Controversy over characterizations of Israel have diverted attention from the important purpose of the United Nations conference on combating racism taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, U.S. lawmakers and others charge. The diversion was unhelpfully, but predictably, fanned by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The only head of state to attend the conference, Ahmadinejad chose to use loaded language about Israel in his remarks, saying Israel had been established “under the pretext of Jewish suffering … in order to establish a totally racist government.” These comments virtually guaranteed the uproar that ensued, providing news media with headlines and images of diplomats from European nations getting up and walking out.

And it provided an opportunity for crocodile tears from those in Israel who have blocked the two-state solution that would establish a Palestinian state, and who have fanned anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism in their own country.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, called it “unfortunate that the inappropriate and out-of-line remarks of Ahmadinejad would obscure the only international forum to address racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.”

Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, criticized Ahmadinejad for “grandstanding” from a United Nations dais and said his performance should not be an excuse to derail the important topic of the conference.

In that regard, she suggested that the Iranian president ought to have dealt with his own country’s issues regarding minorities — “how he is addressing racial discrimination and intolerance in his country,” according to a New York Times report.

Some analysts believe Ahmadinejad hoped to use his militant-sounding rhetoric on Israel to drum up domestic support in his June 12 re-election race.

In a recent survey published by the Iranian Labor News Agency, the majority of Iranian workers will vote for his leading opponent, Mir-Hossein Moussavi. The survey showed unemployment and inflation are driving wide dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad, according to an Adnkronos International report.

The Obama administration had previously announced it would not participate in the Geneva meeting because, it said, it did not want to be associated with provocative labeling of Israel.

The Congressional Black Caucus had criticized that decision, calling it “inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with, expressed by President Obama during the G20 and on other recent occasions.” In an April 18 statement, the Black lawmakers pointed out that “the United States has a unique experience and history of combating racism and intolerance. As a result, [it] is well suited to play a leadership role in overcoming racism and related intolerances, which remain one of the great challenges facing many around the globe.”

The frenzy whipped up over characterizations of Israel and Ahmadenijad’s remarks overshadowed initiatives by the Obama administration to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Congressional Quarterly reports that President Obama is asking Congress to allow continued U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if a national unity government including Hamas is formed. Obama is seeking to change wording in current law that would end U.S. aid if there is any Hamas involvement.

Palestinian unity talks have restarted in Cairo, after breaking off earlier. Formation of a national unity government is widely seen as essential to moving ahead on efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A White House spokesperson said the administration would still require any unity government to accept the “Quartet principles” — a reference to the principles set forth in 2002 by the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations: that a Palestinian government accept Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and abide by prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

But the new request would allow aid to flow to a government that includes Hamas, and that is seen as helpful to Palestinian unity talks.

In addition, the president would also be allowed to waive restrictions on funding to any Palestinian government for a limited set of issues — such as border control, rule of law and peace negotiations — if he determines that it is in the U.S. national security interest.

Also, U.S. special envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, conveyed ‘the administration’s message that the president was determined to lead a diplomatic arrangement [for a two-state solution] by the end of his first term.”

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.