In addition to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, four years have also passed since Durban, South Africa — the U.N.-sponsored World Conference on Racism — took place in September 2001.
And just as Osama bin Laden’s ideology was the foundation for Al Qaeda, in a sense, Durban provided the political foundation for a Palestinian onslaught already in progress, one that claimed 1,000 Israeli 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” via international isolation based on the South African model. The plan is driven by U.N.-based groups and nongovernmental organizations, 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 United Nations 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 Passover 2002. Israel responded with Operation Defensive Shield, directed at the centers of the terrorist network.
Palestinian propagandists, led by the Palestinian Authority’s Saeb Erekat, then accused Israel of a “massacre” in Jenin. Officials from Amnesty International and the United Nations gave credence to the myths. Subsequent publications from Human Rights Watch — while discrediting the massacre rumor — 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 propagandists. An intensive campaign promoted a U.N. resolution referring the issue — couched in terms of Palestinian victimization — to the International Court of Justice for an “advisory opinion.”
But Israel’s ability to mount a political counterattack has improved significantly since Durban. The decision to isolate Yasser Arafat deprived the Palestinian campaign of its main symbol, and the basic right of Israelis to defend against terror gained recognition, even in the United Nations. The attempt to use the international-court process as the springboard for U.N.-imposed sanctions, following the South African script, began to weaken.
However, as the United Nations 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 Caterpillar Corporation’s sales of heavy equipment to the Jewish state.
The next wave, the anti-Israel divestment campaign, again relies on the Durban strategy. This effort is led by Anglican, Lutheran and other Protestant churches.
But despite 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 United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s upcoming speech before the General Assembly would have been unthinkable four years ago. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is considering changes to reduce political exploitation, and major NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, 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.
Gerald M. Steinberg directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and is the editor of www.ngo-monitor.org .