DURBAN, South Africa - Yasser Arafat denounced Israel as a racist colonial power at a United Nations conference on intolerance last night, just hours after one of his senior aides announced that the Palestinians would reject a proposed declaration that labeled Israel racist.
The reversal came after the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said he had brokered an agreement to eliminate language in conference documents that the Bush administration considered offensive. The language described the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza as a "new kind of apartheid."
In a handwritten statement drafted after the meeting between Jackson and Arafat, a senior Palestinian official suggested that the Palestinian Authority, which Arafat leads, wanted to quell the furor about the language.
The official, Nabil Shaath, minister of planning and international cooperation, said the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was "too important to let it fail for whatever reason."
Shaath wrote: "We are not interested in raising an ideological issue against Israel. Therefore, we will not support statements against Zionism, nor are we going to support statements equating Zionism with racism."
But hours later, Arafat backtracked, saying that Israel was characterized by a "supremacist mentality, a mentality of racial discrimination."
"Our tortured Palestinian people, faced with this harsh treatment with this settler colonialism and racial discrimination, looks to this conference to stand by us, to stand by justice, to stand by international legitimacy, which is now being trodden upon by the Israeli government," Arafat said during a roundtable discussion on racism.
The Bush administration refused to send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the conference. A mid-level delegation is attending.
The debate has touched off shouting matches here between Palestinian and Jewish delegates.
Gunfight precedes criticism
The back-and-forth over the Palestinian position overshadowed a day in which U.N. officials urged delegates to embrace South Africa's model of reconciliation.
Hoping to break the diplomatic impasse, several African-American members of Congress met privately with Arafat. The meeting was arranged by Jackson, who persuaded Shaath to write his conciliatory statement yesterday. But while the Palestinians were meeting with Reps. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, and Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, Arafat learned of gunfire between Israelis and Palestinians in the Hebron region.
In an interview late yesterday, Arafat repeatedly declined to say whether he endorsed the compromise written by Shaath.
"Who can bear what we are suffering?" Arafat said. "In spite of all that, we are insisting on the peace process. And my delegation is studying all the conference tracts, and all the formulas which they are offering. We want to arrive at a conclusion through consensus, from all the countries who are participating."
A U.S. official said the government could not comment on Arafat's statements. But the official said the United States supported any efforts by intermediaries to resolve the logjam.
The U.S. delegation, led by E. Michael Southwick, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, spent yesterday trying to negotiate away any language critical of Israel.
"Given that the objective of our mission is to eliminate the offensive references to Israel, we encourage others who have the same goals that we do to move the conference forward in a positive way," Southwick said. "We're encouraged that others are doing that, whether it be Reverend Jackson or other delegations."
Canadian officials sharply condemned Arafat's remarks at the roundtable meeting. In a statement, Hedy Fry, the Canadian secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women, described his language as "totally unacceptable to Canada."
"It constitutes provocation and is unhelpful to the prospects for peace," Fry said.
Jackson seeks compromise
Jackson, who met with Arafat twice yesterday, said he was surprised to hear of the Palestinian leader's change of heart. He said he retained hope that disputes over the proposed declaration language could be resolved.
"I sought to meet with him and to make the case that at a global conference on racism, xenophobia and racial discrimination that his legitimate concern of the killings and the occupation could not be resolved," Jackson said last night. "The point was to get some movement on the issue.
"What America should be doing now is engaging as an honest broker to break the cycle of violence," Jackson said. "Only the Americans have the power at this point."
The failure of Jackson's effort to break the diplomatic impasse was only the latest problem dogging the conference, which was intended to highlight discrimination in all forms - including concerns about racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, the plight of women in Afghanistan, and modern-day slavery in Sudan.
All nations called guilty
Questions about whether Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians and whether the West should pay reparations for slavery and colonialism roiled conference preparations for months, despite efforts by conference organizers to resolve disputes.
Arab countries have argued strongly that Israel should be sharply criticized. But Jackson and other human rights leaders said the language of the proposed declaration against racism seemed to target Israel unnecessarily, particularly given the dismal human rights records of many countries participating in the conference.
In his speech yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged delegates to remember that both Jews and Palestinians were victims. He urged the delegates at the weeklong conference not to point fingers.
"Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism and discrimination to address," he said.