Obama Durban II decision disappoints Jewish right, international left

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

It looks like President Obama has, in one stroke, disappointed the international left and the Jewish right, both of which were expecting, hoping or both that he would change his mind and send a delegation to this week’s Durban II conference.  (Read the full State Department statement here)

Last week  hardline pro-Israel activists were calling around with ominous warnings: the administration, they said, was getting set to reverse its earlier decision to boycott the followup to the 2001 Durban conference on racism and xenophobia after a failed effort to convince participating nations to focus on..well, racism and xenophobia, not Israel.

Obama was just looking for an excuse to get back on board the Durban bandwagon, the right-wingers warned.  Their proof: the fact the administration didn’t say  “we will never return, no matter what.”

What the Jewish right deliberately ignored  is that the administration set out a clear policy on Durban II back in February and stuck to it despite pressure from both sides in the debate over U.S. participation and despite the predictable maneuvering of conference planners.

The international left, of course, wanted to see U.S. participation as well –  not because there is any possibility a conference that includes Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a speaker will help produce a more just and peaceful world, but because U.S. participation would be a slap in the face of that nasty old Israel lobby.

They, too, misread the new administration.

President Obama appears to be serious about reengaging in various UN programs and agencies, but not at the cost of endorsing those who see the UN’s sole function as an international forum for pounding Israel.

What this week’s State Department action looks like is something we haven’t seen much of in recent years: consistency.

In February the administration decided to reverse Bush administration policy on Durban II and send a delegation to planning meetings, saying it is important to U.S. interests and to the effort to craft a more multilateral foreign policy to make an honest effort to reform a process corrupted by anti-Israel forces.

It did so, and then it did what it said it would do if reform failed: it pulled out of the Durban process only weeks later, when the working documents for the meeting did not change sufficiently.

It left the door open a  crack, saying that its conditions still applied – meaning that a genuine last-minute change in the content of the conference might cause them to reconsider.  But it didn’t fall for the predictable feint when planners took out much of the anti-Israel language from planning documents, but retained an official endorsement of the disastrous 2001 conference – a dead giveaway that the  Durban review conference, too, would be an  anti-Israel fest.

So over the weekend the administration announced its final decision: no Durban II after doing everything it could to divert planners from turning the conference into a rerun of Durban I.

The Jewish right lost what it thought would be a great new piece of ammunition in its endless battle to portray the Obama administration as hopelessly anti-Israel; the international left lost what it expected would be a diplomatic punch in Israel’s nose and a slap at the pro-Israel lobby.

And the rest of the pro-Israel community has to wrap its collective mind around something it’s not used to: a  president who sets pretty clear markers for foreign policy change and then sticks to them.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.