War of Words — lots of them — over Durban II and the Obama administration

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Debate continues to rage in Jewish circles over the upcoming Durban II conference on racism, which is shaping up as a rerun of a 2001 meeting dominated by vehement criticism of Israel that sometimes boiled over into outright anti-Semitism.

The Bush administration decided to boycott the Durban review conference, scheduled for April, but the new Obama administration, eager to seek new diplomatic openings, sent a delegation to preliminary meetings to see if it could change its direction. When that was unsuccessful, the White House announced that the United States would not participate in Durban II.

Several Jewish groups criticized the initial decision to attend preliminary meetings; several others did not object to U.S. involvement, but praised the decision to pull out.

But that didn’t end the debate.

Earlier this week David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, responding to harsh attacks on his group for not condemning the initial administration move to send a delegation, posted a strongly worded Jerusalem Post blog criticizing the critics.  In response, some of them wrote an op-ed slamming Harris.

In the interests of open debate, here are the two in their entirety.

In the Trenches: Durban Diplomacy, Durban Delirium

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee

In a recent editorial, the New York weekly newspaper The Jewish Week applauded the Obama administration for doing “the right thing” by disengaging from the Durban II process in a way that could give our country “new clout in the struggle against pervasive anti-Israel bias in the international arena.”

Moreover, the editorial chided those who “have insisted from the outset that Obama harbors animosity to the Jewish state and have pounced on every pronouncement, every rumor as proof,” and noted “an element of sheer partisanship in the reaction.”

We at AJC have been on the receiving end of some of these scurrilous attacks. Why? Because we understood that, with the decision on Durban II handed from the Bush to the Obama administration, the new team would necessarily assess the process before making a final decision on the US role.

When a five-member official US delegation was sent last month to Geneva to compile a set of recommendations, AJC’s Felice Gaer was one of the participants. The group had over 30 meetings with key ambassadors and made crystal clear that any reference to Israel in the final document would be unacceptable to the US.

The trip itself, though, was red meat for a chorus of critics, led by writers Caroline Glick in Israel, Anne Bayefsky in the US and Melanie Phillips in the UK.

Their stunningly overheated rhetoric, perhaps the product of what might be called “Durban delirium,” may appeal to their devoted readers, but that’s about it.

Whether we like it or not, decisions about Durban II are made by elected officials and civil servants in capitals around the world. Verbal broadsides and fulminating fusillades may have a feel-good quality to them, but if we want to encourage potentially sympathetic nations to do the right thing, then their real-life impact is questionable.

Here’s a sample of what the columnists wrote: Phillips asserted in The Spectator: “Having voted this man into power, the AJC now has its head up Obama’s backside while he lends legitimacy and strength to those who wish to destroy the Jewish state and the free world – all the time pretending to themselves that they are helping to mitigate the damage [of Durban II].”

For the record, AJC is a strictly nonpartisan agency. Always has been, always will be. Just as the Obama team approached a colleague for the job in Geneva, the Bush team invited me to serve on the official US delegation to Durban I, which, of course, laudably ended up walking out of that hate-fest.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Glick stated: “AJC senior operative Felice Gaer is now a member of the US delegation in Geneva. Happily ensconced in the Swiss conference room where the Holocaust is denied, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is reviled, and Israel’s right to defend itself is rejected, Gaer now sits silently, all the while using the fact of her membership in the US delegation as proof that the Obama administration is serious about protecting Israel at Durban II. Whatever the AJC may have gained for its support for Durban II, Israel and its supporters have clearly been harmed.”

To suggest that Felice and the other members of the US delegation were “happily ensconced” in their Geneva meetings is simply preposterous, if not contemptible. Rather, they went from session to session making clear to diplomats, face to face, that the business-as-usual demonization of Israel and the Jewish people was totally unacceptable. End of story.

(Apropos, it was AJC that chaired the successful global campaign to support Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt in the outrageous and drawn-out libel case brought against her in a British court by Holocaust denier David Irving. So much for countenancing Holocaust denial.)

