The US, Israel and the Durban Review Conference

By Stephen Greenberg · 24 Mar 2009

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Picture: Barack Obama
Picture: Barack Obama

The way Barack Obama handled Israel and the Middle Eastern crisis was always going to be a litmus test of his ability to really change mainstream politics in the US. However, recent events indicate his unwillingness - or incapacity - to take on the powers that be in Washington and to forge a new, honest direction in US politics. Notable amongst these events was the US administration's early March decision to boycott the UN's World Conference against Racism billed as the Durban Review Conference. Scheduled to take place in Geneva from 20-24 April 2009, it is a follow-up to the conference held in Durban in 2001.

The world - and the majority of US citizens - had hoped for real, meaningful change from the criminal, destructive, self-interested foreign policy that George Bush had forced onto the world in his globally disastrous eight years as US President. But initial indications are very mixed. Without doubt, the euphoria and hope that surrounded Obama's election victory have faded, and there is little expectation of a radical departure from business as usual in the White House.

It must be acknowledged that Obama has indicated his intention to shift policy in the Middle East and the so-called "war on terror" more to the centre: a better grasp on the importance of dialogue with other key actors in the Middle East, from Hamas (after all, they are the democratically elected authority in Gaza) to Iran, Syria and Hizbollah; the planned closure of the Guantanamo Bay camp; and a planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq (albeit very slowly and to be replaced by a bolstering of the military presence in Afghanistan). However, his administration, like those before it, seems to be held in thrall by the very powerful Israel lobby in Washington. 

Earlier this month his appointee for Chair of the US National Intelligence Council, Charlie Freeman, withdrew from the position as a result of a vicious smear campaign against him, for nothing more than comments he made in 2006 and 2007 about "Israeli violence against Palestinians" being a key barrier to Middle East peace. In withdrawing, Freeman blasted the Israel lobby as being behind the smear campaign. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a long-standing pro-Israeli lobby group that has wielded immense power over Presidents and senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties. A meticulously researched and referenced book on the Israel lobby, by professors John Mearsheimer (Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard), exposes the extent to which AIPAC has controlled US foreign policy towards Israel, increasingly to the detriment of both US and Israel's interests. Under the influence of this lobby, both Republican and Democratic Presidents have sponsored the growth of Israel's military capacity, downplayed and permitted Israel's flouting of UN resolutions, and protected Israel from censure in all fora, all at the cost of peace and security in the Middle East.

Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II. Between 1976 and 2004, Israel received over US$84bn in aid from the US, of which more than half was military aid. From 1998 economic aid was gradually phased out and replaced with purely military aid. Even when the US stated its opposition to settlement building in Gaza and the West Bank, it did not reduce Israel's military or economic grant aid. Over 20% of Israel’s defence budget is financed through foreign aid, and other forms of military co-operation with the US reinforce this link.

By all accounts, the Republican Party succeeded in its agenda of weaning pro-Zionist Jews away from the Democrats by “providing unflinching support for every Israeli atrocity”, says Tariq Ali in his masterful book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms. In his withdrawal statement, Freeman referred to the lobby as "unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country", harsh words indeed for a former ambassador. In the last decade the Israel lobby has become part of the neo-conservative bloc and is increasingly a pro-Likud lobby rather than a pro-Israeli lobby. They have allied with 'Christian Zionists' who believe that the removal of the Palestinians from around Jerusalem will pave the way for the second coming of Christ. In 1996 the International Christian Zionist Congress adopted a proclamation that "It would be further error for the nations to recognize a Palestinian state in any part of Eretz Israel [i.e. the territory matching the largest expanse of biblical Israel]". The involvement of Christian fundamentalists significantly strengthened the hand of the Israel lobby.

Meanwhile, the Israeli electorate have again chosen a hard line right-winger as a President. Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu opposes even a two-state solution, never mind contemplating Israelis and Palestinians living together in one state with equal rights. Instead Netanyahu, along with the extreme rightwing nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as his likely Foreign Minister, aim to continue with the policies of completely dissolving Gaza as a territory and of the 'ethnic cleansing' (i.e. genocide) of Palestinians.

AIPAC, as Likud's lobbyists in Washington, have managed to convince Obama’s administration to withdraw from the Durban II conference. Israel dominated the agenda in the first conference in Durban in 2001. The US and Israel walked out over a draft text calling Israel a racist and apartheid state. This text was later dropped. Nevertheless, Bush boycotted planning for Durban II.

Still, Israeli apartheid reappeared on the agenda at Durban II. This is not surprising, given that Israel's racist practices got substantially worse, such as the building of the 'Apartheid Wall', extreme violence, ongoing land theft, and illegal occupation and settlement. Israel and Canada (led by the ruling Conservative Party there) have boycotted the planning of Durban II. Obama’s administration returned to planning talks, but decided to boycott the conference, stating its opposition to any criticism of Israel, or to any text being brought to a vote at Durban II. US officials pressurised EU countries to boycott the event if the changes were not made. The pressure succeeded, with a current draft text excluding any criticism of Israel. Paragraphs that caused such offence included one that said: "in order to consolidate the Israeli occupation, (Palestinians) have been subjected to unlawful collective punishment, torture." This is a well-documented fact, the most recent instance being the three-week mass destruction and massacre of more than 1,300 innocent civilians in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

How about this one, where the draft text: "expresses deep concern at the plight of Palestinian refugees and other inhabitants of the Arab occupied territories as well as displaced persons who were forced to leave their homes because of war and racial policies of the occupying power and who are prevented from returning to their homes and properties because of a racially based law of return." That sounds reasonable and justifiable. But not to the Israel lobby, the US administration or its allies.

It seems that the rulers of the Western world, be they from the EU, the US or Australia, are only willing to discuss issues of racism on their own terms. They would prefer the conference to be about abstract liberal generalities opposing racism, without confronting the most obvious case of racism in the world today - the ongoing attempts to eliminate the Palestinian people from their land and from history, so that Israelis finally will be able to go to sleep at night without having the 'native problem' to deal with. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not breaking ranks from this cosy club who refuse to recognise the racist underpinnings of Israel's role in the Middle East.

Dr. Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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Rory Short
28 Mar


The truth of the matter is that Israelis and Palestinians are human beings just like everybody else in the world. Until the protagonists in this conflict are prepared to recognise this reality there will be no viable solution.

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