Adrian Hamilton: Walking out on Ahmadinejad was just plain childish

What are we trying to say? That any mention of Israel is now barred?

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Isn't it time western diplomats just grew up and stopped these infantile games over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? All that this play-acting over boycotting of conferences because of his presence and walking out because of his words achieves is to flatter his ego, boost his poll ratings at home and play into the hands of an Israel that is desperate to prove Iran the gravest threat to its existence.

True, Iran's President is not the world's most endearing character. Some of the things he says are certainly contentious. But he is far from the most offensive leader on the block at the moment. With Silvio Berlusconi sounding off about women and sex, and Nicolas Sarkozy sounding off about everything from the quality of his fellow leaders to the unsuitability of Muslims to join the civilised nations, and a Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, giving his views on gays, Europe could claim its fair share of premiers who should not be allowed out in public.

Read Ahmadinejad's address at the UN conference on racism in Geneva this week and there is little to surprise and a certain amount to be agreed with. His accusations against the imperial powers for what they did with colonial rule and the business of slavery is pretty much part of the school curriculum now. His anger at the way the economic crisis originated in the West but has hit worst the innocent of the developing world would find a ready echo (and did) among most of the delegates.

It was not for this, however, that the countries of Europe and North America gathered up their skirts and walked out of Ahmadinejad's peroration. The UK's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Peter Gooderham, rather gave the game away when he said afterwards: "As soon as President Ahmadinejad started talking about Israel, that was the cue for us to walk out. We agreed in advance that if there was any such rhetoric there would be no tolerance for it." The Iranian leader, he went on to say, was guilty of anti-Semitisim.

Just how you can accuse a man of anti-Semitisim when you haven't stayed to hear him talk is one of those questions which the Foreign Office no doubt trains its diplomats to explain. But what basically was our representative trying to say here? That any mention of the word Israel is barred from international discussions? That the mere mention of it is enough to have the Western governments combine to still it? In fact, Ahmadinejad's speech was not anti-Semitic, not in the strict sense of the word. Nowhere in his speech did he mention his oft-quoted suggestion that Israel be expunged from the map of the world. At no point did he mention the word "Jews", only "Zionists", and then specifically in an Israeli context. Nor did he repeat his infamous Holocaust denials, although he did reportedly refer to it slightingly as "ambiguous" in its evidence.

Instead, he launched the time-honoured Middle Eastern accusation that Israel was an alien country imposed on the local population by the West, out of its own guilt for the genocide; that it was supported by a Zionist take-over of Western politics and that it pursued racist policies towards the Palestinians. Now you may find these calls offensive or far-fetched (if there is a Zionist world conspiracy, it is making a singularly bad job of it) but it is pretty much the standard view in the Muslim world. Western support of Israel is seen as a conspiracy, and it is not just prejudice. There are now books by Western academics arguing that the pro-Israeli lobby wields an influence in the US out of all proportion to its numbers. If the Western walkout in Geneva did nothing else, it rather proved the point.

Nor is it far-fetched to charge Israel with being a racist state. As the only country in the world that defines itself and its immigrants on racial grounds, it could be regarded as fair comment. And if you doubt that this founding principle leads Israel into racist attitudes to non-Israelis, then you only have to read the comments of its new Foreign Secretary, Avigdor Lieberman, to disabuse you.

Of course, Ahamadinejad was playing to his home audience. He is a politician facing re-election at a time when his domestic economic record makes him vulnerable. Most of the educated class are fed up with his cavorting on the world stage while his country goes from wrack to ruin. And, of course, international conferences of this sort, intended to spread sweetness and light, are not the most appropriate forums for such tirades.

But on these issues he does speak for the majority not just in Iran but in the region. Deny that view a hearing and you will only increase the resentment and the sense of a Western world set up against them. Which is precisely what our oh-so-sanctimonious representatives achieved this week.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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