Participants Share Opinions of Peace Efforts, Ways to End 50-Year-Long Occupation, as International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Opens

PAL/2215-PI/2213
5 October 2017
International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, AM & PM Meetings

Participants Share Opinions of Peace Efforts, Ways to End 50-Year-Long Occupation, as International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Opens

VIENNA, 5 October — The 2017 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened in Vienna today, with journalists, diplomats, academics and civil society representatives sharing views on the status of peace efforts, ways to end the occupation — now in its fiftieth year — and media narratives about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Organized by the Department of Public Information and the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue under the theme “Media Narratives and Public Perceptions,” the Seminar opened with two panel discussions on “The quest for peace in the Middle East and impact of 50 years of occupation on future prospects”, and “Empathy as an alternative way for seeking peace”.

Alison Smale, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, noted in opening remarks that the Seminar was an annual reminder that the question of Palestine remained unresolved.  “It reminds us that media can be as much a part of the problem, as it can be part of the solution.”  Given the special significance of 2017 as the fiftieth year of occupation, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People would focus its activities on efforts to end the status quo, which the Department of Public Information had been asked to support, she said.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that the two-State solution was the only way forward and must be urgently pursued.  “We at the United Nations will do everything we can to work in that direction,” he declared in a message read out by Ms. Smale.  “We must not let today’s stagnation in the peace process lead to tomorrow’s escalation.”

John Brandolino, Director of the Division for Treaty Affairs in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), welcomed participants on behalf of Yury Fedotov, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna.  “As journalists and communications professionals, you have a deep knowledge of the importance of fair, balanced and pluralistic news, as well as the role played by journalism around the world to inform and to empower,” he said.

Gertraud Borea d’Olmo, Secretary General of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, said the organization’s namesake — a former Chancellor of Austria — had worked to place Vienna at the centre of international politics and had been pivotal in creating the Vienna International Centre, venue of the Seminar.  “I’m glad there is such a great interest in this topic,” she said.

Throughout the day, participants reviewed the impact of 50 years of occupation, exploring whether past methods employed to bring parties to the negotiation table were viable amid today’s shifting politics, perceptions and access to authentic narratives providing insight into the daily realities of Palestinians and Israelis.  Some panellists advocated empathy as a low-cost powerful option for diplomacy, while others viewed it as ineffective in creating an equal footing between the parties.

In the morning, panellist Avraham Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, said the Israeli dimension of the conflict was marked by the reluctance of the “greedy” to relinquish privileges over resources, power, politics and sovereignty.  “For 50 years, we gave the impression that the occupation was temporary and just a question of time,” he said.  While Israel’s political left had created false impressions, right-wing nationalists had created facts on the ground that were “here to stay”.  Meanwhile, shifting global and regional dynamics had probably rendered the two-State formula obsolete, he observed.

Zaha Hassan, former Coordinator and Senior Legal Adviser to the Palestinian Negotiation Team, said no State appeared willing to stand in Israel’s way.  With the United States hesitant to advocate any preference for a solution, the question going forward must be answered by the United Nations, the States parties to the Geneva Conventions, civil society, the business community as well as Palestinians and Israelis who rejected a repressive regime.

Responding to those views, Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, disagreed with such negative portrayals of the current situation.  The panellists’ remarks might reflect the thinking in Israel, Washington, D.C., or Vienna, but “they are not the thinking of Palestinian people”, he said, emphasizing that, having been in discussion with the President of the United States, he could say that the two-State solution was not obsolete.

During the afternoon discussion, panellist Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, said Israelis and Palestinians had lost their empathy — the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes.  “Empathy is a necessary step for truth and reconciliation,” he said, adding that other difficult steps could then follow, notably for mutual security.

Ahmad Abu Akel, Research Fellow, Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne, stressed the importance of inter-group relations in diffusing tensions, and of addressing power differences within a relationship to create equal footing among parties.  While empathic anger could be a motivator of positive action, it was important to understand its effects at the local level.

Gudrun Harrer, Senior Editor at Der Standard, advocated a human rights approach to convincing Israel that Palestinians needed their own State, while describing the uncertain regional political context.  The Kurdish situation had opened anew, the “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran was generating a sectarian crisis, and there was now a rift involving Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, among others.

