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Israelis relieved after U.N. conference

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 4 (JTA) — As participants at the World Summit on Sustainable Development prepared to return home, Jewish and Israeli participants could breathe a sigh of relief. The overall impression was that the summit, which ended Wednesday, was generally positive for Israel — certainly nothing like last year’s disastrous World Conference Against Racism in Durban, when the atmosphere was so polluted by anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic attacks that the Israeli delegation eventually walked out. This year, most Israeli and Jewish participants said, the Palestinians failed in their efforts to turn a conference on environmental issues into yet another Israel-bashing circus. “We feel very satisfied,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesmen Mark Sofer told JTA. “The conference went well both from the point of view of sustainable development and from a purely Israeli point of view.” “Despite the atmosphere in one or two arenas, such as Saturday’s anti-globalization march, people didn’t even know that the Israel-Palestinian issue was on the agenda,” he added. The summit, which was intended as a follow-up to an earth summit 10 years ago in Brazil, drew some 50,000 participants. They included a 42-member Israeli delegation and a 130-person Jewish caucus. Israel’s actual accomplishments were modest — it announced a joint project with Jordan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea — but the fact that a U.N. conference passed without withering attacks on Israel was taken as a victory. While accusations of Israeli apartheid struck a chord with participants at last year’s anti-racism conference, it’s more of a stretch to tie Israeli policy toward the Palestinians to environmental degradation. In addition, embarrassed by its handling of the Durban conference, South Africa this year restrained pro-Palestinian demonstrators, removing them by force when they tried to disrupt Israeli events in the conference’s first days and blasting them with water cannons when they tried to prevent a speech by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. In stark contrast to the Palestinians’ efforts, Israeli officials took a calculatedly mild line, stressing the need to turn away from conflict and toward cooperation. When Palestinian groups sought to shout them down, Israeli officials spoke of resuming the peace process. The only reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the conference’s final declaration was in paragraph 58, and it was oblique: “We reaffirm our opposition to foreign occupation and assert the right of all peoples to sovereignty and the control of their natural resources.” In fact, Sofer said, Israel was not mentioned explicitly in any of the official conference documents. Sofer’s reflected the view of his boss, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who said Israel had come to deliver a message of environmental cooperation and had succeeded. Yet not everyone agreed. “What was begun in Durban has not ended here,” said Shimon Samuels, director for international liaison at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. “The undercurrents, despite all the important themes of the conference, the thrusts of foreign policy, are the same.” Samuels said South Africa seemed to be pandering to the radical nations of the Third World. “What happened in Durban made the United Nations central to the new human rights theology, in which Israel is the anti-Christ,” Samuels said. Israel then becomes the villain in every story, whether the issue at hand is sustainable development, health or human rights, Samuels said. “You are the enemy of mankind,” Samuels said. “What is happening here on the” level of nongovernmental organizations “is exactly that continuation.” He was referring to several instances in which Palestinians and their supporters disrupted presentations by Israeli groups at a parallel NGO conference some 15 miles from the main conference site. Unlike the situation in Durban, however, South African police swiftly broke up this year’s anti-Israel disruptions. On the official governmental level, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and the Palestinians tried to place the issue of Israel’s “occupation” of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the forefront of the conference agenda, without much success. Overall, Samuels said, the conference had created opportunities and new relationships that should be followed up. “I hope South Africa is able to celebrate this conference as an achievement in its post-apartheid period, despite the little clouds that went over the scene when” President Thabo “Mbeki had to bash one country and one country alone” at an anti-globalization march Saturday, Samuels said. He was referring to pro-Palestinian comments Mbeki made at a rally that included demonstrators blasting Israel and praising suicide bombers. But Russell Gaddin, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, is upbeat. The Board of Deputies played a major role on behalf of the community before the summit, lobbying the government and participating in preparatory NGO meetings. “We can sense the frustration of the Palestinians because they could not hijack the summit,” Gaddin said. He was grateful to South African authorities for the steps they took to ensure that the Palestinians would not dominate the agenda and to make sure the conference was peaceful, both inside the venues and on the street. Yehiel Leket, world chairman of Keren Kayemeth Leisrael — Jewish National Fund, agreed that dire predictions of Palestinian interference — which some said would force Israel to spend all its time defending itself rather than discussing sustainable development — failed to materialize.