Israel Decision to Pullout of the U.N. Conference on Racism
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, to today’s decision by the United States and Israel to walk out of the UN Conference on Racism. The pullout culminates weeks of controversy over a proposed conference resolution that seeks to equate Zionism with racism. Secretary of State Colin Powell decided late last week not to attend, but did send a lower-level delegation. Today he withdrew them as well. I talked by phone late this afternoon with Doug Blackmon, who’s covering the conference in Durban for the Wall Street Journal. Doug, thanks for joining us. Tell us, how did the conference get word today that the U.S. and Israel were pulling out?
DOUG BLACKMON: Well, late this afternoon, U.S. Representative Tom Lantos from California suddenly appeared in the media room here at the conference, and held an impromptu press conference saying that the U.S. was pulling out. And it was another 15 or 20 minutes after that before Secretary of State Powell’s statement came out from Washington.
MARGARET WARNER: And what led to this? I mean, we know there have been efforts to come up with some sort of compromise, but why did the U.S. pull the plug this soon?
DOUG BLACKMON: Well, it’s a little bit difficult to say precisely, and there’s some disagreement about that. Obviously, the running dispute has been over language in these resolutions, which equated Zionism and racism, and other similar sorts of criticisms of Israel. What was happening today was that there was a proposed compromise on the table that had been developed by the delegation from Norway, and was being called the Norwegian formula. That had gotten a good deal of support from the U.S. Delegation and also from the Israelis. It’s not clear exactly what that language was, but then at some point in the afternoon, obviously the negotiations over that language foundered and the U.S. pulled out. But it may not be really as simple as that, and there are a lot of parties who maintain that the U.S. Was also concerned about staying through the end of the conference and facing issues having to do with slavery reparations and more domestic questions that have also been controversial during the conference. And there are those who charge that that’s the reason that the U.S. has pulled out as well, Jesse Jackson being the most outspoken of those.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little bit more about the reaction.
DOUG BLACKMON: Well, delegates are abuzz about it, obviously, and there’s a great deal of criticism flying toward the United States, and also some recriminations among delegates and among some of the advocacy groups that are here. There was a bit of a spontaneous protest made up mostly of Americans right after the announcement was made. Those were primarily activists pushing for reparations for slavery to be a part of the conference resolutions. And there have been… There’s been fairly strong criticism of the United States from a number of other national delegations and governments, like the government of South Africa and several others.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back to the compromise and its foundering. The way you described it, it sounded as if the U.S. and Israel had… were at least ready to support this compromise, and it was the Arab states that weren’t. Did you mean to say that? Is that what happened?
DOUG BLACKMON: Well, I think something along those lines happened, but what we don’t know is exactly what that compromise was. Representative Lantos had said early in the day that he had reviewed the Norwegian proposal and found it satisfactory, but that it was, as he put it, “the final language” that he could live with, meaning that if there was any change whatsoever to the language, that he would not support the U.S. delegation remaining through the end of the conference.
MARGARET WARNER: Doug, implicit in your discussion about the compromise is that if the U.S. couldn’t get a compromise and it went to an up-or-down vote, the U.S. would have lost. Is that the case?
DOUG BLACKMON: Presumably that’s a fair inference. But there’s also a symbolic element to all of this that I think can’t be overlooked, and that is that the U.S. has made it clear in the months leading up to this and over the past two weeks that it did not wish to be engaged in a kind of open, acrimonious debate in which the kinds of charges about the Israelis which have been leveled were part of the discussion. And the U.S. has been harshly criticized by some parties for an unwillingness to discuss, not just an unwillingness to consider adopting language. And so I think part of this also was a… There was some symbolism in all of this as well, in that the U.S. was making a very clear statement that whether it could win the vote or not, it wasn’t going to engage in a continuing discussion in which the Israelis were being branded as an apartheid, racist state.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And briefly, where does the conference go from here now?
DOUG BLACKMON: Well, it proceeds, and there are another five days, another four days of negotiations and drafting will happen. And at the end of that, presumably there’ll be a vote on a resolution and a plan of action, and all of that will now happen without the participation of the Israelis or the U.S.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Doug Blackmon, thanks very much.
DOUG BLACKMON: Thank you.