Adrian Hamilton:Walking out on Ahmadinejad was just plain childish
What are we trying to say? That any mention of Israel is now barred?
Thursday, 23 April 2009
Isn't it time western diplomats just grew up and stopped
these infantile games over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
All that this play-acting over boycotting of conferences
because of his presence and walking out because of his
words achieves is to flatter his ego, boost his poll
ratings at home and play into the hands of an Israel that
is desperate to prove Iran the gravest threat to its
True, Iran's President is not the world's most endearing
character. Some of the things he says are certainly
contentious. But he is far from the most offensive leader
on the block at the moment. With Silvio Berlusconi sounding
off about women and sex, and Nicolas Sarkozy sounding off
about everything from the quality of his fellow leaders to
the unsuitability of Muslims to join the civilised nations,
and a Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, giving his views on
gays, Europe could claim its fair share of premiers who
should not be allowed out in public.
Read Ahmadinejad's address at the UN conference on racism
in Geneva this week and there is little to surprise and a
certain amount to be agreed with. His accusations against
the imperial powers for what they did with colonial rule
and the business of slavery is pretty much part of the
school curriculum now. His anger at the way the economic
crisis originated in the West but has hit worst the
innocent of the developing world would find a ready echo
(and did) among most of the delegates.
It was not for this, however, that the countries of Europe
and North America gathered up their skirts and walked out
of Ahmadinejad's peroration. The UK's ambassador to the UN
in Geneva, Peter Gooderham, rather gave the game away when
he said afterwards: "As soon as President Ahmadinejad
started talking about Israel, that was the cue for us to
walk out. We agreed in advance that if there was any such
rhetoric there would be no tolerance for it." The Iranian
leader, he went on to say, was guilty of anti-Semitisim.
Just how you can accuse a man of anti-Semitisim when you
haven't stayed to hear him talk is one of those questions
which the Foreign Office no doubt trains its diplomats to
explain. But what basically was our representative trying
to say here? That any mention of the word Israel is barred
from international discussions? That the mere mention of it
is enough to have the Western governments combine to still
it? In fact, Ahmadinejad's speech was not anti-Semitic, not
in the strict sense of the word. Nowhere in his speech did
he mention his oft-quoted suggestion that Israel be
expunged from the map of the world. At no point did he
mention the word "Jews", only "Zionists", and then
specifically in an Israeli context. Nor did he repeat his
infamous Holocaust denials, although he did reportedly
refer to it slightingly as "ambiguous" in its evidence.
Instead, he launched the time-honoured Middle Eastern
accusation that Israel was an alien country imposed on the
local population by the West, out of its own guilt for the
genocide; that it was supported by a Zionist take-over of
Western politics and that it pursued racist policies
towards the Palestinians. Now you may find these calls
offensive or far-fetched (if there is a Zionist world
conspiracy, it is making a singularly bad job of it) but it
is pretty much the standard view in the Muslim world.
Western support of Israel is seen as a conspiracy, and it
is not just prejudice. There are now books by Western
academics arguing that the pro-Israeli lobby wields an
influence in the US out of all proportion to its numbers.
If the Western walkout in Geneva did nothing else, it
rather proved the point.
Nor is it far-fetched to charge Israel with being a racist
state. As the only country in the world that defines itself
and its immigrants on racial grounds, it could be regarded
as fair comment. And if you doubt that this founding
principle leads Israel into racist attitudes to
non-Israelis, then you only have to read the comments of
its new Foreign Secretary, Avigdor Lieberman, to disabuse
Of course, Ahamadinejad was playing to his home audience.
He is a politician facing re-election at a time when his
domestic economic record makes him vulnerable. Most of the
educated class are fed up with his cavorting on the world
stage while his country goes from wrack to ruin. And, of
course, international conferences of this sort, intended to
spread sweetness and light, are not the most appropriate
forums for such tirades.
But on these issues he does speak for the majority not just
in Iran but in the region. Deny that view a hearing and you
will only increase the resentment and the sense of a
Western world set up against them. Which is precisely what
our oh-so-sanctimonious representatives achieved this week.