The International Media Seminar will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 6 October.

Panel I

The day began with a panel discussion titled “Quest for peace in the Middle East and the impact of 50 years of occupation on future prospects”.  Moderated by Alison Smale, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, it featured presentations by:  Avraham Burg, former Speaker, Knesset, Israel; Zaha Hassan, former Coordinator and Senior Legal Adviser, Palestinian Negotiation Team; and Gudrun Harrer, Senior Editor, Der Standard.

Mr. BURG, asked why the peace process was not advancing, said he could speak about the Israeli dimension, which was marked by a lack of motivation and the “greedy” feeling of Jews reluctant to relinquish their privileges over resources, power, politics and sovereignty.  “For 50 years, we gave the impression that the occupation was temporary and just a question of time,” he said.  Now, while the left had created false impressions, right wing nationalists had created facts on the ground that were there to stay.  Until the first Intifada, resolving the problem had not been a “burning issue” in Israeli society, he recalled.

Afterwards, the two-State formula had emerged, mainstreaming a marginal idea.  At the time, peace movements were succeeding in South Africa and Ireland, and the Berlin Wall had come down.  “Oslo was the spirit of the time,” he said, referring to the peace accords signed in the 1990s.  “We are not there anymore,” he said, questioning whether the two-State solution was still on the shelf.  The more people discussed its potential, the less benefit it would have for reconciliation.  “We have to pay attention to the transition of the times, the international situation and the local Middle Eastern environment,” which had likely made the two-State formula obsolete, he said, pointing out that there had been a rollback of Middle Eastern civil rights processes in Washington, D.C., and Brussels.

Ms. HASSAN agreed that the situation was at a fork in the road.  It appeared no State was willing to stand in Israel’s way, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making his intentions clear in declaring “we are here to stay forever”.  For the first time in 25 years, Israel would break ground on a new Government-backed settlement, rather than authorizing illegal outposts, while Mr. Netanyahu endorsed a plan by the National Union Party calling for the West Bank’s annexation and the expulsion of Palestinians who might demand their voting rights.  Meanwhile, President Donald Trump of the United States had stated his preference for a solution to which both parties agreed, while a Department of State spokesperson said the country would not reaffirm support for the two-State solution since any position on an outcome would show bias.

“The United States has never been anything but biased in favour of Israel,” she continued.  A policy shift, championed by Republicans, was in play, as evidenced by a resolution now in Congress that rejected the two-State solution in favour of one prioritizing Israel’s sovereignty and borders.  One quarter of a century of negotiations to end half a century of military occupation had been reduced to an outcome described by Mr. Netanyahu as a “State minus”, she said.  Israel would maintain its occupation over 6 million Palestinians, denying reparations to refugees, while controlling settlements, land and resources.  Going forward, the question must be answered by the United Nations — as it had recommended the establishment of two States — as well as by States parties to the Geneva Conventions, civil society, the business community, Palestinians who wanted freedom and self-determination, and Israelis who rejected a regime that subjugated other people.

Ms. HARRER said it was difficult in 2017 not to feel disheartened about prospects for ending the occupation.  A window of opportunity had opened in the late 1990s, after the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, which many thought would facilitate the resolution of conflicts around the world.  Thinking beyond the two-State solution, she drew attention to a group at the Bruno Keisky Forum which was preparing the ground for a one-State solution.  “I would very much like to believe in it,” she said, but it was difficult to envision its success, given the huge grievances on both sides.  She sympathized with the human rights approach in convincing Israel that Palestinians needed their own State.  Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had advocated such for pragmatic reasons, fearing for the Jewish State.  Today, there was reason to fear for the democratic Jewish State.

It was important to be honest about the surroundings, she said as the “messy” state of affairs in the region would not improve soon.  People had taken for granted that the Palestinian State, once in existence, would succeed, with functioning institutions, elections etc.  Yet, the experience with freedom and democracy in the Middle East had been “sobering”, she said.  The Palestinian domestic split in 2006 was far from being healed.  It was not difficult to organize elections, but rather, to provide legitimacy.  More broadly, the Kurdish situation had opened anew, while a “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran was playing into every conflict, bringing about sectarian crisis.  A rift had also opened involving Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all amid the acute danger of the United States President possibly scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran.  “The consequences are totally unknown,” she said.

