Israel responds harshly to Ahmadinejad rhetoric at Durban II

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the Durban Conference on April 20, 2009 was interrupted several times by irate activists in the gallery. (Michael J. Jordan)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban Conference on April 20, 2009 was interrupted several times by irate activists in the gallery. (Michael J. Jordan)

Highlights from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the U.N. Durban II conference in Geneva, April 20, 2009. (English) (Ben Harris)

Highlights from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the U.N. Durban II conference in Geneva, April 20, 2009. (English) (Ben Harris)


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The timing of the Iranian president’s latest fulmination against Israel was particularly auspicious.

Speaking from the podium of the Durban II conference in Geneva on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel a “racist” state, prompting sharp rebukes from around the world and a not-so-veiled threat from Jerusalem.

“We will not allow Holocaust deniers to perpetrate another Holocaust against the Jewish people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said several hours afterward in his speech at Israel’s main Holocaust memorial ceremony in Jerusalem on Monday night. “This is the supreme duty of the State of Israel and my supreme duty as prime minister.”

Netanyahu’s remarks were a reminder of the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: Many Israelis see Ahmadinejad as a modern-day Hitler.

“Seventy-three years after the Berlin Olympiad, yesterday the world saw the return of Adolf Hitler,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday. “This time he is bearded and he talks Persian. But the words are the same words, the goals the same goals and the resolve to use effective means to achieve them is the same threatening resolve.”

The Israeli government says it cannot allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capable of obliterating the Jewish state, and the comments from Israeli officials on Holocaust Memorial Day were a reminder that Israel could resort to military action to enforce that view.

In response, Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, warned Tuesday that if Israel dared to attack his country, its retaliation would be “beyond imagination.”

The tough Israeli stance against Ahmadinejad’s verbal assault — the Iranian leader said that after World War II, “on the pretext of Jewish suffering,” they “sent migrants from Europe, the United States and the rest of the world to set up a totally racist government in occupied Palestine” — was part of a calculated response to Durban II that has been two years in the making.

If the main conference organizers — Libya, Iran, Egypt, Cuba and Pakistan — had hoped to carry on the Israel-bashing spree they launched at the first U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, they would be disappointed.

In 2001, Israel walked into a diplomatic ambush. Israel believed the conference was going to be a serious international dialogue on racism and anti-Semitism in which as the Jewish state, it had an important stake. Instead, Israel found itself the lone object of abuse, singled out and excoriated on the main conference floor, in the NGO sessions and at a preparatory conference.

After the humiliating public relations beating it took in Durban eight years ago, Israel adopted a two-pronged strategy to prevent a repetition at the follow-up parley in Geneva.

To deny the conference legitimacy and moral authority, it decided to press for a high-profile boycott. To prevent untrammeled Israel-bashing outside the main conference building, it backed a strong pro-Israel street presence.

On the first two days of the conference, both aspects of the strategy seemed to be working. Several countries — the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland — followed Israel’s lead in boycotting the proceedings, and on the conference’s first day the Czechs joined the boycott.

Israel also recalled its ambassador to Switzerland to protest Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz’s meeting with Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, pro-Israel advocacy groups put a full-court press into action.

In the main conference hall, Ahmadinejad was heckled during his speech by Jewish students wearing clown wigs calling him a racist and a clown, and his allusion to Israel’s “racist government” triggered a mass walkout by the entire European delegation.

Afterward, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had remained seated throughout Ahmadinejad’s address, issued a strong and unusual condemnatory statement: “I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite.”

Muslim and African countries in December 2006 had insisted on a review of the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Western nations objected because of the fiasco at Durban, but they were outvoted. Libya was made chairman of the preparatory group, with Iran, Egypt, Cuba and Pakistan designated “friends of the chairman” helping to set the agenda.

Israel again was made the main target, the West’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was characterized as “Islamophobia” and there was no mention of the genocide in Darfur.

In early 2007, as soon as it realized the way the wind was blowing, Israel began pressing for a boycott. At the same time, pro-Israeli nongovernmental organizations highlighted the bias and funding of NGOs that had played a prominent role in vilifying Israel at Durban.

As a result, the Canadian government and the Ford Foundation, which had made large contributions to NGO activities at the 2001 conference, decided not to fund anything related to Durban II.

What was meant to be a major anti-Israel NGO event in Geneva on Saturday attracted only about 200 people.

On the street, pro-Israel advocacy groups were helped by heavy hitters such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, attorney Alan Dershowitz, actor Jon Voigt and former prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky.

Midway through, it wasn’t clear what the accomplishments of the conference would be. But one thing was clear: Despite the efforts of some, Durban II would not be a reprise of Durban I.

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