British and other European diplomats walked out of a UN racism conference yesterday after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disparaged Jewish suffering during the Second World War and denounced Israel as "cruel and racist".
Mr Ahmadinejad's speech in Geneva, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, fulfilled the worst fears of Western governments, whose representatives had decided to boycott the week-long meeting.
President Ahmadinejad, who has previously called the Holocaust a "myth", used his 30-minute conference-opening speech to declare that Israel was created "on the pretext of Jewish suffering" during the Second World War. Two French Jewish protesters in clown costumes threw soft red objects at Mr Ahmadinejad as he recited a Muslim prayer before he began to speak, while a demonstrator in a rainbow wig was dragged from the conference hall.
To applause from other delegates, President Ahmadinejad said that Israel had been created by "migrants from Europe, from the US" sent to establish a "racist government in occupied Palestine".
As soon as it became clear that the Iranian leader was using the UN anti-racist platform to focus almost entirely on Israel, the British, French and other European delegations walked out. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, later dismissed the Iranian leader's remarks as "offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable". "Such hate-filled rhetoric is an intolerable abuse of free speech and of the conference," he said. The British ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Peter Gooderham, who led the protest, said later: "He ascribed all the problems relating to racism in the modern world to Israel and the Jewish state, and that was enough for me to walk out."
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who met Mr Ahmadinejad before his speech, said that he had begged the Iranian leader to avoid splitting the conference. Mr Ban said that he was disappointed Mr Ahmadinejad had used his opening speech "to accuse, divide and even incite", which ran directly counter to the proclaimed aims of the meeting.
The US and seven other Western governments had announced that they were boycotting this week's meeting because a draft declaration dwelled upon alleged Israeli racism and appeared to approve of restrictions of press freedom in developing nations. Britain and France chose to attend but warned in advance that they would walk out if speakers made what they deemed to be unfair attacks on Israel.
Earlier, Israel's new ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, flexed his diplomatic muscles by recalling the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland in protest over a meeting on Sunday between the Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz and the Iranian leader. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said the ambassador to Switzerland, Ilan Elgad, was recalled in order to "manifest our outrage" at the meeting. "Extremists see this as a pat on the back," he said. The move was seen as a harbinger of a new, more aggressive foreign policy from Israel.
David Kimche, a former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, criticised the move. "This was not a useful step for Israel. It was totally wrong for the Swiss President to meet Ahmadinejad but there are do's and don't's of how you behave towards a friendly country," Mr Kimche said.
'Such hate-filled rhetoric is an intolerable abuse of free speech'
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