- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

NEW YORK — An Arab-sponsored text for an upcoming U.N. conference condemns Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as a "crime against humanity." It threatens to derail the entire conference.
The statement, suggesting a moral equivalency between the settlements and the Holocaust, is inserted in the weighty document that more than 180 nations will debate at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, which begins late next month in Durban, South Africa.
To the United States and Israel, it smacks of earlier U.N. resolutions equating Zionism and racism, which was part of official U.N. dogma from 1975 until its repeal in 1991.
Insertion of the language "has turned the conference against racism into a racist conference against Israel," said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior in an interview with The Washington Times.
"There is an attempt from the Arab countries to make this a major step in the total delegitimization of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish faith," said Rabbi Melchior after meetings with the White House, State Department and lawmakers.
According to diplomats who have seen the most recent draft text for Durban, negotiated earlier this month in Geneva, Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas are labeled as a "foreign occupation" and a "crime against humanity." They are also compared to the apartheid policies of South Africa's past.
The United States has begun pressuring its allies through diplomatic channels to remove the language at a preconference meeting starting next week in Geneva.
But U.S. officials declined to say how many of their traditional allies will go along. "It's not as simplistic as Zionism equals racism," said a U.S. official. "That's old-speak, they don't use that any longer.
"This is harsh language about Israel and Israeli policies," added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said that if the proponents of the language persist, "the world conference itself could be badly destabilized."
The official also stressed that the United Nations itself should not be blamed for the language, which is sponsored by a group of Arab nations who are using the U.N. conference to score political points. Several U.N. officials have denounced the paragraphs.
The Europeans are also uneasy about the language, saying the Durban conference is not the place for country-specific condemnations.
"The sorts of proposals we are seeing for language at Durban, for example equating Zionism with racism, would be completely unacceptable even if we were to deal with country-specific issues," said a European diplomat. "Durban is an opportunity to tackle racial issues constructively. This type of inflammatory language goes in exactly the opposite direction."
However, the 15-nation European Union bloc has been willing to condemn human rights violations and Israeli policies in the region, often going further than Washington would like.
The European diplomat said this week that the common E.U. position was to condemn racism, rather than its supposed practitioners. But some American officials are concerned that Europe, still trying to find a role in the Middle East, is proceeding too cautiously.
The Arab League says its members are increasingly concerned about the daily violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
"Zionism is a racist theory that the Arab League will support any condemnation of," said Ali Abbas, the league's deputy U.N. ambassador in New York. He said that Arab states are willing to be flexible on some of the text, "but not on the problem of settlements."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson have also opposed an explicit condemnation of Israel at the conference.
Mrs. Robinson, visiting Washington late last month, appealed to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to attend the conference, which is threatening to turn into a low-level gathering instead of the high-profile event originally envisioned.
"I've made it very clear that are opposed to and want to do everything I can to stop any question of a theme of Zionism as racism that was something that was dealt with in the past," Mrs. Robinson said in a recent interview.
"It will be totally inappropriate to reopen something that would be both hurtful and divisive and prevent the Durban conference from making any kind of progress."
South Africa's ambassador to Egypt, Frank Mdlalose, warned an Arab meeting in Cairo last week that language in the present version of the text could derail the Durban conference.
South Africa, as the host of the conference and chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, is under enormous international pressure to build consensus between various blocs.
The anti-Israeli language is the latest in a number of seemingly intractable obstacles to the conference, which is slated for Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.
Washington has indicated that unless specific language is deleted it will consider boycotting the conference or at least sending a delegation of very low rank. But the Israelis said they will be there one way or another.
"You say it is only words, but we have a lot of respect for language," Rabbi Melchior said. "We only exist for a word from God. We've seen what words create. Auschwitz began with words, same as all forms of racism. It all began with hatred and incitement and developed into physical attacks."

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