Secretary of State Colin Powell has decided to skip a U.N. racism meeting because of Arab-backed proposals that claim Israel has used racist practices against Palestinians, the State Department announced Monday.
"It's clear to us now the secretary will not go to this conference," said spokesman Richard Boucher. The conference is slated to start on Friday in Durban, South Africa.
Boucher added that while many countries are sending their head of state or foreign minister to the conference, many others are sending delegates of lower status. The "exact nature and level of our representation, if any, is still being considered," he said
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is traveling in Austria, spoke with Powell over the weekend, according to U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe.
"There are indications from Washington that if they do not get the language they want, they may not participate. Efforts are being made and people are working on the language even as we speak," Annan said early Monday when asked about U.S. participation.
The language in question has to do with representations of the Middle East conflict, which at the moment shows no signs of becoming less contentious. In Johannesburg, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson said that flexibility is being shown in the search for language on the Middle East and other issues.
"One thing I would like to reaffirm is that there is a clear understanding that the formulation 'Zionism equals racism' has been done away with," she said.
President Bush said at a news conference Friday that the U.S. will not have delegates at the conference as long as other representatives "pick on Israel."
"If they use the forum as a way to isolate our friend and strong ally, we will not participate" at any level, said Bush, who has been urged by African-American civil rights activists to send Powell to the conference.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., praised Powell's decision, saying "the United States must not dignify this anti-Israel lynching with its high-level participation." Lantos is a member of the House International Relations Committee.
The decision also was praised by the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League.
Glen A. Tobias, ADL national chairman, and Abraham H. Foxman, its national director, said Powell's absence sends a message that "the United States will not legitimize the attempts to resurrect unfounded anti-Israel and anti-Jewish canards" at the U.N. conference.
But Gerald LeMelle, a top official of Amnesty International USA, was disappointed by the Secretary of State's decision.
"There has been no serious thought as to the role the United States could play," LeMelle said. "Who is going to start leading us away from racial strife in Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Cincinnati?
"Race was at the core of all of these issues. Who is going to show leadership? It's not going to be the Chinese or the Russians. It has to be the U.S. They don't seem to be seizing the moment."
The United States also has objected to attempts by some delegates to use the Durban conference to demand reparations for slavery. Most of the administration's criticism of the conference, however, has been directed at Arab efforts to condemn Israel.
The conference will be held from Aug. 31-Sept. 7.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.