Both Phillips and Glick cited Anne Bayefsky in their writings. Meanwhile, she was insisting in Forbes that the US strategy regarding Durban II was “painfully obvious – spin out the time for considering whether or not to attend the April 20 conference until the train has left the station and jumping off would cause greater injury to multilateral relations than just taking a seat. The delay tactics are indefensible.”

Oops! Within a week of the group’s return, the Obama administration announced its withdrawal from the process – hardly a strategy to “spin out the time.”

In another blooper, Glick confidently predicted: “As Bayefsky and others argued this week, by entering into the Durban preparatory process, the US has… made it all but impossible for European states like France, Britain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, which were all considering boycotting the conference, to do so.”

The next week, Italy followed the US, and, judging from recent comments, others could do the same.

In sum, in their consequences-be-damned approach to Durban II, three well-known observers got it wrong.

They viciously lashed out at anyone who dared to disagree about tactics, irresponsibly questioned motives, incorrectly prophesied the US position and failed to see that European nations were now more, not less, likely to walk out because of the US strategy.

To become so blatantly and blindly partisan, and to irresponsibly and viciously accuse groups like AJC of cavorting with Holocaust deniers and doing willful damage to Israel, is, I’d say, deliriously over the top.

Durban II and the American Jewish Committee: A Response

Caroline Glick, Melanie Phillips and Anne Bayefsky

It stands to reason that that David Harris would be sensitive to criticism of the AJC’s participation in planning ‘Durban II’.

After all, by taking part in the Durban II planning process on a U.S. government delegation, AJC contemptuously ignored calls from  Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Minister Isaac Herzog for the United States government to stay away and announce it will not participate, period.  Israel’s priority, and the priority of much of the American Jewish community was to delegitimize the hatefest, not place an AJC representative on its planning committee.

The fact of the matter is that the only reason the US made a tactical retreat from the process was the pressure created by criticisms such as ours, along with protests made by Israel, Canada, and other American Jewish organizations and leaders.

For more than a year, the AJC has conducted an extensive lobbying campaign of the American government and of foreign governments to stay in Durban II. Under the guise of ever-shifting red lines (that in any incarnation Israel and the rest of the Jewish world understood were crossed long ago), AJC has caused great damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing.

Contrary to much misinformation, the fact of the matter is that the Obama administration has not made a final decision about whether it will attend Durban II. Its recent departure from the planning sessions in Geneva left the door open for cosmetic changes to the text of the conference declaration that, if made, would allow its negotiators to claim a spurious victory.

The key point which Harris chooses to ignore is that the agreed objective of Durban II is to reaffirm and implement the 2001 Durban Declaration. That document singles out Israel for censure and says that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism. Consequently any attempted sanitizing of the latest text will be worthless, since by definition the new Declaration will re-affirm the 2001 singling out and demonization of Israel.

Then too, Harris’s claim that the US’s tactical withdrawal from the planning sessions will make other nations more likely to walk away from Durban II is both incorrect and misleading. The ambiguity of the US’s current position has held back the Australians and the British from withdrawing since they do not want to be double-crossed by an Obama administration that eventually attends.  Absent a clear American stand, the French and the Germans are putting enormous pressure on Italy and the Netherlands not to break ranks with the rest of the EU – which have no intention of leaving.  Initial suggestions by both countries that they would not go are now in doubt.

Worse still, as a quid pro quo for its tactical retreat from Durban II, the US is on the verge of announcing that it will run for a seat (election is a foregone conclusion)  on the UN Human Rights Council – a move strongly advocated by none other than the AJC’s human rights institute.  By joining the UN Human Rights Council, the Obama administration will be legitimizing a body dedicated to the delegitimization of Israel.

It is shameful that the AJC has chosen to join this cynical and sinister process, whose outcome can only be to weaken Israel and strengthen her enemies. And it is outrageous that the AJC has sought to defend its participation in the process by attacking those who point out the consequences of its actions.

Caroline Glick is deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post; Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author of “Londonistan”;   Anne Bayefsky is director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and editor of www.EYEontheUN.org.

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.