So the Obama administration has affirmed its decision not to participate in the April 2009 Durban Review Conference, which will revisit the dubiously named 2001 World Conference Against Racism. We can take a deep breath and realize: The U.S. government engaged multilaterally, and the sky did not fall. In fact, there were dividends for Washington — and even for Jerusalem.
In sending a delegation to interim talks in Geneva, where the Review Conference will be held, President Obama took one of his first concrete steps to show the world that America is not afraid to engage and on our own terms, without weakness or insecurity. The new team knows well that "new politics" has not overtaken the United Nations or many of the despotic regimes it comprises. But the United Nations will not change on its own, and the sooner U.S. leadership is restored, the better for Israel and the whole world.
The original conference in Durban, South Africa — promoted as a global platform against racism — was easily commandeered by anti-Israel forces and left an indelible stain on the anti-racism agenda. If the currently anti-Israel draft document for Durban II fails to be "salvaged" and the internationally admired Obama administration sits it out, the conference will be significantly tarnished.
In 2001, the nongovernmental forum deteriorated into an all-out anti-Israel and, ultimately, anti-Semitic circus. This April, at the U.N's dusty Geneva headquarters, there will be no separate NGO assembly, only a dysfunctional U.N. review conference that also finds time to single out the Jewish state.
The original U.S. boycott of the entire planning process was dulled by the reality that George W. Bush had little remaining leverage anywhere in the world — let alone at the United Nations — and it did Israel no favors. Having shown that the United States is not afraid to sit in a conference room in Geneva for one week, Washington and Jewish organizations now find themselves in a much better position to lobby, and if necessary, shame the Europeans into following suit. With a shorter and cleaner draft — omitting most of the offensive clauses — still being discussed, Italy has already announced that it will not participate. Other European Union governments are approaching the same decision.
The more sophisticated diplomats among the Arab bloc realize that anti-Israel excesses at Durban I generated a wave of consolation prizes for Israel at the United Nations, including the now-enshrined Holocaust commemorations and a host of previously unthinkable privileges for Israeli diplomats. These have included the General Assembly adopting the first-ever Israeli-sponsored resolution (not about the Holocaust); Israelis chairing U.N. committees and serving as U.N. experts; and Israel's ambassador serving as a U.N. General Assembly vice president.
Rather than wishing our worst fears are proven right, we might consider that Israel is best served by having the United States — the 800-pound gorilla — in the room whenever possible.
Shai Franklin is senior fellow for U.N. Affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.