Leaders speak about Middle East, slavery at conference

Sunday, September 2, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned what he called Israel's racist practices Saturday but declined to label Israel a racist state, an apparent compromise in how Palestinians would criticize Israel at the World Conference Against Racism.

In earlier speeches, African heads of state addressed the gathering on the legacy of slavery and colonialism, some demanding an apology from the West and others calling for reparations.

Negotiations leading up to the conference have been marked by strong debate over its draft declaration and its draft program of action.

"Two issues threaten consensus: the Middle East and compensation for slavery," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

The U.S. government, which has called parts of a draft declaration anti-Semitic, said American diplomats would leave the eight-day U.N. summit if the provisions condemning Israel weren't removed.

The Palestinian leader's main speech to the conference came a day after the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced Arafat had agreed to lobby to have language removed from a draft declaration that called Israel a racist state and condemned Zionism as racism.

Arafat did not mention the word Zionism -- the religious and philosophical underpinning of the movement that founded Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. But while he did not condemn Israel as a racist state, he did say the Israeli occupation "embodies racial discrimination in its ugliest forms."

"Israeli occupation ... represents a dangerous and flagrant violation of (the U.N.) charter, international human rights and human law. The Israeli occupation is a new and advanced type of apartheid," Arafat said. "Israel, the occupation authority, has pursued policies of racial discrimination."

Jackson said he considered Arafat's speech a compromise.

"My point was for him to focus on practices and policies, not on labeling and blaming," the American civil rights leader said.

But Israeli delegate Ran Cohen, a dovish lawmaker, said he thought Arafat's speech was "very, very negative" and full of "foolish lies."

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