U.S. Leads the Way at Berlin Conference

By Marc Perelman

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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The Bush administration has launched a major diplomatic effort to ensure a positive outcome to a major conference on antisemitism being held next week in Berlin.

The administration drew cheers from Jewish groups after Secretary of State Colin Powell decided to join the American delegation to the two-day gathering of the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, scheduled to start April 28. Jewish groups had urged Powell to attend after initial indications that he would not be going.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, American negotiators appear to have succeeded, along with Jewish groups, in convincing European countries to accept a definition of antisemitism that includes a reference to Israel. After weeks of haggling over a definition of antisemitism, American and European diplomats reportedly agreed on language to be included in a formal declaration to be adopted next week at the conference on in Berlin.

“The U.S. really led the way,” said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice-president of B’nai B’rith International. “If it weren’t for them, we would not be anywhere near where we are today.”

At next week’s meeting, the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to outline concrete steps that the 55 member states need to take to address antisemitism, including the creation of a European-wide monitoring mechanism.

Created in the mid-1970s as a human rights body that brought together Cold War enemies, the OSCE is made up overwhelmingly of European countries and operates on consensus. It also includes the United States, Muslim countries in Central Asia and several Arab nations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the organization focused on minority rights. While the group identified antisemitism as one area of concern back in 1990, the issue never received full-fledged attention, and no system was set up to monitor the implementation of legislative and educational measures to deal with the issue, observers said.

But the surge in antisemitic incidents across Europe since 2000 has led Washington to focus more attention on the OSCE. The Bush administration lobbied to organize a stand-alone OSCE conference on antisemitism last year in Vienna and joined hands with the German government to hold the one in Berlin next week that will focus on more concrete measures.

This week, in advance of the Berlin gathering, intensive negotiations took place at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, in order to secure a compromise between the Bush administration and Jewish groups on the one hand and the Europeans on the other over whether the definition of antisemitism should include an explicit reference to Israel.

A senior European diplomat close to the negotiations told the Forward that a deal had been reached early this week, which could pave the way for the adoption of a common declaration during the Berlin conference. No official contacted could confirm the precise language agreed upon.

Representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia — five of the six so-called “Mediterranean partners” of the OSCE (Israel is the sixth) — lobbied against the inclusion of language referring to the Middle East in the final declaration. The five countries, led by Egypt, threatened to diminish or withdraw from OSCE deliberations if their demands were not heeded, according to an April 16 letter sent to Secretary Powell by the chairs of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a federal agency comprising lawmakers and administration officials in charge of monitoring OSCE developments.

In addition to the debate over the reference to Israel, it appears that U.S. and European negotiators squared off over creating a mechanism for monitoring antisemitism. In January, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Stephan Minikes, told a gathering of Jewish communal leaders that the Bush administration had encountered widespread opposition from European Union countries over putting an effective system in place.

Minikes could not be reached for further comment. The European diplomat who spoke to the Forward denied that the E.U. opposed the establishment of a monitoring mechanism.

In the end, representatives at next week’s conference are expected to assign the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights the task of collecting data on antisemitic incidents in member countries, diplomats and observers said.

While the scope of the monitoring mechanism and the level of funding is still unclear, it is still being viewed by some as an important step, especially after a recent flap during which several leaders of Jewish organizations accused the E.U.’s monitoring body of shelving findings identifying young Muslims as the main perpetrators of antisemitic acts. Still, some Jewish critics claim that merely collecting data does not constitute an effective monitoring mechanism.

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