obama and his team are exercising their new approach of engaging with all sides before making policy decisions.

Last week, the administration sent a mission to Geneva for preparatory discussions with organisers of the conference. The US diplomats announced a decision on attendance at the conference would be based on the results of the talks.

In an attempt to ease concerns raised by this decision, seen by some as a step toward legitimising the conference, senior US officials convened a conference call with Jewish leaders in which they assured them the US would participate only if the language of proposed resolutions underwent significant changes. The call was attended by senior policy makers from the White House, State Department and National Security Council.

Jewish activists participating in the call agreed later that there were no signs President Obama would cave in. “The key is what happens if they are not successful in changing the course of the conference,” said William Daroff, head of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities. “In that case, the US should withdraw from the conference vehemently and vocally.”

Early drafts of the resolutions for the conference indicated that the atmosphere will indeed be similar to that of the 2001 event. The draft resolutions argued that Israel’s rule over the West Bank was “based on racial discrimination” and called the occupation a “contemporary form of apartheid”.

The Obama administration is expected to review the issue in coming days and weeks.

Jewish officials said they did not believe that American participation in the preparatory talks had led to any change in the outlines of the conference.

They maintain that in that eventuality, they hope for a US boycott of the event as well as a plea from Washington to its European allies to withdraw as well.

Last updated: 1:26pm, February 26 2009