GENEVA – Negotiators from more than 100 countries failed in a heated meeting Wednesday to break the deadlock over anti-Israeli references that threaten to provoke a U.S. and Israeli boycott of the World Conference Against Racism, diplomats said.
"It doesn't seem the parties have come together in any significant way," said Israeli ambassador Yaakov Levy, describing the effort to narrow the differences as "a two-hour exercise in exchanging accusations."
Only two days remain before the end of the preparatory talks, which are meant to lay the groundwork for the conference starting Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa. The Geneva talks are seeking to work out a draft document to be adopted at Durban.
President Bush's administration has threatened to boycott the Durban meeting if the anti-Israel references are not removed. The European Union is also pushing for the removal of references to the Middle East.
Arab countries, however, continue to insist that the conference accuse Israel of racism in its treatment of Palestinians. Egyptian Ambassador Fayza Aboulnaga said the demands to change the text amounted to an attempt "to minimize the suffering of the Palestinian people" that "shocks Egypt and the Arab world."
Syrian Ambassador Toufik Salloum denied that there was an attempt to "bring the whole Middle East conflict to the conference."
"But we should not ignore addressing discriminatory and racist behavior committed by the occupying forces against the Palestinians," he said.
Salloum rejected U.S. and Israeli arguments that it was unacceptable to single out Israel for criticism.
"In the past, South Africa was singled out when they behaved in this way, so if they (Israel) are the only country that is committing this it should be mentioned by name," Salloum said.
It was the second time since the preparatory meeting began 10 days ago that the negotiators had met in an informal session behind closed doors to end the Middle East row.
Salloum said the Arab and Islamic group was willing to continue the search for a compromise and had proposed presenting a written text as a basis of negotiations.
Levy said that Israel, backed by the United States, is insisting that there be "no hate language in the document, no singling out one party, no 'Zionism is racism' in either a direct or indirect formulation."
U.N. officials said they thought another key issue of concern to Europe and the United States — Africa's demand for compensation for slavery and colonialism — were near resolution, but details were not yet available.
Algerian Ambassador Mohammed-Salah Dembri, who spoke for the Arab group of countries, said that if the talks fail to reach agreement on the text by Friday at midnight, they should be continued at Durban.
But the United States is insisting that the contentious issues should be removed this week, even if some final polishing of the text is to be put off until Durban.
Israeli officials say that they, too, would have to consider pulling out of the conference if the deadlock remains by week's end.