Israeli anger over anti-racism conference

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, left, greets Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following his arrival in Switzerland.
Israel pulled its ambassador from Switzerland on Monday to protest a planned address by Iran’s president at a controversial anti-racism conference.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman “have decided to call the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland back for consultations, in protest of the conference in Geneva, in which a racist and a Holocaust denier, who openly declares his intention of erasing Israel, is a guest,” Netanyahu’s office announced Monday. Withdrawing an ambassador is a sign of serious displeasure between countries. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the conference on Monday. He has said that the Holocaust is a myth, and Iran hosted a conference in 2006 questioning the Holocaust, in which about 6 million Jews were killed. The United States, among others, is refusing to send envoys to the Durban Review Conference. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights said Sunday that she regrets — and is “shocked” by — the United States’ decision to boycott. “I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States’ decision not to attend a conference that aims to combat racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance worldwide,” High Commissioner Navi Pillay said in a written statement.

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“A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance… These are truly global issues, and it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be,” she said. The U.S. State Department said Washington’s decision was based in part on a conference document that “singles out” Israel in its criticism and conflicts with the United States’ “commitment to unfettered free speech.” President Barack Obama noted Sunday that the United States had previously warned it would not attend the conference if the document was not sufficiently altered in advance. According to the State Department, the document contains language that “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” The language reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Programme of Actions from the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, which the United States has said it won’t support. Australia, Canada, Germany and Italy, among others, are also boycotting the conference. Poland announced Monday it too would pull out of the conference. Netanyahu on Monday praised the countries that refused to attend: “I congratulate the nations that boycotted the show of hate.” “Israel regrets that the conference … has once again become hostage to one-sided, non-constructive politicization and biased rhetoric,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, said in a statement Sunday. The problem, Obama said, was that the 2001 conference became “a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive.” The administration, he added, “expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you incorporated … all the language from 2001, that’s just not something we can sign up for. If we (can) have a clean start, a fresh start, we’re happy to go.” Obama said the United States hopes to partner with other countries “to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this (conference) wasn’t an opportunity to do it.” The head of the World Jewish Congress denounced the upcoming conference as a platform for anti-Semitism. “It has already become clear that the Durban Review Conference will become yet another platform within the United Nations for spreading anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda,” said the group’s president, Ronald Lauder. In recent weeks, discussions about the document have fueled several revisions, but the changes to the language didn’t meet U.S. expectations. Israel and the United States pulled out of the 2001 conference after it began, when Arab and Muslim delegations pushed for language equating Zionism with racism. The statement did not appear in the final resolution.