Why the U.S. Boycott of the Racism Conference Hurts Israel and the U.S.

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That the U.S. is pulling out of a major international conference comes as no surprise these days. It's the reason offered for Secretary of State Colin Powell's boycott of the U.N. conference on racism that's cause for alarm — concern that Israel and its ideology, Zionism, would be subjected to harsh criticism at the conference. Or as President Bush put it last week, the delegates were going to be "picking on Israel."

The U.S. is alone in its boycott, save for Israel, of course. A number of European countries actually share Washington's concern that an event designed to tackle racism and intolerance on a global scale is in danger of being dominated by the Mideast conflict, and they plan to resist efforts to give disproportionate attention to Israel and Zionism. Not that they will exempt Israel from legitimate criticism, but instead will insist that the focus remains global, and that there's an acknowledgement that culpability for racism is widely shared among the nations of both the industrialized and the developing world. Few governments attending the conference are really in a position to cast the first stone. But the Europeans are actually going to the conference to fight for their point of view, not staying away because someone might say mean things about Israel.

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's there to hear itů

It doesn't help Israel one iota that the U.S. is staying away. Plenty of unkind words will be said, and their impact will be no different if the U.S. is not there to hear them. Nor does the Bush administration possess such moral weight on the international stage that its absence could challenge the legitimacy of the conference. In case nobody noticed, there are precious few countries out there these days looking to the U.S.for moral leadership.

The stayaway gesture is purely symbolic, and not nearly as important to Israel as the billions of dollars in U.S. financial support and weaponry it receives each year. But symbolic gestures do have meaning, and the meaning that most of the Arab world will take from the U.S. boycott of the racism conference is that Washington's interests are indistinguishable from Israel's. Right now, that's a rather dangerous message to be putting out there.

Reinforcing Arab anti-Americanism

The U.S. has long-term strategic concerns in the Middle East other than Israel, such as the oil supply in the politically precarious Gulf region. Right now, anti-American sentiment is running at what may be an all-time high, precisely because of a perception that the U.S. is unconditionally supporting Israel in its battle with the Palestinians. On Arab streets, the rage stoked by the intifada has put tremendous pressure on Arab governments traditionally allied with the U.S., weakening their already tenuous domestic political standing in the face of a mounting challenge from radical Islamists. It has become virtually impossible for those governments to support Washington's campaign to maintain pressure on Iraq, for example.

Boycotting the racism conference simply reinforces a perception in the Arab world that support for the U.S. is support for Israel. And that's a perception that can threaten U.S. interests on everything from Iraq policy to investigations of Osama Bin Laden's terror operations. The perception of the U.S. as Israel's unconditional ally also raises the inclination among militant groups to target U.S. interests for revenge attacks. After Monday's assassination of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa by Israeli helicopters, his group vowed to take revenge on U.S. as well as Israeli targets.

Sharon digging himself into a hole?

It's worth asking whether a U.S. boycott of the racism conference actually helps Israel in the long run. Israel needs the U.S., but it needs a U.S. that's a credible mediator in any future revival of the peace process. And right now, the Bush administration is hardly burnishing its image as an "honest broker." Moreover, while it has eschewed President Clinton's hands-on refereeing role, the administration may have defaulted to a knee-jerk support for Israel and enmity towards the Palestinians that will be bad for both Israel and the U.S.

When the State Department, while demanding that Arafat act against terrorism, warns Israel against assassinating Palestinian activists and occupations of Palestinian-controlled areas, it is sending out a carefully calibrated message designed to rescue a process that the U.S. has calculated is vital to Israel's long-term interests. But Sharon hears enough dissonance in the Bush administration to ignore State Department entreaties. The Israeli prime minister appears to believe he can shoot his way out of the present crisis, but it behooves the U.S. to take the long view, in a wider regional context. And viewed against the backdrop of the long-term economic, political and demographic dynamics of the Middle East — at least in the way that Yitzhak Rabin read them when he embarked on the peace process — it may be that Sharon is in fact digging Israel and himself into a very dangerous hole. Israel is already in crisis. And in such moments, nations, like people, need friends who're not only supportive, but are also prepared to help us see aspects of the problem we may be reluctant to confront. And certainly not the sort of friends who'd let us drive home drunk, simply because we've insisted that we know what we're doing.