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By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - In a break from Bush administration policy, the United States is participating in planning sessions for a U.N. conference on racism despite concern that the meeting will be used to criticize Israel.
A U.S. delegation is attending consultations this week on the World Conference Against Racism, scheduled for April in Geneva, Switzerland, although Israel has called for a boycott and Canada has said it will not attend.
The United States and Israel walked out of the first U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, in protest over efforts to pass a resolution comparing Zionism to racism.
Critics of the April conference, dubbed "Durban 2," say Arab nations will use it as a forum to bash Israel and charge that the draft document being prepared for the conference would limit freedom of religion and speech.
The State Department said the U.S. team would work on improving the final document, but the United States would not necessarily attend the April conference.
"If you are not engaged, you don’t have a voice," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.
"We wanted to put forward our view and see if there is some way we can make the document a better document than it appears it is going to be," he said. "That does not mean, however, that we will take part in future meetings or indeed in the conference itself."
The Bush administration refused to take part in the planning and voted in the U.N. General Assembly last year to protest against the conference. But President Barack Obama has promised a more engaged diplomatic approach, including closer cooperation with the United Nations.
The State Department has briefed Jewish groups and members of Congress on the effort. Duguid told reporters there was "no guarantee of success" in rectifying problems with the conference’s draft document.
"What we have seen so far is not promising," he said. "We’d like to see something balanced that addresses racism around the globe and tries to provide a way forward on resolving those issues."
The decision to attend the planning sessions sparked some criticism from Jewish groups but drew praise from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who urged all member states "to engage constructively on all the outstanding issues" at the conference.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Durban process was biased against Israel.
"While we understand the pressure on the U.S. to go to Geneva, we urge America not to participate in a fatally flawed U.N. racism conference that demonizes Israel by singling it out for condemnation," he said. (Editing by Chris Wilson)