Abdel Bari Atwan, well known Palestinian journalist and editor in chief of the London-based daily newspaper Al-Quds Al Arabi, was interviewed by Silvia Cattori on the Durban Review Conference. The interview took place in Geneva on 23 April 2009.
Abdel Bari Atwan
Silvia Cattori: Was the Durban Review Conference a missed opportunity?
Abdel Bari Atwan : Personally, I believe that “Durban II” was a huge disappointment because it did not tackle the major problems. Diplomacy prevailed. The West and the United States in particular managed to hijack the conference. They changed the focus of this conference.
“Durban I” started as a strong force against racism, but what happened? Because of the United States and Israeli pressure, the conference was derailed. We noticed that the final “communiqué” of the conference was simply a nutshell of the first “communiqué”, and it did not name names.
Personally, I expected this conference to take a strong position against the Israeli aggression on Gaza, to condemn Israeli racism, Israeli apartheid. But what happened is that, because of United States, Israeli and European pressure to boycott the conference, the final “communiqué” was completely hollow and very vague.
And also I was shocked when the Palestinian delegation yielded to the pressure, when the Arab delegations followed suit and accepted to leave out any reference to Israel and to Israel as a racist country.
So, I am really disappointed, and I admit I am really thankful to Ahmadinejad, because he reminded everybody of the true issues, especially Israeli racism. So, without Ahmadinejad, Israel would not have been mentioned and would not have been blamed for its atrocities against the Palestinians.
The other point that I would like to refer to: I was disappointed when the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, made all these concessions, omitted all references to Israel in the final “communiqué”, without gaining anything, without even getting the United States and Israel to participate in the conference. They had agreed to these concessions in order to persuade the United States and Israel to attend, but they didn’t.
So, why is that? I think that once they realized that the United States were not coming, the Israelis were not coming, the Canadians were not coming, at that point they could have insisted that the final “communiqué” should contain a strong condemnation of Israeli racism against the Palestinians.
Silvia Cattori: So, you strongly disagree with those Palestinians who believe that President Ahmadinejad was outsmarted by the Israelis?
Abdel Bari Atwan: I don’t agree with those Palestinians, the so called “moderate” Palestinians. What Ahmadinejad did: he reminded everybody of Israeli racism. I think personally that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas should have been there, and he should have said what Ahmadinedjad said; in even stronger words, because he knows what the Israelis are doing by building settlements, separation wall, and that they committed massacres in Gaza, or actually he should have decried the fact that the Palestinians made all these concessions and in return they got nothing but more settlements, more check points, more humiliation.
I think that Ahmadinejad was extremely successful. He was saying what many Palestinians, many Africans, many Arabs, many Muslims, and many Europeans think.
Silvia Cattori: Any honest analyst who reads carefully the Statement of Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot consider it as “violent”, “anti-Semite”, or whatever. But does it not appear instead that the Western States and media succeeded, once more, through their propaganda against the President of Iran, to isolate Iran making a gift to Israel?
Abdel Bari Atwan: You know, what Ahmadinejad said was based on facts. He stated clearly that Israel was set up at the expense of Palestinian people. This is a fact. What he stated were facts. He reminded us of what happened, not 2000 years ago, just 60 years ago. And we are one of the victims of this kind of great mistake in history.
So, actually, the Europeans who pulled out of the conference were boycotting his speech because they were ashamed of themselves; because he reminded them of their crimes against humanity, their crimes against the Palestinians. So, they left because of that. The Jews were not persecuted by us, by the Palestinians, by the Arabs. They were massacred and have been gassed by Europeans. So, he reminded them of their guilt. That is why they left.
The second point which I would like to make: the Europeans have been lambasting us for the last 60 years, when we used to boycott the Israelis, when we used to refuse to sit with the Israelis: “you are not civilized, you are doing wrong, you should sit with the Israelis, put your case on the table, argue with them, but by boycotting, you lose”. During all that time they were telling us that. Now, they are preaching something completely different.
