In addition to the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, four years have also passed since Durban – the UN-sponsored World Conference on Racism – which took place in September 2001. And just as Osama bin Laden’s ideology was the foundation for al-Qaida, Durban, in a sense, provided the political foundation for a Palestinian onslaught already in progress that claimed 1,000 Israelis lives.
The Durban speeches and resolutions largely ignored the issues for which this conference was ostensibly called, focusing instead on branding Israeli anti-terror responses as "war crimes" and "violations of international law." The Israeli government was unprepared. The defeat was huge, as were the consequences.
The Durban conference crystallized the strategy of delegitimizing Israel as "an apartheid regime" through international isolation based on the South African model. This plan is driven by UN-based groups as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which exploit the funds, slogans and rhetoric of the human rights movement.
On this basis a series of political battles have been fought in the UN and in the media. These include the myth of the Jenin "massacre," the separation barrier, the academic boycott, and, currently, the church-based anti-Israel divestment campaign.
Each of these fronts reflected the Durban strategy of labeling Israel as the new South Africa.
The Jenin campaign took place a few months after Durban, following attacks during Pessah 2002. Israel responded with Operation Defensive Shield, directed at the centers of the terrorist network.
Palestinian propagandists, led by Saeb Erekat, then accused Israel of a "massacre" in Jenin, and much of the media repeated this false claim.
Officials from Amnesty International and the UN gave credence to the myths, as shown in Martin Himel’s documentary Jenin: Massacring Truth. Subsequent publications from Human Rights Watch, while discrediting the massacre myth, nevertheless repeated accusations of Israeli "war crimes" based on unverified claims of Palestinians and journalists.
THE NEXT battle took place over Israel’s separation barrier, built to prevent terror attacks. The combination of fences and, in some places, concrete blocks to protect against rifle fire was dubbed an "apartheid wall" by the propagandists. An intensive campaign promoted a UN General Assembly resolution referring the issue – couched in terms of Palestinian victimization – to the International Court of Justice for an "advisory opinion."
The ICJ is a political body that uses international law as a facade for partisan agendas and the majority opinion, issued in July 2004, was entirely predictable, particularly as the main factor – Palestinian terrorism – was ignored.
Meanwhile, however, Israel’s ability to mount a political counterattack had improved significantly since Durban. The decision to isolate Yasser Arafat deprived the Palestinian campaign of its main symbol and the basic human right of Israelis to defend against terror gained recognition, even in the UN. The attempt to use the outcome of the ICJ process as the springboard for UN-imposed sanctions, following the South African script, began to weaken.
However, as the UN role declined, other sources took up the slack, including the NGO network. Human Rights Watch dedicated glossy reports to one-sided condemnations of Israel to justify an advocacy campaign aimed at halting the Caterpillar Corporation’s sales of heavy equipment to the Jewish state.
And in Britain a small group of activists who control the agendas of highly politicized "charities" such as Christian Aid and War on Want, escalated their anti-Israel advocacy. Allies in the Palestinian NGO network circulated petitions and letters pressing for an academic boycott of Israeli universities, repeating false and highly distorted claims that emphasized the apartheid slogan. This rhetoric was adopted by British activists in the Association of University Teachers, which approved the boycott motions.
A short-lived tactical victory, however, led to a major public debate, and the AUT vote was rescinded.
THESE EVENTS provided a temporary respite, until the next wave – the anti-Israel divestment campaign, which again relied on the Durban strategy. This effort is led by Anglican, Lutheran and other Protestant churches, strongly influenced by NGOs such as the Mennonite Central Committee and its ally, the Palestinian-based "Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center."
But in the shadow of Israel’s disengagement policy, divestment is proving difficult to sell.
Thus, despite the early successes, the political war against Israel based on the Durban agenda has been slowed. The Ford Foundation was embarrassed by the revelations regarding its funding for many of the most vicious NGOs, and has cut some support. At the UN, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s upcoming speech before the General Assembly would have been unthinkable four years ago. The UN Commission on Human Rights is considering changes to reduce political exploitation, and major NGOs, including HRW (an active participant in Durban), are also showing signs of returning to a universal and equitable agenda, with less emphasis on Israel-bashing.
While still tentative – and four years too late – Israel’s position in the political war is beginning to improve. Whether this is a short-term change or a fundamental shift in momentum remains to be seen.
The writer directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and is the editor of www.ngo-monitor.org