Mr. BURG, asked whether any aspect of the conflict had been overlooked, said nothing had been overlooked.  As much as Israelis had dreamed of an international flotilla carrying the German Chancellor and United States President who offered a solution, “it will never happen”, in large part because of the one-sided position of the United States and the guilt-driven position of Germany.  The two-State solution contained the concept of a nation-State and he asked whether that concept was not being eroded.  Exercising a nineteenth century philosophy in the twenty-first century was “off tune”.  The situation required redefinition of national communities, as was happening with the Catalans and Scots, and possibly the Kurds.

The Palestinians, too, were a serious national community, he said, and the question was around the type of relationship they would have with the Israeli national community.  “I refuse to be paralysed by the two-State structure only.”   Not only the architecture, but the “value system” it offered, must be considered.  Democracy was more than a technical experience involving a ballot box. It was a principle in which an individual had the right to decide who had influence over his or her life, and a situation where so many people lacked the right to decide over their lives was an undemocratic reality.  He explained the Oslo Agreement as a cynical trade-off:  “We will pay you in the currency of 1967 to forget the issues of 1948”.  Today, the 1967 issues had been left unaddressed.  Why not discuss the whole package, he asked?

Ms. HASSAN said that while the discourse was moving beyond a two-State reality, it was unclear where things were going.  The reality was that Israel still exerted control in much of the territory.  Any alternative would bring about violence and chaos, which must be considered, in advocating a different paradigm.  In Washington D.C., there were discussions of a confederation, which involved maintaining the status quo, with Jordan controlling some part of West Bank and Egypt taking some control over security in Gaza.  She questioned the need for ethnically-defined States.

The floor was then opened for interactive discussion.

RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations, objected to panellists’ negative portrayal of the current state of affairs.  Their remarks might reflect thinking in Israel, Washington D.C. or Vienna, but “they are not the thinking of Palestinian people.”  Israel had been created for the Jews only 100 years ago and three-quarters of the world’s countries had come into existence during the last 60 years.  He asked why now the nation-State concept would be something of the past. 

“Why should we be excluded from that process,” he asked, describing Israel’s support for a Kurdish State “bizarre and ridiculous” in that context.  He said that, having been in discussions with the President of the United States, he could say that the two-State solution was not obsolete.  He cautioned against focusing exclusively on perceived negative aspects, stressing that success was being achieved daily.  Palestine was being treated — and was acting as — a responsible State, including in handling global issues, not simply those related to Palestine.  It had joined various organizations, the latest being the International Police Organization (INTERPOL).

AHMED SHIHAB-ELDIN, correspondent at AJ+, asked panellists about their thoughts on the power of boycotts and the lack of attention it received in forums such as today’s.  More broadly, he asked about the viability of sanctions against Israel, given the regression from the Oslo commitments.

Ms. HARRER questioned whether it was productive to foster boycotts or sanctions.

Ms. HASSAN, referring to polls showing 60 per cent of United States respondents supporting sanctions, said equal percentages of Republicans would support a one-State or a two-State solution.  If Republicans had not solidified their views on what constituted an unjust solution, young people had the opportunity to influence them.  The Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement was a tactic used by people interested in a value-based approach to resolving the conflict.  There was a bill before the United States Congress seeking to criminalize those activities with prison terms and fines.  “People are afraid of this tactic,” she said, but it was important to include it in broader discussions about influencing opinion.

Mr. BURG said he found any boycott tool intellectually and morally difficult to use.  “As long as I can talk to you, I prefer it,” he said.  On the other hand, it was an act of civil disobedience.  By fighting “BDS”, Israel had an easy enemy, he said, adding that there were no more Iranians, Iraqis or Syrians to fight.  Palestinians were not an effective enemy, and Israel’s need for one stemmed from “psycho-politics” and the belief that “the external enemy defines me”.  When philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had stated in the 1940s that “the anti-Semite defines who is a Jew”, he had not been far off.  Imagine what happened when peace succeeded, he said, exclaiming:  “I am lost.  Give me war, a pogrom, I know what to do.”  He said he did not believe boycotts would be effective, given the political climate in the United States and Germany.  “If you want it, you need to do it differently.”

A participant from Egypt’s Embassy in Vienna spoke in his personal capacity, saying many of the comments focused on the role of the United States.  Yet, the problem was that the status quo was comfortable.  “BDS” must touch the nerves of Israeli society, he said.  Noting the strong attachment between land and people in Egypt, he said the problem was different in Israel:  there were those living inside the green line, those living in settlements who did not know their fate, and those in the diaspora who were not well attached to the land.  He asked why the notion of national identity was difficult to understand, and whether the left in Israel could make a comeback.

SIMON BARON-COHEN, a professor at the University of Cambridge, asked how one-person-one-vote would take place in Palestine, while Daoud Kuttab, columnist and journalist, advocated a new paradigm, however unclear its path forward.  As long as the Israeli army protected the civil administration responsible for building settlements, the two-State solution would not happen.

AMIRA HANANIA, a Ramallah-based journalist, asked why voices like Mr. Burg’s were not more widely heard.  “We talk about solutions as if they were a choice,” she said, when it was really Israel that had the control.  “BDS” was a tool to force Israel to think about peace.  “We need someone to tell us why international law is not effective enough to stop this occupation,” she said, or why Palestinians needed a super power, like the United States, to be a biased judge in the process.  Tony Klug, special adviser at Oxford Research Group, said there was a strong sense of nationhood on both sides, much more so than 50 years ago.  He asked how those supporting the one-State solution reconcile that with the national imperative of both sides.  Confederation could not be accomplished until both sides had gained statehood.  The question was not over whether there should be two States, but rather, about the relationship between them.  He said that he and a Palestinian-American thinker had put forward a proposal requiring Israel to choose between recognizing a Palestinian State, as an interim measure, or equal rights for everyone living under Israeli jurisdiction.  “BDS” could be used to advance that goal, he said.

Mr. BURG replied that the Jewish national concept was no less strong than new Jordanian or Iraqi ones.  What happened in Israel over the last 70 years had impacted the entire Jewish people.  There were two expressions — diasporic and local — but Jewish nationality was in both.  The national definition of Israel was of a Jewish Israel, although 20 per cent of the population was not Jewish.  The definition of the national belonging — unprecedented for the Jewish people — was a fusion of five elements:  territory, religion, power, language and sovereignty.  There were times during which they had lived in a country, but had no sovereignty.  Or they sometimes had sovereignty, but did not speak the language, and so on.  The fusion was a powerful one:  in seeking to separate one element from the whole, “you do not belong”, he said.  “You are [considered] a traitor.”  The question became, “Who are you?”

He said that his views were not widely espoused because they were considered “boring”, adding that the left in Israel was defined solely by the conflict.  “It is a conflict-only position.”  To create change, an idea must be developed as a seed for more mature times.  His society listened better to trauma first.  In 1973, the Yom Kippur war had led to peace with Egypt.  The first Intifada had led to the Oslo Accords.  The political work involved preparing the foundations, ideas and solutions for the time when people were ready to listen.  He asked why Arab States had played so cynically with the idea of a Palestinian State since 1948.  Going forward, he advocated the development of an alternative model, a mass movement behind a one-State solution — which, in turn, would prompt a preference for the two-State solution by default — and a new trauma to get to the next step.

Ms. HASSAN, recalling the focus on creating empathy, said that because Palestinians had become fragmented from both Israelis and each other, it would be difficult for that to happen.

Ms. HARRER said there had been much trauma in the region.  She was convinced of the need for a human rights approach to create change, one that would lead to a situation compelling Israel to help create a Palestinian State.

Panel II

The day’s second panel discussion titled “Empathy as an alternative way for seeking peace” was moderated by Gertraud Borea d’Olmo, Secretary General, Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue.  It featured presentations by Ahmad Abu Akel, Research Fellow, Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne; Stephen Apkon, Executive Director, Disturbing the Peace; Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge; Gaby Goldman, Director of Communications, Hand in Hand, Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel; and Haifa Staiti, Executive Director, Empathy for Peace.

Ms. BOREA D’OLMO recalled the Bruno Kreisky Forum’s work with young people from Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Austria, for whom empathy was a driving principle and “something that brought us to obstacles very quickly when it came to politics.”  She asked panellists to address the possibilities and limits of empathy as an instrument which she hoped would be included in the politics around the conflict.  “I believe it cannot replace political solutions,” she clarified, stressing that the Forum advocated basic rights as the foundation for any solution.

Mr. BARON-COHEN said economic, political, military and other solutions had failed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, now 100 years old.  He advocated a psychological approach, both by leaders and at the grass-roots level.  Empathy — the ability to place oneself into another’s shoes, setting aside one’s own perspectives and feelings, in place of the others — was a new approach based on the theory that, during conflict, both parties could lose their empathy for the community by which they felt attacked.  At best, they could feel self-interest, and at worst, cruelty.  Fear, anger and revenge made a person blind to the fact that the other was like oneself.  Israelis and Palestinians had lost their empathy and were now locked in a cycle of violence. 

Describing the Parents Circle Families Forum project, involving Palestinian and Israeli women whose sons had been killed by the other side, he said the participants could have become ethnically prejudiced and called for retaliation.  Instead, they formed a friendship across the political divide.  The project sought to connect people and encouraged those bereaved by conflict to meet.  “To resolve any conflict, ultimately, there has to be an empathy-based dialogue,” he said.  It was a natural human resource — it did not involve millions of dollars to employ and had great potential.  It allowed each side to listen to the other, hear about the causes of conflict, and both acknowledge and address them.  When those feelings were not acknowledged, they festered as low-level anger or exploded as hate.  Apologies could be offered to those who had been heard.

He asked participants to imagine an Israeli leader showing empathy, seeing Palestinians as victims, rather than aggressors, and a Palestinian leader seeing Israelis in the same way.  Each community mirrored the other from a belief that its aggression was justified self-protection.  For diplomatic talks to be meaningful, the same level of empathy would be required from both sides.  Recalling the success achieved by Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, he said eventually Israelis would need to acknowledge the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians in the creation of their country, while Palestinians would likewise need to acknowledge their role in the conflict.  “Empathy is a key necessary step for truth and reconciliation, which would ultimately be needed for peace,” he said, so that other difficult steps could follow, notably for mutual security.

Mr. APKON said he did not believe a political solution could be reached without empathy.  Playing a clip from a film titled Disturbing the Peace, during which former Israeli and Palestinian combatants had discovered they had things in common with each other, said empathy was about feeling someone else’s humanity, not simply their victimhood.  It was also a two-way street and he pressed participants to imagine holding a place of empathy for both the occupied and the occupier.  Empathy was the foundation for trust, a precursor to peace.  “The media cooperates in showing us images that create the other.  How can you have empathy when all you see is violence” he asked?  The media industry was based on advertising.  “We need to understand that we need to demand stories that humanize the other,” he said.

Ms. STAITI said she was born in Jenin, near Nazareth and Haifa.  Her father, born east of Haifa, had fled his village when he was six weeks old, towards safer ground.  Her grandfather had been killed by Israeli soldiers.  Her father, who became a political activist, had been violently arrested many times.  Upon his final release in 1994, he returned home legally blind, and with physical and other illnesses stemming from of his poor living conditions.  “Our family has always felt we lost our grandfather and our dad because of the Israeli occupation,” she said.

While fear and anger had taken over for a while, they had not diminished her desire for peace, she said, thanks to the actions of a Jewish Israeli woman from Haifa, whose projects sought to build empathy between Israelis and Palestinians.  In 1988, the woman had come to the Jenin camp with a desire to make a difference for traumatized children.  The project became essential for local families, keeping children off the streets and offering drama, art and other activities as channels to express their trauma.  Those early experiences today allowed her to feel empathy.  In 2000, she travelled from Palestine to study in Norway, where she shared housing with Israeli students — another experience that had solidified her ability to empathize, regardless of what the media, Government or others had told her.  With that, she founded Empathy for Peace, identifying and sharing empathy science with other organizations working for peace.

Mr. AABU-AKEL described how to ensure that empathy was used as an efficient resource.  First, inter-group relations were important.  His experience as a Palestinian student in a Jewish high school in 1987, just before the first Intifada, had offered opportunities for interaction.  Over time, he could understand both perspectives and see how polarization was destroying communities.  Research had shown that intergroup interactions diffused tensions and fostered understanding.  At a minimum, they led to in-group censoring of hostility.  While authority and institutional disapproval could reverse the benefits of empathic activities, their effects could be mitigated through recurrent exposure to literature, art, film, and other people, notably in integrated schools, and by abolishing practices that fostered segregation. 