So, I was shocked because they were preaching something, and doing something else; they were telling us to do something and they are doing something else. The third point which really angered me about their decision to pull out of the session: when we were protesting against the cartoons which were extremely insulting to the Prophet Mohamed, they said to us “Why are you doing that? It is freedom of expression. Everybody is entitled to express his point of view. You should not protest”.
Now, this is freedom of expression too. This is a man who is expressing his point of view; and he is recalling history. He is not denying the Holocaust in any way; he did not for example deny that the Jews were persecuted. No, he was stating historical facts. So, why don’t we consider this as freedom of expression?
Silvia Cattori: Were you shocked when the French delegation gave the signal to leave the conference hall, with the delegations of other European Union states?
Abdel Bari Atwan: Yes, I was shocked. I was actually disappointed. I believe this is a sign of hypocrisy. The West is hypocritical. They are actually saying things which they don’t believe in. So, I am not going to accept any lecture on future from the West about democracy, about human rights, about respect of religion, about freedom of expression. This is rotten apples. I won’t buy it.
Why are you pulling out? Let the man talk and, then, go and answer him. If he is saying something wrong, correct him, and take the floor.
He said that the Palestinian people were actually kicked out of their country: they were. He said that Israel was set up on the cost of the Palestinians: it was the case. He said that Europeans persecuted the Jews: yes. So, what is wrong with that? But, because they lack arguments, because they can’t come up with facts, to refute his facts, they ran away; because they were cowards.
Silvia Cattori: Did those who worked hard to sabotage this conference succeed?
Abdel Bari Atwan: The conference was sabotaged by the Americans, by the French, by the Israelis, by European countries, and they agreed about this because 23 countries actually withdrew from the conference. When they left the hall as Ahmadinejad was speaking, it was orchestrated; it was a pre-arranged move. That’s shame on France and the other countries.
Silvia Cattori: It became very clear that the Jewish organisations started a long-time ago to push for a boycott of “Durban II”. For instance, the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, appointed a well known pro-Israeli, François Zimeray, as Ambassador in charge of « Human Rights ». Backed by Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, he is more concerned with protecting Israeli interests than with justice for the victims. In your opinion, is this old-style brutal and biased diplomacy effective?
Abdel Bari Atwan: It is no longer so. They are deluding themselves. Maybe, this time, they managed to trick the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Muslims, but they are not going to succeed, simply because Israel was exposed in the end.
Ahmadinejad did what the final “communiqué” did not. He compensated for that, he created huge media interest. And thanks to this, people all over the world discovered that: the French, the western parties were trying to change the course of history. So, it was a fraudulent point of view on their part about history. And now the western media are no longer predominant; now we have Al Jazeera in Arabic, we have Al Jazeera in English, we have the internet, and we have the blogs. Here, the people will wake up and we see a lot of signs that the ordinary European is not buying this rubbish propaganda. There are a lot of changes taking place. Ahmadinejad maybe was hated by these governments but, in the Middle East at least, in the Muslim world, he was received as a hero.
Silvia Cattori: So, he didn’t make a mistake?
Abdel Bari Atwan: No, he didn’t make any mistake. The man was very restrained; he actually spoke facts, only facts. He didn’t use any rhetoric. He didn’t say anything new; he said what United Nations said when they considered Zionism as racist movement. When the United Nations were still the United Nations, when the Arabs were the Arabs, the United Nations considered Israel as a Zionist state, as a racist state. Nowadays, simply because the United Nations is part of the United States administration, it is not independent, they omitted this reference to Zionism as a racist movement, but this will not last forever.
Last year, the president of the U.N. General Assembly said that Israel is a racist country. He said that Zionism is a racist movement. So, why Durban didn’t say that? Why did the General Assembly say it and Durban could not say it? I think this is sabotage, this is a distortion of history, and I think actually that Israel was exposed despite the protection of Western countries.
Silvia Cattori: Jewish organisations, present in huge numbers, were very active in Geneva. Their militants made a lot of noise; their accusations of “anti-Semitism”, “negationism”, were widely picked up by the media. The Swiss President, Mr. Hans-Rudolf Merz, had a very fair and respectful attitude during the visit of the Iranian President. But the Zionist propaganda pushed our Minister of foreign affairs, Mrs Micheline Calmy-Rey, to change her mind; she finally condemned with strong words Mr. Ahmadinejad’s Statement. Is it not a sign that the Pro-Israeli lobby succeeded in its attempt to frighten the politicians?
