Arab Failure in Durban

What would remain of the World Conference against racism for a while, concerns the conflict that opposed the Muslim and the African nations to the West and Israel, and the means intended to resolving it, perhaps more than the result of all these maneuvers. For it is obvious, that despite all their efforts to bringing the Conference to openly adopt their views about the Middle East problem, the Arabs failed to reach their goal. The Conference was not a success for the Israelis either, since its statement expressed concern over “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation “. But in the light of what has been happening in the occupied territories since years, such a statement, albeit it recognizes Israel (without even naming it!) as the force of occupation, sounds almost naive. Who does not know yet that the Palestinians are suffering from Zionist occupation? Thus, the aforementioned statement adds nothing, but one more time it supports the “right” of the Israelis to a secure state, a thing that nobody among the Arab delegates ever thought of raising any doubt about it. So, where is the compromise in such a declaration? All what the Arabs asked for initially has not appeared in the final statement. The Palestinians were not even named when an allusion was made to the right of refugees to “freely return to their homes”. The whole thing seems now as a tempest in a glass of water! If we look back at the initial Arab expectations, it is obvious that from this point of view, the Conference is a perfect failure.

A wind of panic and anger has crossed some Western States when they believed that the Arabs were targeting the foundations of the Israeli State, in asking for the equalization between Zionism and racism, a thing that the UN had once acknowledged, then under the pressure of Israel’s allies and because of the incompetence of the Arab diplomacy to hold such an asset, it has been abrogated. It did not even occur to them – and that was also the failure of the Arab diplomacy to explain it – that what was at stake in Durban concerned the policies of Israel more than the State itself. The Arabs wanted actually to have the current Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, condemned. They wanted to say to the whole world that what Israel is doing in the occupied territories has nothing to do with the moral values of our modern and democratic world, and that it is very much resembling to the apartheid system, a fact that had been recognized even by the Israelis themselves, when they were enough courageous and fair to acknowledge it. Unfortunately, the Arab diplomacy missed the point and was never able to find the right argument. Finally, it has been muted by Israel and its European allies who were the sole ” stars” of that international meeting. Otherwise, despite all the babbling and the displayed rhetoric, the Arabs were out of touch!

Before that inaptitude of the Arabs to adapt their discourses to the circumstances, instead of clinging to a slogan that everybody in the West had already ruled out and condemned as obsolete, the Europeans found their way to the issue. They relayed the Americans who, faithful to the wishes of their President concerning the US non-intervention policy in the Middle-East, withdrew: Thus, far from being a compromise between the Muslim nations – Arabs included-, the Africans, and the West, the final statement bears merely the sovereign stamp of the victorious Europe, which is perhaps not so unsatisfying to the Bush administration, able to make Europe carry out its most secret plans, as it sounds.

But before going further, let’s remind the reader that what the Arabs were so badly wanting to reach in Durban, what they actually failed to explain, and what has apparently caused the withdrawal of the American and the Israeli delegations, and what threatened to topple the whole Conference, was something fully recognized by Dr.Ron Pundak and some other Israeli militants of the left and the peace movements. True, they do not use a hard language to describe the situation, but what they say would logically lead to the same statements made by the Arabs about the current policies of Israel. Here is an example:

Well before anybody raised the least protestation about what would be stated or not in Durban, one of the makers of the Oslo accords- e.g. Mr. Ron Pundak- wrote in an article headlined ” from Oslo to Taba: What went wrong”, describing these very objectionable policies that they have not started after the Intifada, and thus they could not be considered as a reaction against it. For Pundak, the Palestinians were humiliated by Barak as by Netanyahu or Sharon. All the restrictions were interpreted as collective punishment, he said, and particularly: “The establishment of Bantustan-like areas, controlled according to the whim of Israeli military rule and on occasion dictated by its symbiotic relationship with the settlers’ movement.”

What would the zealous Europeans and the Bush administration object to this talk? Here is a man who had been a main pillar in the Oslo build-up, and he is recognizing plainly that the Israeli policy carried on under Netanyahu and Barak was already racist! True, he did not use this term to depict it, but what is then ” Bantustan-like areas” if it does not remind us of the hateful Apartheid system? Yet, whereas nobody can oppose Pundak’s testimony on sound grounds, because it is hard to accuse him of anti-Semitism, some zealous Westerners jump to the walls if ever an Arab makes such a statement.

That’s exactly what happened at Durban.

The incompetence of the Arab diplomacy was clear since the start. Whereas the Americans played it smoothly and preferred to make their voice louder by a mere absence, the Arabs thought they were going to prevail just in clinging to the same position. They underestimated the Europeans, and most of all the French.

How could anybody omit the important influence exerted by Paris in Africa? Of course, the sub-Saharan African states were claiming a clear condemnation of slavery as a crime against humanity and some compensation for the peoples that suffered from it. That could be reached, indeed. But how? Those among the Arabs who were still sticking to the same position, did not even see how the wind was quickly changing of direction in the late days of the Conference: Europe, led by France undoubtedly, threatened to leave Durban. Was that to cause its failure? This is a matter of discussion, but the Africans seemed all of a sudden convinced of it! Why? Was that Conference unable to reach some great decisions despite the opposition of the big states who dominate the world? Was it really unable to make the link with some historic events, which led the Third World, from Bandoeng – in 1955- to the 77’s movement, and the most recent activism against globalization? Were all those states of Africa, Asia, and South America, and all those militants from the whole world, so powerless that they needed the support of the industrialized world even to write two sentences about their own torments?

Indeed, they were not. But either they were misled, or they abused themselves. Anyway, they acknowledged their limits. And Paris was there – on behalf of Europe- to make the deal: A wanted position on the Middle East, against a wanted position about slavery! That was it, and that made all the difference with the initial draft. Would the African states satisfy Europe and the US, or the Arabs? What if the promise of some compensation related to the acknowledged crime of slavery was made to persuade the recalcitrant? Where is the African State, which would refuse such an offer? Really! Diplomacy is not always about the great and nice ideals. It is also, and most times about very matter-of-fact affairs? Thus, It is not difficult to imagine that the French diplomacy, which owns many important assets in Africa through its monstrous Elf Company, played its best cards to bring the reluctant states to its side. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine that the Arab states were unaware of this game. But apparently, they did not react. And since they let it go, without even trying to adapt their discourse to an evolving situation, they lost control.

That is why the final statement was so far from the Arab positions, and that is why it is wrong to believe that the Arabs accepted a compromise.

If compromise there was, it concerned mainly the Europeans and the Africans, about slavery as a crime against humanity. The Middle East was not a part of that compromise, for there is not the least condemnation of the Israeli policies as discriminating against the Palestinians. And since this was the main Arab claim, it is easy to state that if the Americans and the Israelis deliberately withdrew, it was well the Arabs who paid the price, for they have been merely ousted.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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