- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat helped open the U.N. World Conference Against Racism yesterday with an attack on Israel for "racial discrimination" and "ethnic cleansing," as Mideast grievances dominated the first sessions of the huge, contentious gathering.
Speaking on the first day of the eight-day conference, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority received a respectful reception from the delegates, spoke on a panel discussion for presidents and prime ministers, and joined in a group photo for those of senior minister rank and above.
Israeli "brutality and arrogance are moved by a mentality of superiority that practices racism and racial discrimination, that adopts ethnic cleansing," Mr. Arafat charged, addressing an audience that included Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Congo President Joseph Kabila.
With Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his top deputies staying home, the United States has sent a delegation of 49 lower-level diplomats here to try to keep anti-Israeli language out of the official conference documents.
Signaling its displeasure with the direction the conference was heading, Washington put a junior official — John Blaney, charge d'affaires in the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria — in its lead delegate's seat for the opening speeches, with instructions not to speak.
Canada, Israel and a number of European countries also have sent lower-level delegations to register their unhappiness with the conference.
Mr. Arafat's harsh remarks came despite efforts by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to tone down the rhetoric.
His comments came after the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in this South African coastal city as a private observer, announced that he had reached an understanding with Palestinian officials to drop language equating Zionism with racism — the heart of the U.S. and Israeli complaint about the gathering.
Palestinian officials accused Mr. Jackson of being "overzealous" yesterday, saying Mr. Arafat is still pressing for a conference resolution condemning Israel. Several Arab nations back a resolution equating Israel's treatment of the Palestinians with the treatment of blacks under apartheid in South Africa.
"Palestine is suffering abhorrent racism, severe hatred and colonialism," Mr. Arafat said yesterday. "I want this conference to say what is right."
Mr. Arafat made his remarks despite diplomatic signals that the Palestinian leader and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres may meet next week to try to tone down months of fighting on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Italian government is trying to set up the meeting.
Hours earlier, Mr. Annan had told diplomats that singling out one group as racist makes it a potential target for retaliation and persecution in its turn.
"The Jewish people have been victims of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and in Europe they were the target of the Holocaust — the ultimate abomination. This fact must never be forgotten or diminished," Mr. Annan said in his opening address to the conference, which runs through next weekend.
"It is understandable, therefore, that many Jews deeply resent any accusation of racism directed against the state of Israel — and all the more so when it coincides with indiscriminate and totally unacceptable attacks on innocent civilians," Mr. Annan said.
But Mr. Annan said that Palestinians "cannot be expected to accept [the Holocaust] as a reason why the wrongs done to them — displacement, occupation, blockade and now extrajudicial killings — should be ignored."
But his message of moderation has been largely lost in the conference, which at times has turned into a free-for-all of opposing grievances and angry statements of victimhood.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, the conference host, painted a bleak picture of a world split between rich whites and poor blacks.
"It became necessary that we convene … because, together, we recognized the fact there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white," Mr. Mbeki said.
"Their cultures and traditions are despised as savage and primitive and their identities denied," he added.
About 10,000 demonstrators, protesting everything from Israeli polices to land redistribution in South Africa to the lot of the untouchables in India, marched through the streets of Durban yesterday.
Some 16,000 people have converged here, a seaside resort town on the Indian Ocean, for all or part of the racism conference. There are 2,119 delegates representing 153 nations; 2,911 accredited advocates of human rights, African empowerment, international law and related organizations; and roughly 250 U.N. Secretariat staffers. Their work is being covered by 1,140 reporters, editors and technicians around the world.
The Israelis, after threatening to boycott the proceedings over the anti-Zionist language in conference documents, have shown up with a delegation of 23 persons.
They are scheduled to address the conference this weekend.
Most governments have sent only midlevel delegations.
Mr. Annan implored delegates to come together.
"If we leave here without agreement, we give comfort to the worst element in society," Mr. Annan said. If an agreement is reached, "we shall send a signal of hope to brave people who struggle against racism all over the world."

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