Obama Team Tells Jewish Leaders: UN Durban Text Crosses "Red Line"

Obama Team Tells Jewish Leaders: UN Durban Text Crosses "Red Line"

In a private conference call with Jewish leaders on Tuesday, the Obama White House reaffirmed that it has not decided to formally reengage negotiations over the charter of the United Nations' World Conference on Racism, citing lingering disputes over the review document's language.

On the call, which the Huffington Post managed to listen in on, National Security Council aide Samantha Power stressed that while progress had been made on the text of the Durban II document, not enough had been done to get the United States to the table.

The current working text, she said, "met two of our four red lines frontally, in the sense that it went no further than reparations and it did drop all references to Israel and all anti-Semitic language. But it continued to reaffirm, in toto, Durban I. And while it did drop specific references to defamation, it continues to include very problematic language on incitement... that are out of line with core U.S. commitments to free speech. So that's where we have been for a couple weeks, with a text that is dramatically improved... [but] also ratifies the U.S. decision to walk away in the sense that it did seem to spur the other delegations to go back to the drawing board... We have not reengaged in any kind of formal way with this process. Our red lines remain our red lines... In order for us to participate in the negotiations, to sit behind the placard, to be involved in a frontal way, much more would need to be done. And all four of our red lines will need to be met."

Power, who serves as director for multilateral affairs for the NSC, concluded: "We will make our decision [to attend] up closer to the date of the conference, we want to show good faith to our allies and the people who are working hard to improve the text... But we are also not interested in being involved or associated with fool's errands."

Commencing this upcoming Monday, Durban II represents one of the trickier early tests the Obama administration has faced in its efforts to recast U.S. policy on the Middle East and, more broadly, the international community. Taking place in Geneva, the event will bring together hundreds of government and nongovernmental figures for a coordinated campaign against racism. But in its the first incarnation the event became a platform for countries to demonstrate anti-Zionist sentiment over Israel's treatment of Palestinians. And concern persists that this will happen again.

The White House has indicated for weeks that it would boycott the conference unless significant changes were made to the draft text. This position has been cheered by the Jewish community, but other minority organizations, notably the NAACP and the TransAfrica Forum, expressed concern, arguing that the forum was a uniquely important opportunity to address world racism.

But on Monday, the newspaper Haaretz, citing anonymous diplomatic sources, said that senior U.S. officials were "leaning in favor of participating in the 'Durban 2' conference." The State Department moved quickly moved to dampen concerns that America would involve itself in the affair without significant changes to the charter. Clearly, however, the White House decided another step needed to be taken to explicate the administration's thought process on the matter.

"We are not in a position to attend... barring those red lines being met," another administration official stressed during Tuesday's call.

On the call, Power stressed that, should the administration not attend the upcoming conference, the president would find an appropriate alternative venue to express his "affirmative commitments to combating racism and discrimination away from the conference."

Ideally, she noted, the four red lines would be met and the U.S. would at least be able to come to the table on the draft charter. But even then, there would be no guarantees that Obama officials would attend. "We would still need to review the overall text, in order to ascertain whether the text as a whole," she said.

Under a worse-case scenario, the United States would attend the conference, only to be caught in the diplomatically embarrassing position of watching other nations level criticism at Israel or America. This too, was at the forefront of the administration's mind.

"There were very few advantages of Durban I having happened already," said Power. "I mean it was such a debacle from start to finish. But one advantage is that with hindsight, we have the experience of seeing precisely the kind of high jacking that you described and I know the president has no intention of putting the United States in position where it has to sit by as this whole thing gets politicized and taken over, over the course of the conference itself."

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