Secondly, he said, it was important to focus on power relations, which were often modulated by a “cost function” — the perception that the Palestinian Authority was a subcontractor for Israel, for example.  In maintaining that power disparity, the party in power enjoyed the advantage.  For empathy to be effective, the power differential must be addressed.  Truth and reconciliation offered a starting point, as those efforts entailed narratives that could be highly culturally specific.  For example, mentioning the Holocaust and Al-Nakba in same sentence was enough to close Israelis off, whereas bonding over the loss of a loved one offered a “point of entry”.  Next, he focused on the concept of empathic anger:  Empathizers often experienced the distress of others.  They could also express that anger at the situation or the perpetrator.  Empathic anger was associated with more action than empathic sadness.  As empathy could invoke a range of emotion, it was important to understand how it had an effect on the local level.  He was developing an empathy index, which would analyse demographic, socioeconomic and other factors that signalled empathic behaviour.

Ms. GOLDMAN focused on how to ensure that children growing up in war did not learn to hate people who were different from them.  She said that she had formerly been a journalist, covering many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was guilty of much of the behaviour described by panellists.  Today, she worked for Hand in Hand, which promoted a shared society through a network of bilingual schools, offering 1,800 Jewish and Arab children — aged three to 18 years — and 8,000 adults, opportunities to learn about each other’s religions, cultures and other aspects of life.

She said there were branches in Jerusalem, Haifa, the Triangle Area and Jaffa, among other locations, where teachers taught Hebrew and Arabic, and where students celebrated each other’s holidays, learning how to argue by agreeing to disagree.  An empathetic glimpse into another’s pain was the first step to dismantling hatred.  Story telling was an effective means for doing so.  “It’s very hard to create a relationship with an idea, but very easy to create with a person whose story you’ve just heard,” she said.  The media was hungry for that angle of the conflict.  Her organization was laying the groundwork for a new paradigm.  There would always be a reality where Jews and Palestinians lived together. “We are already doing that,” she said.

The floor was then opened for interactive discussion.

SALAH ABDEL SHAFI, Palestinian Ambassador to Austria, said he had difficulty with the concept of empathy as presented by the panellists.  It could work as a post-conflict tool, but not in resolving conflict.  He said he did not agree that Mr. de Klerk had demonstrated empathy, noting that apartheid had collapsed because he had realized he could not sustain it under an international boycott.  After the end of apartheid, empathy had become possible, he said, adding that in the Israeli-Palestinian context, he did not believe the two-State solution was obsolete.  It had failed thus far because Israel was able to get away with rejecting it, due to a lack of political will to hold it accountable.  He said that he also did not agree that Germany would always support Israel out of guilt.  Guilt was being used as a pretext for taking real action.  He asked how one could convince somebody from Gaza to show empathy for Israelis.  “With all due respect to suffering on the personal level […] at the end of the day, we have to talk realpolitik,” he said, expressing doubt that empathy would lead to a political solution.  Such projects were politically misleading, he said, adding that empathy would only work when Israelis and Palestinians were on an equal footing. 

Ms. Tala Hawala, the Ramallah-based journalist, asked how to convince people in the West Bank and Gaza that empathy would lead to a State of Palestine.  Normalizing ties with the oppressor was rejected in those areas.  Palestinians involved with the Seeds of Peace initiative had been rejected.  Mr. Klug, adviser to the Oxford Research Group, asked whether there was confusion between sympathy and empathy, which were different notions that had different functions.  He viewed empathy as a tool of analysis.

Mr. ABU-AKEL said the question hinged on how to create that equal footing.  None of the channels being exercised today had achieved it.  It was important to recognize that empathy — and the notions it invoked — were tools to help create an equal footing.

Ms. STAITI said the need for an appropriate reaction was an important aspect in understanding empathy.  When an Israeli was able to understand how she, a Palestinian, must feel to live in the West Bank, going through check points to see her father in prison, it created change.  “It’s important to see, in this room, everyone got on guard because we want you to hear you need to have empathy for Israelis”.

