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Lines in the San​d

February 19, 2009
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President Barack Obama is wading into risky waters as his administration mulls a U.S. role in a controversial U.N. conference on racism.

The conference, slated to be held in Geneva in April, is a follow-up to the notorious 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, that deteriorated into a virtual hate-fest of Israel and Jews.

The Jewish -- and civilized -- world was woefully unprepared for the onslaught that characterized the official gathering of U.N. member states in Durban, as well as the egregious rhetoric that emerged from the parallel forum of nongovernmental organizations.

The document approved by the NGO forum helped relaunch the global boycott and divestment campaign that likened Israel to apartheid South Africa; both of these issues are pursued today by many pro-Palestinian groups worldwide.

By many accounts, this next forum is destined to be more of the same. Beyond castigating Israel -- and most likely, using the recent war with Hamas in Gaza as further ammunition -- the Islamic bloc and its allies have made clear their desire to use the time to legislate against free speech by banning "defamation of religions" like Islam.

In 2001, the United States and Israel walked out in protest. This time around, Israel and Canada have said they will not participate, while other Western nations have been on the fence. Now, with the Obama administration's decision to send a delegation to this week's planning session for the next conference -- dubbed "Durban II"-- much of the world will be watching.

Ironically, the planning conference coincided with a major gathering on anti-Semitism in London. The conference brought parliamentarians from around the world to decry the resurgent anti-Semitism that is ripping across the globe at frightening speed.

Referring specifically to the upcoming conference on racism, those gathered in London urged their governments and the United Nations "never again to allow the institutions of the international community to be abused for the purposes of trying to establish any legitimacy for anti-Semitism."

Aware of the sensitivities, White House and State Department officials arranged a conference call with Jewish organizational leaders this week to detail their objectives. Their message: They are participating in preparatory meetings in order to "try to change the direction" of the upcoming conference and to engage in negotiations over the document it produces. They also noted that this approach was in line with the commitment to diplomacy and engagement that Obama has defined as his new approach to foreign-policy matters.

The administration has emphasized that it had not yet decided whether to participate in the April gathering, and was using this week's meeting to test the waters.

The risks are high. On one hand, the administration could make an important contribution if it succeeds in halting what seems like an inexorable path toward a destructive, rather than constructive, focus on racism and other human-rights abuses. The pessimists could be forgiven for thinking that unlikely, given the history of such gatherings and the leadership lineup itself: Libya is chairing the process, with Iran, Cuba and Pakistan serving as vice chairs.

The Obama administration must make it clear that it will draw lines in the sand over which it will not step. The singling out of Israel must be one of those lines.

The real test will come if the U.S. delegation -- which includes Felice Gaer, an American Jewish Committee official who also serves as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- is not able to affect change at this late date.

Will Obama feel constrained by his desire to break free from the Bush era of unilateralism and opt for participation at all cost? Or will he and his administration make the right decision by pulling out and averting the risk of conferring legitimacy on yet another hateful gathering? It's a risky proposition for him -- and for us. 

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