Durban, the Sequel

Geneva and Ann Arbor, Mich., may be a world apart, but they now have something in common: both are settings for a reinvigorated effort to undercut the very legitimacy of Israel.

The same folks responsible for turning this summer’s Durban conference on racism into an anti-Israel free-for-all are getting set for an encore performance in Geneva next week. And in college towns like Ann Arbor, Arab and Muslim student groups are using spurious comparisons with South Africa to discredit Israel.

Neither effort alone will succeed, but cumulatively, the campaign, which also includes the movement to charge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with war crimes, can only make it harder to reach the goal many boosters of these efforts claim to support — genuine peace.

The central theme in both efforts is this: Israel is the new apartheid state, as illegitimate in its existence as the South African government whose blatantly racist policies produced revulsion around the world and, ultimately, economic sanctions that helped bring about its demise.

That was the message promoted by the hijackers of this summer’s United Nations-sponsored racism conference in Durban. The target wasn’t Israeli policy; it was an attack on the idea of a Jewish State, and on the Jews who support it — portrayed as every bit as contemptible as the racists who supported the old South African regime. The fact that the conference was held in Durban added resonance to the charge, exactly as protest planners had intended.

Durban was a failure for Arab and Islamic nations in some key respects. The final conference document ducked the "Zionism as racism" charge, and Washington, recognizing it for the farce it was, boycotted the meeting.

But the meeting garnered enormous media attention; the anti-Israel slurs were repeated endlessly around the world. Respected international groups raised few objections. That was enough to encourage anti-Israel forces to move on to Geneva, where a meeting of the Fourth Geneva Convention on Rules of War will take place Dec. 5.

The convention, who signed the rules on Aug. 12, 1949, has met only once before; that meeting, too, was convened solely to take political swipes at Israel.

Countless wars have taken place in those 52 years, countless atrocities against civilians, but only Israel has been singled out for censure by having a special session called to consider its actions.

The anti-Israel coalition will also bring many of the same nongovernmental groups that sullied this summer’s racism conference to Geneva. Their overall goal: a formal acknowledgment by the international body that Israel is in violation of the convention, and, outside the official meeting, another anti-Israel feeding frenzy.

There’s nothing new in efforts to use international organizations to discredit Israel, as a long series of unbalanced U.N. resolutions demonstrates. But there is a new vehemence in the effort and a new sophistication. Themes have been updated to appeal to Third-World nations and a European bloc that is susceptible to the anti-colonialism pitch. International human rights groups have been drawn in.

In the case of Durban, U.N. human rights officials played a facilitating role in the anti-Israel ambush; it was Switzerland that gave in to Arab and Muslim importuning and called next week’s Geneva conference, and it’s the E.U., again defying a U.S. boycott, that is lending it international credibility.

Geneva has the potential to be much more damaging than Durban; even a watered-down resolution passed by the signatory nations will create the impression — patently absurd, but gratifying to anti-Zionists — that Israel alone is guilty of violating a widely recognized, important human rights treaty. There’s also an expanding domestic front to the new anti-Israel campaign.

Earlier this year, Islamic and Arab groups on campuses across the country called for a "divestment" campaign against Israel similar to the successful effort in the 1970s and 1980s in which colleges and city governments were pressed to get rid of their investments in racist South Africa. Palestinian students’ groups had scheduled a national conference on the subject for October, but it was postponed after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, there are signs the campaign is resuming, especially in traditionally liberal college towns such as Berkeley and Ann Arbor. It is being supported even by some Israeli human rights activists.

Realistically, this effort is unlikely to produce any significant economic pressure on Israel. Overall, support for Israel is at record levels; Ann Arbor and Berkeley are hardly Main-Street America.

But that’s not the point; promoters of the effort hope to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy in small but important increments.