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As U.N. Summit Opens in S. Africa, Activists Hoping to Avoid Israel Focus

August 26, 2002
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Jewish participants have been bracing themselves for the opening of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, worried that the conference could turn into another forum for anti-Semitism like last year’s U.N. anti-racism conference.

But on the eve of the conference in Johannesburg, which begins Monday and runs through Sept. 4, some Jewish leaders here are optimistic that it will remain focused on the issues of balancing respect for the environment and the need for economic development.

Russell Gaddin, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which has led the local Jewish lobby in preparing for the summit, told JTA: “We do know that the anti-Israel lobby is going to be here and is going to endeavor to promote their anti-Israel propaganda.

“But I believe we have done enough network building to ensure they do not hijack the conference.”

The South African government was determined to make sure that the conference dealt with the economic issues that are supposed to be the summit’s focus, Gaddin said, “particularly after they came to understand what a disaster the Durban racism conference was.”

The United States and Israel stormed out of last year’s conference in Durban, South Africa, condemning it as a circus of anti-Semitism, after language was debated that would have rehabilitated the 1975 U.N. resolution denigrating Zionism as racism — and after thousands thronged in protest of Israel, with some distributing anti-Semitic cartoons and taunting that Hitler never finished the job.

This year’s summit will be held in two main parts, starting with a gathering of nongovernmental organizations, followed by the governmental summit.

More than 100 heads of state and government are expected to attend. Several countries have expressed their disappointment that the United States delegation is being led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and not by President Bush.

In contrast to the racism conference, there has been no major emphasis on anti-Israel resolutions during preparatory meetings, although four allegations were made against Israel in debates, relating to toxic waste dumps, the destruction of olive trees, “stealing water” and preventing sustainable development.

Jewish groups, who admit they were caught by surprise by the virulence of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campaign at Durban, worked to make sure that the Johannesburg conference would not be hijacked by Arab and pro- Palestinian groups.

But the final preparatory document in June left the door open for the Palestinian issue.

Although the Palestinians and Israel were not mentioned by name, “foreign occupation” was listed among “worldwide conditions that pose severe threats to sustainable development.”

Some prominent Africans, including Aziz Pahad, South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, believe that any overemphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as happened at Durban, detracts from the Palestinian cause.

“We will always defend the right of the Palestinian people, but you can’t have every conference dominated by the issue,” he said earlier this month.

Gaddin regards the summit “not as a threat, but as an opportunity to showcase what Jews and Israel are doing for sustainable development worldwide.”

This has led to a proactive strategy, focusing largely on Israel’s contributions to sustainable development.

Keren Kayemeth Leisrael-Jewish National Fund, Israel’s largest environmental organization, has sent a substantial delegation and is sharing research findings in the fields of forestation, desert rehabilitation, land development, water recycling and agricultural innovations.

Jewish activists optimistic about the conference point to several contrasts between this year’s conference and Durban, ranging from a different agenda to a lack of public demonstrations before the summit to the sheer size of the Johannesburg conference.

Israel sent only a low-level delegation to Durban, but this time it will be represented by two Cabinet members, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

The 130-person international Jewish caucus includes delegates from, among others, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, B’nai B’rith and Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

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