The White House defended the United States' decision to leave a worldwide conference on racism, saying U.S. participants had no choice but to walk out when Arab nations persisted in trying to turn the conference into a forum for denigrating Israel.

"This has been a lost opportunity for America, and for people from around the world who are concerned about racism," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Tuesday.

The United States and Israel had warned that they would leave the World Conference Against Racism, now under way in Durban, South Africa, if language in a proposed final declaration and program of action singled Israel out for criticism.

They decided to leave Monday after Arab delegations rejected compromise language offered by the Norwegian delegation; Tuesday, the European Union, the Arab League and South Africa met into the wee hours trying to develop a compromise.

"It is an unfortunate throwback to the old days where these conferences worked in a counterproductive fashion," Fleischer said. "It's unfortunate that people in this conference brought it to the point where America and Israel had no choice but to leave."

In a statement released in Durban on Monday evening, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had remained in Washington, denounced the draft declaration's "hateful language" and said he had told the U.S. delegation to return home from the conference.

The U.S. and Israel boycotted the two previous U.N. racism conferences — in 1978 and 1983 — in part because of similar language.

Delegates from the European Union, the Arab League and South Africa met into early Tuesday to seek a compromise on the dispute and save the summit, said Olivier Alsteens, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who represented the EU at the meeting.

"We want a short, well-balanced text," Alsteens said. "Europe could not agree that the conference support only one part of the (Middle East) conflict."

The document recognized with "deep concern the increase of racist practices of Zionism" and said Zionism "is based on racial superiority." Zionism is the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state.

Israel was the only country mentioned specifically in the document, which accused it of "practices of racial discrimination."

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was working to come up with compromise wording, Alsteens said. The three groups met Tuesday morning and planned to continue meeting, he said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Tuesday that the conference appeared to be getting back on track, with all references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict temporarily removed from the document while substitute language was being sought.

She also told a news briefing that the departing U.S. delegation had called her from the airport to clarify that it had not completely pulled out of the conference and that Craig Kuehl, the U.S. consul-general in Durban, would remain as a delegate.

However, U.S. delegation spokeswoman Judy Moon said the United States had completely ceased its participation in the conference. She said Kuehl would be observing it not as a delegate but in his role as the U.S. official responsible for reporting on events in Durban.

The goal of the conference is to develop an international plan to combat discrimination.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the U.S. withdrawal "unfortunate," and human rights organizations at the conference condemned the U.S. move.

The 15-nation European Union said it had no current plans to leave, but that if it did it would do so as a bloc along with its 13 candidate states, Alsteens said.

Canada said it would stay for the time being but would not accept the wording of the draft document that prompted the U.S. withdrawal. Australia was "considering all options," said delegation spokesman Bala Chettur.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.