If you thought the US veto was only effective in the UN security council, think again. It is just as useful at international conferences, as the Palestinians found in Durban.
Having decided to attend the world’s first gathering on racism for 18 years, Israel and the US then decided to make good their earlier threats by pulling up their tent and leaving. Like a schoolboy who runs off with the football because his team-mates won’t let him be captain, they stormed off huffing and puffing that they shouldn’t be discussing Zionism and reparations for slavery. They had already persuaded the European Union, Canada, Australia and others to do their bidding. It was a masterstroke. With the US and Israel gone, the blame for any failure at the conference could be laid to the “intransigence” of the Arab/Muslim bloc.
The stratagem worked. Rather than leave the field and risk being called spoilsports, the Arab and Muslim regimes decided to play by the new rules. Needless to say, from a starting position that condemned Israel for its apartheid policies, and Zionism as inherently racist, and called for acts of genocide to be punished, they soon descended to a vague shoulder-shrugging recognition of “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation”. It was another demonstration of the kind of gesture-politics that Muslim countries have routinely played with Palestine. Of course the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (there were reportedly objections from Syria, Iran and Iraq) put the best possible gloss on its decision, calling it an act of compromise necessary to save the conference from collapse and spare the blushes of its South African hosts.
The Palestinians will no doubt be dancing in the streets at this great example of Muslim selflessness and magnanimity. They must also be thumbing their English dictionaries for the word “compromise”. Mine defines it as “settlement by mutual concessions”. This agreement can only be described as a climbdown — a capitulation, if you’re really being honest.
But then maybe it was rather optimistic to expect the Arab regimes to restore an equivalence they have done more than anyone else to undermine. In 1975 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. It stood until the second Gulf war (1991), when, as the price for American assistance to keep Saddam Hussein from their palace gates, the Middle Eastern sheikhs helped to vote it down. In any event, given that the 1975 resolution failed to advance Palestinian rights for the 16 years it was in place, it follows that whatever was established in Durban was only ever going to be of symbolic value.
What was more important was to win the media war. For years the Zionist lobby has controlled how its conflict with the Muslim and Arab world is presented, exploiting it to propagate the fallacy that criticism of the ideology on which the state of Israel is founded is the same as attacking Jews. The charge of anti-semitism has been levelled at anybody who dares to distinguish between the two. What the international contingent of Zionist lobbyists in Durban did not foresee was the appearance of three Orthodox rabbis making common cause with Arab and Muslim NGOs. The rabbis had come from New York, delegates of the Neturei Karta order of Jews. The group, numbering tens of thousands, believes that the conception of Israel as a national homeland for the Jews is an evil because it both pre-empts and perverts the role of the expected Messiah.
The rabbis’ presence was the idea of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission. Because it was a novelty, it was lapped up by the international press. Dressed in traditional Homburgs and pig-tails, the rabbis accompanied Muslim leaders around the conference, to demonstrations and to media interviews, taking centre stage to expound their simple message: anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are not the same thing. One rabbi even embraced the father of Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead by Israeli soldiers while he and his father crouched for cover behind a tiny water barrel at an intersection in Ghazzah at the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
If only the progress made in PR had been carried over to other areas. One lesson Muslim delegates will have to learn is the need to coordinate their activities. Of the scores of Muslim NGOs in Durban few knew each other, let alone what they were doing. The net effect was duplication and dissipation of effort.
Another lesson is that ‘NGOs’ from repressive countries are not the best champions of human rights, as the medical delegation from Iraq proved. Describing the deadly impact of UN sanctions and the use of depleted uranium in the second Gulf war (1991), the Iraqi physicians could not find words to criticise the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein on his own people, no doubt from fear of becoming his next victims on their return home. Human-rights work is best left to those who are free to pursue it with some consistency.