US Support for Israel-Led Boycott of UN Conference Proves Pivotal
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and United States Gilad Erdan in his office at the Embassy of Israel to the United States on January 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. Erdan initiated and led the diplomatic campaign to convince countries to boycott a United Nations conference marking the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

US Support for Israel-Led Boycott of UN Conference Proves Pivotal

Expansive effort by successive Israeli, American governments in boycott of Durban anniversary conference leads 34 countries to skip anti-Israel hate fest 

Israel claimed a diplomatic victory on Wednesday, as 34 countries, including over a dozen in the final hours, openly boycotted a United Nations conference marking the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

The boycott, which included a number of world powers and even, at the last minute, Poland – which currently is at severe odds with Israel’s government – was the result of a focused, intensive year-long campaign spanning two Israeli and American governments, and brought to bear using the full weight of Washington and Jerusalem.

“Gilad Erdan initiated and has led the diplomatic campaign, with Yair Lapid and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs heading the global campaign,” according to a source with intimate knowledge of the effort, who spoke exclusively to The Media Line about the substance of the effort.

Erdan, who was named Israel’s ambassador to the UN and US by then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, stayed on when the country’s new government took over in the spring. He is expected to depart his role as ambassador to Washington at the end of this month, following the Jewish high holidays, but will stay on at the UN in New York, in an agreement struck with Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister.

Erdan started work last year on a boycott of Durban IV, the latest installment of the original 2001 event in Durban, South Africa, which was marred by inflammatory speeches against Israel, blatantly antisemitic texts and images distributed in the conference halls and a pro-Hitler march that took place outside the venue. Israel and the US walked out of the conference in protest. The conference was overseen by then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Irish President Mary Robinson and was largely blamed for killing Robinson’s hopes for becoming UN secretary-general. The Durban Declaration, which singled out only Israel for criticism and listed no other global conflict other than the Israel-Palestinian one, was reaffirmed on Wednesday in New York.

There is safety in numbers. Some governments might have been wary about participating in the boycott. Every country that joined provided more cover for another country to add their name to the list

Iterations of the Durban Conference since 2001 have been dogged by Holocaust-denying speeches by then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fourteen countries boycotted the last Durban Conference in 2011.

“Erdan and Kelly Craft (then-US Ambassador to the UN under President Donald Trump) voted together against the UN budget, which included funding for this year’s Durban Conference. The Biden administration agreed to continue the effort after initial discussions,” said the source, who noted there was some initial hesitation by the Biden White House, which was concerned that boycotting the conference might conflict with its outsized and vocal focus on human rights, including racism.

“Israel was able to convince (current US Ambassador to the UN) Linda Thomas-Greenfield that the Durban Conference, at its heart, wasn’t and isn’t about human rights. The key goal was to draw a straight line between Durban and antisemitism,” the source said.

Thomas-Greenfield and the US agreed not only to boycott the event, but to lobby and pressure other nations to do so, which was critical to the overall plan. Erdan was in contact with fellow ambassadors at the UN, utilizing face-to-face meetings and a letter-writing campaign, in step with parallel efforts by Thomas-Greenfield’s office.

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, led an in-country campaign, pressuring foreign ambassadors in Israel to report back to their capitals Jerusalem’s concerns with Durban. Erdan and other Israeli officials also briefed dozens of heads of Jewish organizations globally, with a focus on European hotbeds of antisemitism. Erdan and the ministry coordinated on social media and press initiatives regarding the boycott.

The countries boycotting Durban IV were Albania, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the US and Uruguay. The number of European countries is notable, though Belgium and Ireland still took up the invitation to attend the conference.

“Belgium and Ireland choosing to go only makes the job easier for Israel. European countries that often take a critical tone toward Israel like Holland, France and Germany only retain credibility when they can take a step back from an event like Durban. They realize they can’t simply turn a blind eye,” Jenny Aharon, director of Golden Gate Public Affairs and a political adviser on EU-Israel affairs who works with European Union institutions in Brussels, told The Media Line.

“In Belgium, people chanted, ‘Death to Jews’ in the streets during the last round of conflict between Israel and Hamas in May. The government in Brussels didn’t issue a word of condemnation. You can’t then go to New York and speak credibly on racism,” said Aharon.

Belgium, which generally follows France’s lead on foreign policy, differed when it came to Durban, though its government refused to send a ministerial-level representative. Other countries took a similar tack, refusing both an all-out boycott or full-throated support of the conference by sending a low-level diplomat.

Only a few heads of state, including those from South Africa and Cuba, addressed the conference, with the Palestinian Authority, Iran and just a handful of others sending foreign ministers. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said the Palestinians criticized those boycotting the event, calling attacks on Durban unwarranted, and took a thinly veiled swipe at the US for its problems in dealing with racism at home. This year’s Durban theme was: “Reparations, racial justice and equality for people of African descent.”

In fact, none of the 28 members of the UN regional Western European and Others Group accepted an invitation for its head of state or government to give a speech or to have a representative lead one of two roundtable discussions planned for the conference. The diplomatic source cited this as an example of where Israel stands now diplomatically, compared with 2001’s Durban Conference.

France was one of the first countries to announce a boycott. The number was at 20 early in the week, but went up nearly 75% by Wednesday.

“There is safety in numbers. Some governments might have been wary about participating in the boycott. Every country that joined provided more cover for another country to add their name to the list,” said the source with knowledge of the diplomatic strategy behind the boycott, explaining the tidal wave of boycott announcements as the conference drew near.

Notably, none of the countries connected to the Abraham Accords – a series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab and Muslim-majority nations, joined the boycott. While the diplomatic source wouldn’t comment on that fact directly, the implication seemed to be that Israel was grateful for the support of the countries who joined, and would keep a positive focus on them, rather than grumble about who attended Durban.


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