The “tsunami” of the Arab-Israeli conflict that some are predicting this September may or may not happen. And while the probable UN General Assembly recognition of Palestinian independence and the Durban III conference warrant attention, instead of prognosticating the fallout from these events, we should examine – and learn from – the last decade’s events that led to these moments.
The delegitimization campaign against Israel was born ten years ago at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. 1500 NGOs united at the NGO Forum to adopt a political war plan against Israel. They produced a document that “declare[d] Israel as a racist, apartheid state in which Israel’s brand of apartheid as a crime against humanity…” and “call[ed] upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” They also attempted to reinstitute the inflammatory “Zionism is racism” resolution, which had rightly been repealed in 1991.
While this language and call to action is somewhat shocking (although many are numb to it now), equally as surprising at the time – particularly at a conference meant to fight racism – was what was missing.
There was no call to build mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, no charge to take steps to foster coexistence, and no implementation of programs – business, cultural, or other – that would lead to practical changes in how Israelis and Palestinians see the other. Similarly, there was no call to build Palestinian society and infrastructure, to take tangible steps to achieve a state living in peace with Israel. No, the sole focus was on strategies to delegitimize Israel.
This is the legacy of Durban, and it is driving this September’s events.
For example, Al Haq, a Ramallah-based NGO, has admitted that the goals are increased politicized attacks against Israel. In a “legal brief” about the forthcoming initiatives, Al Haq writes, “the issue at stake in the context of the ‘September initiatives’ is not statehood as such, but a strategy to strengthen Palestine’s position in the international legal order to be unequivocally recognized rights and obligations under public international law and enhance its ability to exercise such rights by bringing international claims.”
Mahmoud Abbas echoed this anti-Israel, as opposed to pro-Palestinian, approach in his May 16, 2011 New York Times op-ed. “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”
These sentiments and goals follow the blueprint outlined by the Durban Strategy. Abbas and Al Haq are primarily concerned with politically isolating Israel and perpetuating the conflict, and even expanding it to new arenas.
Anti-Israel advocacy NGOs, including Al-Haq and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), perfected this strategy, devoting resources and extensive funding from foreign government to promoting lawfare cases against Israeli officials. At the same time, the most vocal proponents of the Durban Strategy, including BADIL and PCHR, support a “one-state” solution and reject two-state proposals such as the Roadmap for Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative.
In fact, every element of the Durban Strategy is linked by its goal of demonizing and destroying Israel – from the NGOs that promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to those that invoke the false claims of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.” Who knows how history would have differed if ten years ago the NGOs issued a declaration based on promoting peace and universal human rights? A declaration based on those principles would have fostered an environment to eliminate demonization, not one that promotes and encourages it.
Instead, ten years after Durban I, September 2011 will see two events that, if anything, make a negotiated, two-state solution seem farther away now than it did then. That is an astounding “accomplishment” given the state of affairs, in particular the resurgence of terror attacks in Israel, in 2001.
Any hope for a two-state solution is dependent on the Durban Strategy giving way to a new era. Instead of flotillas, the Goldstone Report, lawfare cases, and calls for BDS – none of which would exist without NGOs – NGOs should lead rigorous efforts and hold international conferences that promote a two-state solution. Among the various topics to address, some of which would be challenging for both sides to deal with, would be the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. If this process had begun ten years ago, the Durban Strategy would be unrecognizable to what it is today.
There has been much written about this September and its potential fallout. But really, the critical examination should be of the strategies, events, and groups that led to these moments. Understanding them, and their negative impact on prospects for peace, is the first step towards changing them and redirecting the current path, which is leading to anything but peace.
Jason Edelstein is communications director for NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.