Israel-Palestine dispute dominates racism talks

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An attempt by Kofi Annan to settle the crisis that has loomed over the world conference on racism was eclipsed last night by a new argument over the Middle East conflict.

After the United Nations Secretary General used his opening speech in the South African port of Durban to call on the 6,000 delegates to "rise above our disagreements" or "give comfort to the worst elements in society", the Rev Jesse Jackson entered the fray, sparking a new round of mud-slinging between Israel and Palestine.

Mr Jackson claimed to have obtained a pledge from Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian delegation would drop condemnation of Israel and Zionism from its demands in negotiations over the wording of the conference's final declaration. He said this provided an opportunity for the United States to lift its boycott of the conference. But Palestinian officials accused Mr Jackson of being "over zealous", and Mr Arafat later called on delegates to condemn Israel's "colonial, racist plot".

On Thursday, Mary Robinson, who is secretary-general of the UN conference, stated that there had been agreement to excise the word Zionism from the final declaration but she did not mention that Mr Jackson had played a role.

Mr Jackson produced an eight-page, handwritten document with Mr Arafat's name on it that said his delegation would not support language that equated Zionism with racism, nor would it condemn Israel as a racist state.

The Palestinian minister for international cooperation, Nabil Shaath, acknowledged writing the document but said it did not commit the Palestinians to not seeking the condemnation of what he called Israeli "racist practices".

Mr Shaath said: "We have taken out any attack on Zionism as such, and we are not labelling Israel as a Zionist state. We are only against practices by Israel as an occupation authority that discriminates against the Palestinian people." The document, a photocopy of which was seen by The Independent, agreed to recognise the Holocaust as the worst crime of the 20th century and said the Palestinians did not want the UN conference on racism derailed over criticism of Israel.

Today, the parallel conference of non-government organisations (NGOs) is expected to present its proposals to the two working groups of international diplomats which are preparing the final declaration and action plan, to be read out at the end of the conference on 7 September.

The NGO document is understood to contain references to Zionism as racism and may not hyphenate anti-semitism nor spell the Holocaust with a capital letter ­ issues which are controversial to pro-Israelis.

In a marquee near the convention centre, Doreen Lawrence, whose son, Stephen, was murdered by racists, repeated Mr Annan's plea. She told a group of women human rights campaigners about her battle against racism in the British police and judiciary. She added: "If we are not careful at this conference, we are in danger of allowing outside influences to overshadow our struggle. This is exactly what our opponents like to see."

Opening the conference, the host country's president, Thabo Mbeki, painted a bleak picture of two worlds ­ one made up of people who are rich and white; the other consisting of the poor, black and humiliated. But the "rich and white" world was not listening. In contrast to the developing world ­ which sent Fidel Castro of Cuba, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and a dozen African heads of state ­ the most senior EU politicians were the Belgian Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, and his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer.

Beyond the formal meetings of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, a demonstration in the streets of Durban on Friday attracted 10,000 people chanting in support of the uprising against Israel and supporting land-grabs by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe".