|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
As Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Opens in Budapest, UN Communications Chief
Cites Small but Vibrant People-to-People Movement between Israelis, Palestinians
He Calls on Media Makers to Help Combat Narratives
Of ’Fear, Hostility and Violence’ that Hamper Progress
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
BUDAPEST, 12 July — Welcoming journalists and creators of fiction, theatre and music this morning to a seminar in Budapest, Hungary, on the media’s vital role in resolving the Middle East conflict, the United Nations communications Chief called on them to further utilize their talents to help counter narratives of “fear, hostility and violence” that reified the standstill in the peace process.
“While a virtual stalemate prevails on the diplomatic front, there is a small but vibrant people-to-people movement taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the main forces of this people-to-people movement is cooperation on the ground in art and culture,” Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, told participants at the opening of the two-day International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information.
“Writers, musicians and filmmakers are crafting a new narrative that reflects the shared experiences and common destiny of peoples on both sides. There is enormous potential for culture and media to further contribute to building peace on the ground through interpersonal contacts,” Mr. Akasaka said.
The annual seminar was established by a 1991 General Assembly resolution to provide a forum for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian journalists and others from the region, with the participation of the international community, aimed at enhancing understanding between peoples and achieving a just and lasting peace based on two States living side by side in peace and security.
This year’s event, held in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, is themed “Prospects for Peace: Understanding Current Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles”, and takes account of the dramatic changes in the greater region’s political landscape, including the increased role of new media such as Twitter and Facebook in fostering political change.
In that context, three panel discussions were held today. Entitled “The Middle East peace process: Overcoming the standstill”, “The changing landscape in North Africa and the Middle East: implications for Israeli-Palestinian peace” and “The role of media in transforming societies”, they included political principals, activists and journalists.
The obstacles and opportunities of the current situation were surveyed in the first panel by the keynote speaker, Richard Miron, Spokesman, Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, who delivered a statement by Special Coordinator Robert Serry. Reporting on last night’s meeting of the Quartet in Washington, he said the group remained united in its support of the vision laid out by United States President Barack Obama on 19 May and urgently appealed to the parties to resume direct negotiations without delay or preconditions, beginning with preparatory talks.
The urgency of resuming talks, he said, was increased by the coming to term of Palestinian State-building efforts, deadlines set for final status negotiations and the upheavals occurring in the region, he stressed, adding that new media was allowing ordinary people more power to push more for change than ever before. “The Internet, along with social networks, and the ability to display pictures, video footage and transmit information have given people a platform from which to voice their sentiments where none existed before,” he said.
A fuller picture of the dynamics on both sides was filled in by other speakers in the first panel, along with options for overcoming obstacles, while the second panel focused on the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the third panel looked at the use of the media, new and traditional, in both fostering and suppressing change.
At the opening, which also heard from Zsolt Nemeth, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, Mr. Akasaka delivered a message from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which Mr. Ban stated that, at a time when “the region is coming alive and pressing to become part of the future, it is our duty to do all we can to help the parties realize peace and security.”
“As members of the media and representatives of civil society, you play a vital role in raising public awareness and promoting mutual understanding between Palestinians and Israelis,” the Secretary-General stated. “I am greatly encouraged that you have come together to explore and deepen new avenues of dialogue and outreach,” he added.
Mr. Nemeth, welcoming participants to Budapest, said that at this moment of turbulence in the region, it was crucial to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He was aware of difficulties but also of unprecedented opportunity, including the position of the President of the United States and activity at the United Nations. His country, which had been chairing the European Union in the last year, had been active on the situation and from that experience knew that the transformational momentum was indeed an opportunity not to be missed.
Together with the Union, Hungary was convinced that direct negotiations were the only way forward. “We simply don’t have any other alternative,” he said. Setting clear parameters was crucial, while unilateral measures should be avoided. International efforts, therefore, had been focused on setting a credible framework for the talks. The media seminar had the potential for moving dialogue forward through messages that had a positive impact on public opinion and created an environment conducive to peace. He hoped that the multicultural atmosphere of Budapest could contribute to that end.
As part of his own welcome, Mr. Akasaka stressed to the media makers: “Ultimately, it is people — your readers, your listeners, and your viewers — who have the power to demand, to shape, and to deliver peace.”
