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The United Nations and Israel

Learning the Lessons of Durban for Johannesburg

By GERALD M. STEINBERG - August 8, 2002

The good and great of the world have begun to gather in Johannesburg, South Africa for the grandiosely named (and extravagantly funded) "UN World Summit on Sustainable Development." The agenda is packed with discussions on important issues: preventing environmental destruction; the impact of globalization on underdeveloped economies; and human security.

However, behind the formal agenda, some of the participants from the Arab and Islamic countries and their supporters have more sinister objectives. Based on the experience at the Durban conference "against racism" that took place almost a year ago, this UN-sponsored mega-event may be seen as another opportunity for spreading propaganda and furthering the demonization of Israel.

The Durban conference was a debacle, and the ostensibly anti-racist venue was abused to spread anti-Israel propaganda and anti-Semitism.

Although the US government had the fortitude to boycott this travesty, and Canada belatedly denounced the abuses, the presence and active participation of representatives from Europe and other countries provided the fa ade of legitimacy to racism. The wealthy and powerful non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that participated in Durban such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam have also been forced by to explain their role in promoting the hatred and incitement that is used to justify terrorism. Similarly, the outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, will be remembered primarily for her contribution to the fiasco at Durban.

Based on what they see as their achievements in Durban, some Arab and Islamic representatives and the participants in the unofficial NGO sessions have prepared a propaganda campaign for the Johannesburg meeting. They again hope that even the most ridiculous charges will gain acceptance and media attention, and propel their propaganda efforts.

For example, as in the past, Israeli "occupation" can be expected to be blamed for depriving the Palestinians of health care, while the absence of investment in medical services and Arafat's rejection of any cooperation with Israel in social services are ignored. Another approach may be to accuse the "Sharon government" of destroying the Palestinian economic infrastructure, and conveniently forgetting the rampant corruption among Arafat and his cronies.

Under the heading of food security, a recent report on Palestinian malnutrition, funded by the US government and conducted by Al-Quds University, mixed medical data with political propaganda. The report charged that Israeli military "closures" and other actions were responsible for impeding food shipments, but as always, failed to mention the link between the Palestinian terror campaign and the necessary Israeli responses. This biased report is likely to be cited in the Johannesburg meeting, along with claims that Israel is stealing "Palestinian water" and using "Palestinian lands" to dump toxic chemicals and untreated waste water, in contrast to the reality in which the Palestinians are responsible for most of the pollution.

Continuing with the themes developed for Durban, the anti-Israeli lobby may also use the heading of human security to shift the focus from Palestinian terror attacks to accusations of "Israeli human rights abuses" against Palestinian civilians. If propaganda is allowed to dominate, the curfews that are imposed on Palestinians cities and other actions that have been used to fight terrorism, will be taken out of context and displayed as examples of Israeli "violations of international treaties and conventions."

AT THE same time, there are some important differences between Durban and Johannesburg, and these scenarios may not materialize. The Durban theme of "racism" lent itself more readily to politicization, and the protocols and declarations were prepared at the preliminary meetings in Teheran from which Israel and Jewish organizations were, of course, excluded. In this case, the preparatory meetings did not produce politicized or anti-Israel resolutions and the efforts to introduce these themes are unlikely to gain the support that they received last year. Many participating countries, such as Canada and some of the Europeans, as well as some of the NGOs, have belatedly recognized the tremendous cost resulting from the Durban disaster, and will seek to avoid a replay. While large demonstrations against globalization and in favor of political causes including the Palestinians can be expected, the anti-Israel message may be lost in the chaos.

In addition, after Durban, the Israeli government and the Jewish NGOs are better prepared to fend off these propaganda attacks. A consortium of Jewish groups has been established in preparation for this event, and the South African community is helping to provide logistical and other assistance. The abysmal performance of the Arab and Islamic states from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, in terms of environmental policies, sustainable development, and human security, leave them very vulnerable to serious investigation. The distribution of detailed reports on these failures may help to shift the focus to their sins, and make it more difficult to engage in Israel-bashing.

The WSSD is also an additional opportunity to discern the intentions and analyze the behavior of the Arab "peace camp," including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. In particular, if the Saudi representatives follow the pattern of contributing to and leading the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, the peace initiative introduced by Crown Prince Abdullah and endorsed by the Arab League in Beirut will be seen, again, as a meaningless exercise without any substantive importance.

Thus, while the Johannesburg summit incorporates many of the dangers that were on display at Durban, there is also some hope that lessons have been learned, and that this meeting will not be turned into a farce. The world, including Jews and Israelis, will be watching carefully to see if the "international community" can avoid pandering to the persistent efforts to exploit every such gathering for anti-Israeli propaganda. The time for an end to this behavior is long overdue and perhaps Johannesburg will mark the first step towards restoring the moral authority of the UN and the NGOs that work with this organization.

The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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