Mr. APKON focused on the importance of breaking the cycle of victimhood, feeding an idea that my experience as a victim is greater than yours.  The idea was to step out of entrenched roles, creating connection and humanity that led to direct action, and a belief that it made no sense to occupy.

Mr. BARON-COHEN said empathy had a role to play throughout the process, not just the post-conflict phase, whether between two leaders or children on the playground.  By postponing it, “you’re just missing an opportunity,” he said.  As to whether Messrs. de Klerk and Mandela had an empathetic relationship, he agreed that the international community had supported sanctions against South Africa, “but de Klerk was ready to listen”.

Ms. GOLDMAN assured that her work was not to “sugar coat” the conflict.  However, there was a problem in that schools were segregated, Jews and Arabs did not learn the 1948 narrative, and Jews in Hebrew schools learned about Arabs in a specific context.  Many arguments were not solved.  “We’re angry at each other,” she said, asking when last Israeli and Palestinian leaders had spoken to each other.  She said Jews spoke with Palestinians every day in her work, adding:  “I’m not ready to give that up.”

NOAM SHEIZAF, co-founder of +972 Magazine, said in relation to funding decisions by the European Union that resources were often moved from human rights or legal advocacy to the “encounter” sector.  The more you pacify participants in advance of a project, the more you politicize the process on the ground.  The national workings of societies made him uncomfortable, he said, as peace projects were often supported by elite, left-wing circles open to peace messages.  The inter-workings of politics could be negative.  For example, he had considered sending his child to a bilingual school, but families who wanted to change segregated daily life responded with an answer that lay outside the main system. He asked if families did not have other options could create change through the heart of the public system. 

DAOUD KUTTAB, Palestinian journalist, describing efforts to introduce Sesame Street to the region, said it was difficult for Palestinians to believe in puppets, when “you open the door and there is a tank outside the house.  Which is more powerful, the tank or the puppet?” he asked.  He cautioned against legitimizing the status quo by using such efforts as a way of assuaging guilt or replacing the hard work necessary to end the occupation.

TAGHREED ELKHODARY, senior editor of Fanack, said she did not like the trailer shown earlier, particularly as someone from Gaza.  At Harvard, she had interacted with Israelis, however, she struggled to equate that discourse with the ongoing reality in Gaza.

BAYAN SHBIB, cultural attaché from Palestine, said that having attended a series of empathy-focused workshops, “you come out harmed,” experiencing more suffering and less empathy, incapable of defying the sources of occupation.  On the other hand, BDS was a great tool for ending occupation.  She asked how one could be empathetic without involving the literature, film, media and other spheres sharing narratives together and moving from a psychological state of empathy to an action-based state of empathy.  Without doing so, “the voice is voiceless,” she said.

Mr. MANSOUR, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, said he was eager to hear more about mediation, stressing:  “We want to end our occupation.”

EDMUND GHAREEB, professor, American University, similarly asked about practical steps for fostering mediation.

Mr. BARON-COHEN, to arguments that empathy did not lead to change, said he did not agree that empathy was only for elites, but rather, that parties must start somewhere.

Mr. ABU-AKEL said that employing empathy, post conflict, was counter-productive as it did not take advantage of the urgency of a situation.  Recognizing another’s pain could be an advantage in that it opened a door.

Ms. STAITI said that if she could understand someone’s thoughts or feelings, perhaps it would make her a better negotiator.  She advocated seeing empathy as a neutral concept, rather than attaching positive or negative ideas to it.

Mr. APKON said that what preceded empathy was curiosity.  Empathy was about understanding the narratives that shaped a person’s desire to act. The empathy he sought led to a place where occupation made no sense.  He viewed it as an essential tool to creating a lasting and just peace.

Ms. GOLDMAN assured that her organization worked from within to change the system.  Israel’s State Comptroller, following its examination of the education system, had found that the Ministry of Education had been negligent in addressing sharp stereotypes and had failed to prevent racism.  It concluded that an excellent way forward was through bilingual schools, noting that there were 800 families on the waiting list, many of whom had requested that additional bilingual classes be offered for kindergarteners.

For information media. Not an official record.