The international seminar will meet again tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. for two final panels and a concluding session, following a “Peace Concert” this evening, featuring renowned violinist and oud player Simon Shaheen alongside Hungarian musicians Bori Magyar and Daniel Kardos.
Panel I: The Middle East Peace Process: Overcoming the Standstill
Today’s first panel, moderated by Under-Secretary-General Akasaka, featured a keynote address by Mr. Miron, on behalf of Mr. Serry. Panellists included Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for Palestine to the United Nations, Yossi Beilin, former Justice Minister of Israel, and Geoffrey Aronson, Director of Research and Publications of the Foundation for Middle East Peace of Washington, D.C.
Mr. Serry’s address, as read out by Mr. MIRON, noted that only two months remained until the target date set last year by the parties for reaching agreement on permanent status issues, with only one month until the deadline set by the Palestinian Authority for completing its two-year State-building programme. Unfortunately, negotiations were not under way and there was increasing uncertainty about what September would bring. He said that the Quartet, which had met last night, was united in its support of the vision laid out by United States President Obama on 19 May and urgently appealed to the parties to resume direct negotiations without delay or preconditions, beginning with preparatory talks.
Much work remained to be done to close the gaps between the parties if the current impasse was to be broken, requiring a “spirit of statesmanship and vision” from the parties, he said, adding that, in this new era, leaders could not overlook the sentiments of ordinary people, partly due to the effects of new media. “We have seen the effect of people power in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere and the role of the media, particularly new media in motivating people to protest. The Internet, along with social networks, and the ability to display pictures, video footage and transmit information has given people a platform from which to voice their sentiments where none existed before.”
For those reasons, it was even more important for the international community to provide added reassurance and credibility to the political process, given that “there is deeply popular discontent — on all sides — with the outcome of nearly 20 years of peace process”, he said. The return to talks, in that context, must be centred on clear ideas, including territorial lines based on those of 1967 with agreed swaps and credible security arrangements ensuring full Israeli withdrawal and a sovereign Palestinian State. Convergence on those issues could then provide a foundation for progress on other core issues.
It was also critical to address issues on the ground, he said, stressing that Israel must respect international law in occupied territory in regard to settlement expansion, housing demolitions and displacement of Palestinian residents. He said that the Palestinian State-building programme had reached its limits under the status quo, which also constrained development in the West Bank. In Gaza, the uneasy calm was threatened by recent incidents. It was important that rockets were not fired and that Israel exercised maximum restraint and liberalized further movement of people and goods.
The United Nations, he said, supported Palestinian unity within the positions of the Quartet, the commitments of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab Peace Initiative. For Palestinians, it was important to agree on a Government committed to the platform of President Abbas that could maintain calm out of Gaza and security cooperation in the West Bank and meet the expectations of the population. Noting that September was rapidly approaching and that the international community was working urgently to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, he appealed to the parties to respond “with new flexibility and vision”.
Mr. BEILIN said that yesterday’s Quartet meeting was a catastrophe, because the principals could not agree on anything. “The world doesn’t know what to do with us.” It was not the nineties anymore, he stressed, when there were two credible parties that overcame psychological barriers to agree that there should be a compromise and the international community was willing to fund efforts to bridge the gaps. Unfortunately, the gaps were now unbridgeable, because of the lack of ability and willingness of the parties to bridge them. It was impossible to keep acting as if those gaps would be bridged.
The elected Government of Israel, he said, would not make compromises on borders and Jerusalem. On the Palestinian side, an agreement could not be implemented in Gaza. There was no Palestinian reconciliation, despite the efforts. Even if the world agreed to a Palestinian State, it would not be established if Israel was not willing to withdraw. The choice now was to tread water until the politics of both sides changed, in order to reach a permanent agreement, or to make gradual change on the ground outside of one. He was beginning to warm to that, even though it caused him “heartbreak”.
Mr. MANSOUR agreed with Mr. Beilin that the Quartet had failed yesterday in not presenting a statement with parameters for talks, saying that that was another result of Israeli recalcitrance. Palestinians were trying to overcome such failures, as well as the illegal practices of the occupation, particularly settlement building, which took away Israel’s incentive to negotiate. He called the international position against those settlements “stale” as it had not produced results, despite being in place for a long time. With now more than 580,000 settlers, that “monster” was endangering the two-State solution itself. Palestinians were saying, therefore, that it must be stopped in order to negotiate.
