Pro-Israel groups attack US honour for Robinson
ANALYSIS:Former president believes allegations that she is biased against Jewish state are unjust and unwarranted, writes DENIS STAUNTON.
PRESIDENT BARACK Obama’s choice of Mary Robinson as one of this year’s recipients of the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, might be a source of special joy and pride for the former president and United Nations human rights commissioner. She will be joined at next week’s ceremony at the White House by a small, diverse and distinguished group including Senator Edward Kennedy (should his illness allow it), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, physicist Stephen Hawking, actor Sidney Poitier and former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Robinson’s award has been overshadowed, however, by a noisy dispute over her record on Israel and Palestine, with some influential pro-Israel groups in the US accusing her of showing a consistent bias against the Jewish state and a handful of bloggers going as far as describing her as an anti-Semitic bigot.
The White House is standing by its decision to award the Medal of Freedom to the former president, but Robinson is distressed by the attacks on her record, which she described this week as “unjust and unwarranted”.
She has also accused “certain elements of the Jewish community” of bullying, a charge that has triggered a fresh round of criticism from pro-Israel groups.
The accusations against Robinson focus on her tenure as UN high commissioner for human rights between 1997 and 2002 and, in particular, her handling of the 2001 world conference against racism in Durban.
Robinson and her critics agree that the conference was marred by a dispute over a draft declaration that linked Zionism to racism, which prompted Israel and the US to walk out, and by ugly expressions of anti-Semitism on the streets outside and at a parallel forum for NGOs.
The American Israel Political Action Committee (Aipac), the most powerful pro-Israel group in the US, this week condemned Robinson’s “dishonourable role in the Durban debacle”. The group cited a report by the late congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, that blamed Robinson for mishandling the conference.
“She refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East.” Lantos wrote.
“Instead of condemning the attempt to usurp the conference, she legitimised it.”
Robinson believes Lantos, with whom she was friendly before the Durban conference, misunderstood her role as secretary general in the secretariat of the conference.
“The conference was run by the member states, particularly by South Africa as the chair,” she says. “So all key meetings and all decisions at the official level were made by governments and I wasn’t present when they were arguing about whether anti-Semitic language, which was in brackets, should be included.”
Robinson claims that, after Israel and the US withdrew, she helped persuade South Africa to remove the offending language, so that the final declaration was eventually welcomed by Israel’s former foreign minister and current president, Shimon Peres.
In her role as UN high commissioner, she rejected the document approved by the NGO forum at Durban, criticising passages she viewed as anti-Semitic. And in a dramatic and much-reported intervention during the event, Robinson denounced a booklet of anti-Semitic cartoons produced by an Arab lawyers’ group.
“My husband is a cartoonist, I love political cartoons, but when I see the racism in this cartoon booklet, of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, I must say that I am a Jew – for those victims are hurting,” she told her audience.
“I know that you people will not understand easily, but you are my friends, so I tell you that I am a Jew, and I will not accept this fractiousness to torpedo the conference.”
Aipac also blames Robinson for a 2002 resolution approved by the UN Human Rights Commission that affirmed “the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation”, a phrase some understood as an endorsement of Palestinian violence.
Again, Robinson argues that her critics misunderstand what her role was, pointing out that the commission is an inter- governmental committee over which the UN Human Rights Commissioner has no power.
Political observers in Washington have noted that Aipac, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Robinson’s other critics have said little or nothing about the award of the Medal of Freedom to Tutu, whose criticism of Israel’s alleged human rights abuses has been just as forthright as Robinson’s.
The unpopularity of the UN among American conservatives makes Robinson a more vulnerable target for groups that could use the controversy over her award to increase pressure on the Obama administration over its Middle East policy.
The White House has been engaged in a public dispute with Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government over the expansion of settlements the international community condemns as illegal. Some hardline supporters of Israel in the US complain that Obama is adopting a more critical approach to Israel to curry favour with Arab states.
Pro-Israel groups such as Aipac and the ADL have in recent years promoted a hawkish approach to the Middle East that is out of step with the liberal views of most Jewish-Americans. Three out of four American Jews voted for Obama and opinion polls show that most support a two-state solution and oppose the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
A poll this year by the dovish pro-Israel group J Street found that more than eight in 10 American Jews support a US policy that pressurises both Israelis and Palestinians and 69 per cent favour the US working with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas to achieve peace with Israel.
In The Much Too Promised Land, a new account of US efforts to broker peace in the Middle East, Aaron David Miller, who advised both Republican and Democratic administrations, suggests Aipac may be less powerful than its critics believe and the group itself likes to pretend. However, he quotes the group’s former executive director, Tom Dine, as declaring that being “the tough guy in the neighbourhood” is still essential. “Aipac and the community can hurt you,” Dine said.
This week, Robinson is discovering in the most painful and immediate terms how true those words remain.
Denis Staunton is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times