U.S., Israel leave race conference

Arabs had refused to delete criticism of Israel from document

Powell expresses regret

African-Americans at U.N. gathering decry U.S. decision


DURBAN, South Africa -- The United States and Israel walked out of the United Nations meeting on racism last night, denouncing a condemnation of Israel in a proposed conference declaration and lamenting that a gathering intended to celebrate tolerance and diversity had degenerated into one torn by hate.

Last night, South Africa convened emergency meetings to redraft the declaration and program of action in the hope of averting other walkouts, and a spokesman for the European Union delegation, which had also raised concerns, said its diplomats would participate in those efforts.

In announcing his decision in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said: "I have taken this decision with regret because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that the conference could have made to it.

"But following discussions today by our team in Durban and others who are working for a successful conference, I am convinced that will not be possible," Powell said.

Powell said negotiators had failed to persuade Arab delegates to remove criticism of Israel from proposed conference documents that assail "the racist practices of Zionism" and describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians as a "new kind of apartheid."

Questions about whether Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians and whether the West should pay reparations for slavery and colonialism have roiled conference preparations for months. Washington has said repeatedly that it will not consider language that criticizes Israel or legitimizes reparations for descendants of slaves.

The fact that the United States did not send Powell to the U.N. conference, which opened Friday, was a sore point with many of the countries represented here. The United States and Israel both sent midlevel delegations.

The decision to withdraw even those delegates dashed the hopes of thousands who have gathered here to fight intolerance.

Olivier Alsteens, spokesman for the European Union delegation, said it had no immediate plans to withdraw, "but if at one moment we feel there is no other opportunity, then we will leave all together." The European delegation was assisting in overnight meetings to salvage the conference documents.

The U.S. and Israeli walkout was applauded by Jewish groups but greeted with regret by South Africa and other developing countries and with anger by black Americans and their supporters. It seemed likely to heighten frustrations and divisions among the increasingly polarized groups.

Last night, black Americans and their allies took to the streets here, chanting "Shame, shame, USA." The protesters said they were deeply disappointed that the United States could not find a way to compromise and sign an international declaration that is expected to condemn slavery and racial discrimination.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who has been urging the Arab League to back away from the charged language, and members of the Black Congressional Caucus also criticized the Bush administration's decision.

Donna M. Christian-Christensen, a Democrat who is the Virgin Islands delegate to the House of Representatives, said: "It leaves African-Americans with no recognition of all the suffering we have had and all of the suffering we continue to have."

Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and delegation member, said he was sorry that the United States was pulling out. But he said the team, headed by E. Michael Southwick, a deputy assistant secretary of state, had no choice because the Palestinians and their supporters refused to compromise.

The American and Israeli decision to leave came after officials from the United States and Norway had huddled for hours in closed-door meetings with Arab and Palestinian officials, trying to broker a deal.

Norwegian diplomats proposed new language that mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but was fair to both sides, U.S. officials said. But the effort failed, and some meetings were so heated that participants ended up shouting, in another reflection of the deteriorating political climate.

"It was an ugly meeting," Lantos said. "This was not a question of persuading people. This was a question of an iron wall we were up against, and there was no give."

Arab officials blamed the Bush administration for the failure of the talks. Farouk Kaddoumi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, accused the United States of using the dispute as a pretext to avoid serious discussion of slavery and reparations for the descendants of African slaves in the United States.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, said the Norwegian compromise document was unacceptable because it trivialized Palestinian suffering.

"The only mention of Israel is that the Palestinians and Israelis should go back to the peace process," Maher said. "That is not enough.

"We are talking about a war waged using the most sophisticated weapons on a civilian population," Maher said. "This is a government that has taken an official decision to assassinate people. You want this conference, which deals with discrimination, not to mention these things? That is precisely what must be raised."

Polarization has also been evident in the tense interactions between the thousands of delegates from civic groups that have been meeting here in hopes of influencing the governments drafting the final U.N. declaration on racism, which is to be completed Friday.

Conference organizers chose South Africa as a setting for the conference because of its remarkable story of racial reconciliation. After years of conflict and bloodshed, the nation ended apartheid with peaceful elections in 1994.

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