There was also new thinking on the Palestinian side to put an end to the stalemate, he said, which included both non-violence and self-reliance. That was the origin of the State-building programme, which was being done in coordination with the international community while efforts to re-start talks continued. As the State-building plan came to term with international approval, Palestinians did not want to wait for negotiations for statehood, but wanted something to happen through the United Nations. He agreed that unilateral action was not helpful, but that was not a unilateral process, as it was being achieved through multilateral diplomacy via an international organization. Palestinians remained ready to negotiate on all six final status issues, but not on independence. The State-building effort represented a Palestinian contribution to breaking the stalemate. It was the last stand for the “survival of the two-State solution”.
Mr. ARONSON said that the emergence of the new State of South Sudan this week posed the question of whether there was a relationship between State-building and sovereignty. United States President George Bush had said that if Palestinians performed according to the State-building agenda, they would get a State. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had operated on that premise, but it was now the end of the two-year window for Palestinian security forces to operate without a “political horizon”. Unfortunately, Israelis did not recognize that the accomplishments should lead to an end of the occupation.
Gaza, on the other hand, was a contiguous Palestinian area controlled by Palestinian forces, and was where real progress in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians was seen to have changed the whole nature of the discussion there, he said. If Gaza was now able to establish border crossings with Egypt not controlled by Israel, another step in sovereignty would be taken. That had not yet happened, however, despite the so-called Arab Spring. If a vote in the United Nations resulted in recognition of the sovereignty of Palestine, Gaza was the only area in which such sovereignty could be exercised.
In the discussion that followed those presentations, objections were raised to Mr. Aronson’s seeming division of Palestinians into two camps and Mr. Beilin’s doubts of the efficacy of recognition of sovereignty. In response to those comments, as well as questions, Mr. BEILIN said that the only parties who could now deliver a vision leading to the achievement of provisional steps were the Quartet or others in the international community. He had no objection to recognition of a State; he was just worried about “the day after”. It was easy for the international community to recognize a State, but it was harder to achieve something on the ground.
Also in response to questions, Mr. ARONSON said that the fact that Gaza was freer in some sense than the West Bank did not suggest anything about the prospects for Palestinian unity. Mr. MANSOUR, on the other hand, said it was agreed by international legal experts that Gaza was still under occupation. He also pointed to statements from Hamas that showed a unified position among Palestinian people. There was no disagreement on putting an end to occupation and enjoying independence, he said.
In regard to lesser, provisional solutions delivered by the international community, Mr. Mansour commented that such steps also required political will on the part of the international community, which had not even been able to stop settlement activity. A new kind of thinking was needed, with a firmer world approach to Israel and the entire situation, he said. In response to other questions, he said Israeli attempts to portray recognition efforts as conflicting with the peace process represented a “scare tactic”. He asked what the position of the international community would be if the Palestinian people rose up like the Egyptian people and made their views clear, demanding independence.
Panel II: The Changing Landscape in North Africa and the Middle East: Implications for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Also moderated by Mr. Akasaka, panellists in the first afternoon discussion included Afif Safieh, former Palestinian Ambassador to the United States and the Russian Federation and author of “The Peace Process from Breakthrough to Breakdown”; Ron Pundak, former Director-General of the Peres Centre for Peace, Israel; Joe Lauria, correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, New York; and Abderrahim Foukara, Chief of the Washington Bureau of Al Jazeera.
Mr. SAFIEH said that history was on the move and as usual it was undecided, but there was a clear emergence of Arab public opinion on the international scene. The regimes and oppositions in the Arab world had both been problematic, with liberal forces never having consolidated. Changes in Cairo and Syria had already affected Palestinian reconciliation efforts and Gaza crossings to Egypt. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had constantly suffered from its dependence on the agreements of local belligerents and domestic Israeli politics, instead of on rights. That approach was out of date. The Palestinian side had fulfilled its obligations and it was now the duty of Israel and the international community to help bring about a sovereign State.
