London (CNSNews.com) - Israeli and Jewish leaders are meeting in London this week to plan a strategy to counter attempts by Arab and Muslim nations to place the Mideast conflict onto the agenda of an international conference on racism in August, a move that has prompted warnings that the U.S. may stay away.
The State Department has made it clear that Washington's participation in the United Nations' conference against "racism, xenophobia and related intolerance" is tied to the resolution of several problematic issues, including the Middle East one and calls for reparations for slavery.
During the preparatory process leading up to the conference in Durban, South Africa, Asian nations led by Iran added to draft documents references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They accused Israel of pursuing racist policies, seeking to revive the argument that Israel's very existence as a Jewish state in racist.
Clauses proposed for the conference accuse Israel of violating human rights, practicing a "new kind of apartheid" and of being a threat to international peace and security.
Israel and Jewish organizations see this as attempt by hostile states to hijack the conference, by casting Israel as the world's primary racist power today.
David Schneeweiss, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London, confirmed Israel's deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, would take part in meetings with representatives of leading Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and World Jewish Congress.
"We will discuss the issues and develop a way of dealing with the challenges that some of these issues raised at preparatory conferences have put on our table," he said.
"We take this stuff seriously. Israeli finds itself being bashed up in international forums left, right and center. It's bad enough when it's Israel-bashing, but when it begins to take on dimensions of anti-Semitism [Israel] can't just take it on the chin and say, they don't like us. We have to act in the best interests not just of Israel but also of Jews around the world."
Attempts to equate the political situation in the Middle East today with the Holocaust, Schneeweiss said, were the actions of people who were "destroying history in a most obscene manner" and pursuing "political objectives very inimical to Israeli and Jewish interests."
In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution spearheaded by the Arab bloc and backed by developing nations equating Zionism with racism, a step the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Daniel P. Moynihan, called "obscene."
The U.S. boycotted two previous U.N. racism conferences, in Geneva in 1978 and 1983, because of the "Zionism = racism" resolution. It was only eventually voted off the resolution list in 1991, although without the support of the Arab states.
The evident collapse of the Oslo peace process and the Palestinian uprising which has been raging since last September have lent weight to a campaign to reintroduce it.
Israel's ambassador to South Africa, Tova Herzl, said that however worrying the conflict in the Middle East, "you have to ask yourself, what's it got to do with racism? Of all the conflicts in the world they going to spend time on this one?"
Herzl said by phone from Pretoria she and other Israeli diplomats around the world were discussing the concerns with host governments.
"Because this is the convening country, this has come up in a great many of my conversations in South Africa," she added.
"When you say Zionism is racist, basically you're undermining the right of Israel to exist," Herzl said. " If the philosophy on which Israel is based is racist, it's an illegitimate state."
She suspected that many countries - including perhaps a country like Japan which is part of the Asian group - "don't actually recognize the implications" of the move.
Other concerns Israel and Jewish groups share about the conference include attempts to have "anti-Semitism" removed from a short list of forms of racism, and the decision to refer to "holocausts" rather than "the Holocaust."
"It takes us back to the bad old U.N. days," Herzl said. "Imagine anti-Semitism relegated to nothing in a racism conference? And 'Holocaust' has been turned into 'holocausts' - [like] they're all the same? It's really very unfortunate."
One observer in South Africa close to the process said the government was being pulled in many directions. Israel and the U.S. were upset about the Israeli references. There was also pressure from Europe and the U.S. over another major issue of dispute, relating to African calls for compensation for slavery.
South Africa currently chairs the Non-Aligned Movement - a grouping of developing nations, including six countries designated "terror sponsors" by the State Department as well as others hostile to the West - and is getting pressure from that quarter as well.
South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said after talks with administration officials in Washington last week that the issue of Zionism was not going to be easy to resolve.
"The Zionism issue is more serious and more difficult," she said. "South Africa understands their fears, and we would be keen that whatever comes out of the conference around the Middle East does not widen the divisions, but tries to look at a way of bringing people closer together."
A report from South Africa cited sources close to the Washington talks as saying the Bush administration had told the South Africans the U.S. would boycott the entire conference if Zionism stayed on the agenda.
Slavery Reparations, Mideast Politics Dog Preparations For U.N. Racism Conference (Jun 29, 2001)