Abdel Bari Atwan: The media terrorized the politicians in this country, and the media terrorized the politicians in European countries; because most of the media is controlled by the Zionist lobby. And that’s the problem. So, the media are guilty but I think it won’t last forever. This blackmail of media by the Zionist lobbies proved counterproductive for the West because we have been misled by these media people.
The capitalist system is collapsing; why are we in a mess financially: simply because of the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the support of the Israeli aggressions in Lebanon and Gaza Strip. The West should wake up and say to the Israelis: enough is enough; you cannot actually destroy our life. Israel is a moral and a security burden on the West and they should get rid of it as soon as possible; otherwise the West will pay a heavier price in the near future.
Silvia Cattori: Does it mean that the Israeli State can continue with its ethnic cleansing and killing of Palestinians?
Abdel Bari Atwan: It is a green light, definitely, by protecting Israel from any condemnation, by not referring to Israel and its atrocities, its crimes, its massacres against the Palestinians. This will reflect badly on the West, and it will encourage Israel to commit more massacres. But Israel is running out of time, the West is running out of time.
They have, as I said, to wake up because the world is changing, the Middle East is changing. They don’t have the money that they used to have before. They don’t have the wisdom that they used to have before. Nowadays they need the Arabs, they need the Muslims; they were defeated in Iraq, and they are going to be defeated in Afghanistan, and they will be defeated in Palestine.
President Bush said: ”Mission accomplished in Iraq”! And what is happening now? Obama is trying to pull out as soon as possible to cut the losses. Bush claimed that he managed to accomplish the job in Afghanistan and now the Taleban control more than 90% of Afghanistan and they will soon be in Kabul. And now the Western countries don’t have the money, now they are facing immigration problems from Africa, now they have a banking system which is collapsing.
They have to wake up, and most of their problems come from those governments who are controlled by Israeli lobbies. So, they have to open their eyes and say to these lobbies: you are destroying us, you are destroying our interests, and you are destroying even Israel as it is. You have to change. So I hope this message will be heard.
Israel did not win in Durban II, and it is not true that they actually succeeded to put the blame on Ahmadinejad. This is somebody who is sweeping the dust under the carpet. They are trying to see only their image in the mirror. They believe in their own lies. They cannot see that the whole world was very sympathetic to Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad said what many people should have said in that conference.
The media is starting to lose its teeth. It is not effective as it used to be. It is not in control as it used to be. CNN is not the only channel on earth. Reuters is not the only news agency on earth. Now you have other media outlets. Now the media are struggling to survive. This role the media played to serve Zionist interests is not as strong as it used to be. Maybe still strong but not as strong; and it is losing its influence gradually. And also, the Western world is losing its influence gradually, because, as I said, there are emerging powers now. Russia is coming back; India, Brazil, China, are emerging. The United States are not in full control as they used to be. So, this will actually reflect badly on Israel and on racism in the near future.
Silvia Cattori: In his statement, the Chinese ambassador complained about those who do not want to recognize their responsibility, and the “Media who defame the religions and races”. Wouldn’t European politicians be better advised to take into account the fact that China –and Russia- could be good partners for establishing a multilateral World?
Abdel Bari Atwan: The Chinese are very clever. They don’t want to clash with the United States; they don’t want to clash with the Israelis until they build their power. They are in a process of building their economy, their military power, their place in the world and the international scene; so they don’t want to clash now. And they know the United States is losing its power, gradually. So they are waiting until the rotten United States fruit falls on their laps. They are using diplomatic language now because it is not in their interest to clash with the United States.
Revised by Julie Franco and Monica Hostettler.
 Abdel Bari Atwan was born in 1950 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Deir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip. He worked for many Arab newspapers. He is the editor-in-chief of al-Quds al-Arabi, one of three major newspapers written in Arabic, published in London. Regularly invited by the BBC and Aljazeera, he is very popular in the Arab world.