A decisive moment — what he called an “Eisenhower moment” — was needed by the international community, particularly on the part of the United States, which had no real interest in expanding settlements or continued occupation, he said. There had been cowardice yesterday by the Quartet, but he hoped that September would see a “rendezvous with courage”.
Mr. PUNDAK said that he felt that the movements in the Arab world were very good news to any democratic, progressive thinker. It was the first time that people were massing in the streets without Israel as a focal point. Palestinians, however, were a focal point, from the perspective of their being an oppressed people. He was concerned, however, that, on the ground in Egypt, little would change because of enormous structural problems. That would have negative consequences. He wondered what kind of Tahrir Square movement could occur in the West Bank, where the streets could turn against the Palestinian authorities, as well as against Israel.
He said he agreed with Mr. Beilin on many points, but was more pessimistic. The current Israeli Government did not want to solve the problem, but manage it, with Benjamin Netanyahu actually on the left of his coalition. If there was no progress, the current Palestinian Authority, which he called the Palestinian peace camp, would not survive. The democracy movement and State-building were helping to maintain the Authority. Most Israelis had accepted the establishment of two States, but were not willing to act towards that goal. For that reason, he would like to see Israelis go into the streets.
Regarding negotiations, he favoured 10 points of principle dictated to the two sides by the international community, and entering into negotiations should signify agreement with those principles.
Mr. LAURIA said that there were some strange things going on in the Arab Spring, with Iran and Hamas supporting Egyptian protesters. He asked who was going to support a 10-point plan, as submitted by Mr. Pundak, and suggested maybe people in the streets would come from both sides. From the point of view of the United States, the Arab Spring helped to bring to a head the gap between values and interests in foreign policy, which had been evident in American support for dictators in the Middle East. The Mubarak and Assad regimes and others had brought stability, but United States’ relations with them were not sustainable while many presidents had campaigned for the spread of democracy.
He said that President Obama, in his speech about intervening in Libya, had missed a chance to talk critically about American interventionism and the difference between actions in Libya and those in Iraq. Not that United States’ motivation in Libya was completely pure, but humanitarian concerns were certainly a large factor. It was a case where interest and values came together more than in most situations. It was, indeed, becoming more and more difficult for a wide gap to persist in American foreign policy between values and interest.
Mr. FOUKARA said that the implications for Israel of the Arab Spring depended on whether or not the movements that underpinned it could be called a revolution. To him, it was not yet a revolution. Should it become one, it should be about one thing: citizenship. That applied to the relationship of Arab citizens with their own Governments, as well as with Israel. The emergence of democracy would have a powerful effect on Palestinians, particularly since Israel valued its status as a democratic State. It was not quite clear that there would be a democratic outcome of the current movements, but there was hope that it would lead to a positive result for the Arab world 10 or 20 years from now, even though most problems of the region were too urgent to wait that long.
The discussion following those presentations considered the inability of the United Nations Security Council to condemn the violent suppression of demonstrations in Syria, the danger of religious parties cancelling out religious movements, the possible nature of a Tahrir Square-movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and a comparison of revolution in the Middle East to revolutions elsewhere.
Mr. SAFIEH suggested that the first Intifada was a model for some of the current democracy movements in the region, and what was going on now was a third, non-violent Intifada, which should be shaped to make it most effective; it did not have to imitate any other movement. Mr. FOUKARA stressed that unless structural and economic problems were dealt with, revolutions could take a bad turn. When a correspondent commented that the terms peace and democracy had become polluted in the Middle East and that the choices of Palestinian people should be respected, Mr. SAFIEH argued for a nuanced view of ideological, as well as secular and religious influences in the region.
Panel III: The Role of Media in Transforming Societies
Moderated by Eduardo Ulibarri of Costa Rica, Chairman of the Committee on Information of the United Nations, panellists included Riyadh El Hassan, Chairman of the Board of the Palestinian News and Information Service, Ramallah; Akiva Eldar, Chief Political Columnist and Editorial Writer of the Ha’aretz daily, Tel Aviv; Laszlo Regeczy-Nagy, Director of the Committee for Historical Justice, Budapest; and Hakim Almasmari, Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Post, Sana’a.
