Monday’s anti-Israel tirade by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Durban II conference on racism could undermine Obama administration diplomatic outreach, several Jewish leaders who attended the controversial conference in Geneva said this week.
Even supporters of expanded dialogue with Iran said Ahmadinejad’s speech — during which he called Israel “a cruel and repressive racist regime” — made it less likely the administration’s nascent outreach can produce results in the faltering effort to slow Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
The speech prompted a walkout by 25 nations, including Jordan and Morocco.
The speech “makes President Obama’s olive branch to Ahmadinejad look absurd,” said Ambassador Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and longtime State Department official. “I don’t see how you have ‘dialogue’ with an insane man.”
A leading Iran scholar said the speech reflected a “clear decision” by the Iranian government that dialogue with Washington is not a priority.
“Domestically, it makes a strategy of dialogue more difficult because President Obama is now walking a very fine line — making diplomatic approaches to a government that speaks the way it does about Israel and the Holocaust,” said George Mason University scholar Shaul Bakhash, a native of and expert on Iran.
Bakhash said that while the Iranian political hierarchy is complex and difficult to understand, “it seems unlikely Ahmadinejad would make such a speech without it being approved.”
And that, he said, points to the likelihood Iran’s leaders “value their standing on the Arab and Muslim street more than they do the future of their relations with the United States and Israel.”
Bakhash said he was “surprised” by that decision. “I thought there were signs the government was welcoming what even they described as a more positive approach of the Obama administration. It’s hard to believe they don’t understand that a speech like this makes dialogue with the United States much more difficult.”
The administration, while condemning Ahmadinejad’s appearance and his speech, said it would not be deterred on dialogue. President Obama said, “We are going to continue to take an approach that tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table.”
But most observers say that will be more difficult in the wake of the latest Durban disaster.
Ahmadinejad’s address — indeed, his very presence at a conference ostensibly focused on combating racism — vindicated Jewish groups that had argued the Durban Review Conference, a follow- up to the controversial 2001 meeting dominated by anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Jewish invective, was shaping up as a reprise.
It also brought glimmers of unity to an American Jewish community deeply divided over U.S. Middle East policy. Organizations ranging from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to J Street condemned Ahmadinejad’s participation.
Many praised the 10 nations (in addition to the United States and Israel) that stayed away entirely and the 25 whose representatives walked out on Ahmadinejad.
But the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said he doubts the world will learn any enduring lessons from this week’s fireworks in Geneva.
The walkout by European delegates and several others was “a step forward,” he said. “But we thought the lessons of Durban I were so clear; that should have been a turning point. The fact is we have to fight these battles over and over again.”
Foxman said Monday’s vivid demonstration of Ahmadinejad’s views on Israel would also have an impact on an American Jewish community that, so far, has been inclined not to protest the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran.
“People will be much more skeptical,” he said, citing an ADL poll released this week showing that 50 percent of the Jews surveyed supported “direct talks (with Iran) with no preconditions,” with 44 percent opposing. “Those numbers might have been very different if the survey had been taken after the speech,” Foxman said.
While not predicting dramatic changes in a UN system riddled with anti-Israel bias, several Jewish leaders who were in Geneva for the controversial meetings said Ahmadinejad’s presence and his unrepentant speech could be a wake up call, especially for European nations.
“It was a very important day because Ahmadinejad’s performance was indefensible even by those who tend to defend easily,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, speaking from Geneva. “It made a mockery of the conference, and a lot of diplomats understood that. In a very significant way it justified the laudable decision of the countries that stayed away.”
Harris said Durban II created some new fault lines in world diplomacy.
“Going forward, a lot of people will remember the 10 countries that opted out of Durban II entirely and the additional 25 that walked out,” he said. “And they will also remember those that chose to stay, and by doing so conveyed legitimacy on something that was clearly an illegitimate exercise. By choosing to stay, they were making a thunderous and unfortunate statement.”
Groups like the AJC and B’nai B’rith had worked hard to sensitize world leaders that Durban II was turning into a rerun of the 2001 conference; several admitted that those efforts were not entirely successful.
“All the Latin American, all the African nations except Morocco, all the Asian nations stayed,” Harris said. “That was striking and disappointing.”
Harris said it is “hard to tell” if this week’s events will have a significant impact on a UN infrastructure skewed against Israel.
“There will be an instinct to say this is a historic crossroad,” he said, “but it’s premature to make that kind of sweeping statement.”
Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith, described a dramatic scene when the diplomats who walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech “walked through a gauntlet of Jewish NGOs, to great applause.”
But he said it is unclear if “this expression of disdain for Ahmadinejad and what he said will translate into real reforms in the UN, and particularly in the human rights components of the organization.”
Still, he said, Ahmadinejad’s harsh invective could “serve as the beginning of a process.”
Criticism of Ahmadinejad and for Durban planners for giving him a prominent platform was almost universal in the Jewish world.
Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which helped organize Jewish efforts a year and a half ago to alert Washington to the dangers of Durban II, said in a statement that the Iranian leader’s “racist and bigoted comments … again underscored the conference has been hijacked by those with extremist political goals.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner of the left-of-center Tikkun Community wrote that Ahmadinejad’s speech “turned into a racist rant against Israel and the Jewish people. The conference, intended to give the people of the world an opportunity to challenge racism, lost all credibility.” Calls for the elimination of Israel by Ahmadinejad and others are one reason “peace forces are unable to win majority support in Israel or among the Jewish people as a whole,” he added.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, said in an interview “President Ahmadinejad has no place at a conference on racism, and we unequivocally condemn his vile remarks. We were especially shocked that these remarks were made as Israel observed Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
Still, he said U.S. “reengagement” in various UN bodies should continue.
“The U.S. may still need to boycott such conferences in the future, but only by working inside the process do we have the opportunity to explore possibilities for diplomatic engagement,” Ben-Ami said.
He rejected claims that Ahmadinejad’s display of anti-Israel venom would diminish the Obama administration’s appetite for dialogue with Iran.
“As the president said at a press conference with Jordanian King Abdullah, engagement with Iran will not be easy, nor will it immediately yield success,” Ben Ami said. “We are supportive of the President’s efforts to protect Israel by stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and their support for terror against Israel through tough, direct diplomacy.”
Other Jewish leaders are not so sure. The AJC’s David Harris called Ahmadinejad’s speech a “significant setback to the current Iran strategy.”
B’nai B’rith leader Dan Mariaschin said the speech and the distortion of a conference on racism by the Iranian president and his supporters “puts a serious damper on expectations for any progress” in talks with Iran. “You have to say: how do you have a productive dialogue with someone who uses classic anti-Semitic ideas? How do you talk about human rights, about issues like Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism?”