Mr. EL HASSAN said that media could help foster change when the time for change was ripe. Each situation in North Africa and the Middle East was different in that light. Those who used Facebook and Twitter were calling for change, but not all those in the streets had access to such social media. In Syria, the movements were rural-based and in Jordan and Morocco, there was a minority calling for change. Change might be needed in Saudi Arabia, where women could not drive. There was much media available there, but the time did not seem ripe.
Though the media was not a sorcerer for bringing about change, it was important for the stories of individuals to be told, he said, citing the story of a Palestinian who got himself sent to prison in order to get to know his father, who had been incarcerated for decades. Public reaction came from the facts on the ground. Political differences led to more extreme journalistic styles, as was occurring now in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. New media was not essentially different from traditional media, such as Al Jazeerah, which had as great a role in the current movement as Twitter and Facebook.
Mr. ELDAR said that in one perspective, news media was supposed to be objective, but in another view, it should be a guide in shifting civil society. A journalist who stood on the side when genocide was occurring was not doing his job, he stressed. For a long time, he had only reported and did not push his political views actively, but in the past year, he had joined a political movement called the Israeli Peace Initiative that proposed Israeli acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative. He found that his work in that area had value for his journalistic endeavours and that there was no conflict of interest.
It was a question of saving lives; there was either peace or war in the long run, he said. As a Zionist, a status quo leading to an apartheid State would be disastrous. A lack of information on essential issues was also disastrous, he stressed, citing scant knowledge of the Arab Peace Initiative. It was also important that information on the other side get out — for example, that the Arab world did not accept the partition of Palestine and that extremism on both sides had hurt the peace process. He urged Israeli journalists to be aware of the weakness of Palestinian media, to show empathy and foster partnership for peace.
Mr. REGENCZY-NAGY said that, under the Communist dictatorship in Hungary, politics was everything and everything was politics, and the media formed an armour against alien ideas. The State police body was the dictatorship of the proletariat and the media was one of its tools. Simulation and dissimulation were the tools of diplomats, for whom lying was a daily diet. The media was the vanguard for gaining absolute dominance over the whole world. However, lies made an unstable basis for a political system. The first tremor came with the death of Stalin, after which Nikita Kruschev had uttered a few truths, and the resulting cracks in the tight system could not be repaired.
Citing Alexis de Tocqueville, he said trouble arose for dictatorial regimes when they tried to introduce reforms. In the case of Hungary, press reform had led directly to the 1956 revolution. A major reform of socialism had been pushed by journalists and with the reforms, foreign journalists had come streaming across the border, but many of them were interested in sensationalism, disseminating, for example, photographs of the hanging of police agents without the accompanying explanations of the nine years of repression that had preceded those actions. Unfortunately, journalists were also willing to change their stripes in the interest of their own careers, and that occurred when the revolution was crushed.
Mr. ALMASMARI said that the Arab Spring showed that the will of the people was paramount and that the media was the most powerful tool for change. The problem was that the media could also be used to suppress the people’s will. Most of the media in Yemen was run and frequently owned by powerful politicians. Facebook and Twitter use, as a result, had increased some 40 per cent in Yemen in recent months. The silent majority who did not participate in demonstrations were the people most susceptible to the power of the media, whether right or wrong. The Arab Spring, in that light, was certainly being affected by the media, but the question was whether media was being used more strongly in the interest of the people or in the interest of vested Powers. It was clear that both phenomena were occurring.
Following those presentations, in the final discussion of the day, before the “Peace Concert”, speakers considered the psychology of leaders who could not relinquish power; the utility of mutual understanding between people; the helpfulness of media events and protests such as the flotilla movements; whether or not Israeli fears were being addressed by Arab journalists; and the value of expressions of guilt or remorse when one people was suffering because of the actions of another, especially if that other society was proud of its democracy.
In response to the last vein of commentary, Mr. ELDAR said that he was motivated in his advocacy, not only by sympathy for Palestinians, but because he thought that the occupation and settlements were undermining his family’s future and that of Israeli democracy. On the other hand, he pointed to an unholy alliance between the radicals on both sides, saying that Yassir Arafat’s unwillingness to condemn violence had fed Israeli radicals. The role of journalists who supported the two-State solution was to tell the truth, he said.
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