Journalists, media experts, policymakers and scholars within academic and faith communities in Palestine, Israel and elsewhere gathered for the opening of the twenty‑seventh annual International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East today, held for the first time in virtual format, amid the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic.
Organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications, the Seminar takes place over two days, with the 2020 panel discussions exploring the themes “The Israel‑Palestine conflict and challenges of the new decade” and “A tale of two narratives: misinformation and disinformation”.
Welcoming participants convening by webcast around the world, Melissa Fleming, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, said the Seminar provides an annual opportunity for media practitioners and experts to learn more about trends in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. “We will hear the exchange of ideas, experiences and perceptions,” she added.
António Guterres, Secretary‑General of the United Nations, addressing participants in a message read out by Ms. Fleming, recalled that the annual event was born 29 years ago to help promote peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. “Unfortunately, the possibility of that peace seems as remote as ever,” he noted, expressing his understanding of the deep despair experienced by Palestinians. Their dreams, generation after generation, have been “dimmed by conflict and more than half a century of occupation.” He also recognized the legitimate concerns of Israelis and their aspirations to live in peace and security.
Recalling that the United Nations position is defined by resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, as well as international law and bilateral agreements, he emphasized that a two‑State solution remains the only path for ensuring both sides can realize their legitimate aspirations, living side‑by‑side in peace and security, based on the 1967 borders and with Jerusalem the capital of both States. “I will continue to speak out against any effort that undermines peace and moves the parties further away from constructive negotiations,” he said, urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume a meaningful dialogue and welcoming all international initiatives that can help advance a just, comprehensive peace.
Cheikh Niang (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, outlined the ways in which that body fulfils its General Assembly mandate to raise awareness about the Question of Palestine, notably by disseminating information through social media. Its website — www.un.org/unispal/committee — hosts the world’s largest online repository of United Nations documents on the Question of Palestine, featuring more than 36,000 materials. Nonetheless, the Committee faces challenges in countering disinformation, he said, adding that its connections with the media are integral to its work.
Noting that 2020 will be remembered as the year in which COVID‑19 changed people’s way of life — “including how we communicate and interact with each other” — he said the pandemic has particularly affected Palestinians. The burden of endless occupation and a fragile economy has pushed to the brink the public health system in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, he said: “These are times when the Palestinian people need not only expressions of solidarity, but also our empathetic action.”
And yet, international media offer barely adequate coverage of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he pointed out. Incessant efforts are being made to distract reporters from the fact that peaceful resolution of the Palestinian‑Israeli conflict is the only route to peace in the region. “I urge you in the media fraternity to seriously consider how history will judge our generation if we were to wrong the Palestinian people twice over,” first by standing aside while their rights are denied, and then by misreporting or not reporting current events. “This would be tantamount to a miscarriage of justice,” he stressed.
Rallying participants around their duty to report truth — and to speak truth to power — he cited General Assembly resolution 181(ii) of 1947, which calls for carving two States out of mandate Palestine. Since 1967, he emphasized, millions of Palestinians have lived under siege on their own land or as refugees unable to return home. International law is clear that Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian land is illegal — and that it must end, he affirmed. “We urge colleagues in the media to never lose sight of these truths,” he said, adding: “It is incumbent on all of us to not let international readers and viewers lose sight of what is happening in Palestine.” He went on to express full support for the proposal by the President of the State of Palestine to hold an international peace conference in 2021.
The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will reconvene at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December, to hold its second panel discussion.
Panel I: “The Israel‑Palestine conflict and challenges of the new decade”
The day began with a panel discussion titled “The Israel‑Palestine conflict and challenges of the new decade.” Moderated by Ms. Fleming, it featured presentations by Rabbi Michael Melchior, President of the Mosaica Center for Interreligious Cooperation — MERPI (Middle East Religious Peace Initiative), former Member of the Knesset and Cabinet Minister of Israel; Nour Odeh, Founder and CEO of Connect Strategic Communications Consultancy, former Director of the Palestinian Media Centre and Spokesperson of the Palestinian Authority; and Grace Wermenbol, Non‑Resident Scholar, Middle East Institute.
Ms. FLEMING laid the ground for discussions, noting that 2020 not only brought a pandemic that changed the face of the world, but with it, radical political developments that impacted the Israel‑Palestine conflict and prospects for long‑term peace. Some consider the events to have “broken new ground”, while others see them as significant setbacks, she said. Expressing hope of exploring the challenges to peace in an important part of the world, she sought the views of panellists on widespread concern that prospects for regional peace and a two‑State solution are now “as remote as ever”.
Mr. MELCHIOR, recalling his years as a rabbinical student in Jerusalem, said the first principle of Judaism originates from Hillel [the Elder], more than 2,000 years ago: “Do not do to the other what you would hate the other to do to you.” From that principle stems his intense belief, from a religious perspective, in the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland and their right to self‑determination. “This is a personal belief that does not oblige anyone else,” he explained, saying these events, should they come to pass, are the fulfilment of a Biblical promise. Likewise, it is not a “divine mistake” that another people — the Palestinian people — also live in the area, he added. “I believe the same is true for the Palestinian people.”
Pointing out that he has promoted a two‑State solution for years, he recalled that, in collaboration with those who established the Islamic Movement, he created the religious peace track of the Middle East Peace Process, involving different Palestinian and Israeli parties. Those efforts have saved thousands of lives on both sides, including those who were not “inside the classical peace tent,” he said. Recalling his participation in a debate at Oxford University over whether the peace process is still alive, he pointed out that many processes are ongoing under the surface. Many more people today are working for a just solution that will allow Palestinians to exercise their rights — “without which I believe the Israelis will not have their freedom or their future,” he stressed. It remains to be seen whether recent efforts will promote Israeli‑Palestinian peace, or simply amount to a business deal. Expressing optimism, he explained that he sees people “on the other side” as partners with whom he can work towards peace.
Ms. ODEH said she does not share such optimism, explaining that she “lives the reality” of the occupation. Emphasizing the importance of speaking about what is wrong with the narrative, she declared, “There is no peace,” adding, “and there is no process.” Pointing out that peace is made between enemies, not friends, she disagreed with the need for partners and urged the parties instead to sit at a table where international law dictates the framework for a solution. The disconnect, ongoing since the birth of the peace process, arises from Israel’s having been given a free pass from its identity as an occupying Power, she emphasized, describing the idea that Palestinians and Israelis are equal — with suffering on both sides — as a false narrative unique to this conflict. It arises from an occupation that has lasted more than half a century, by an occupying Power that violates without shame all resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, as well as its international legal obligations.
Further, the space provided in the media and academia for those advocating Palestinian rights is shrinking through censorship of Palestinian voices under various guises, she noted. “We’re all put in this corner where we are forced to adopt the false narrative of two equal partners,” she said, pointing out that discussion of peace is sanitized of the need for justice for victims and accountability for those who violate international law. The last four years have seen a whole new dimension of impunity, she stressed, pointing out that the current President of the United States is leaving office with a legacy of legislation and administrative orders that empower Israel to commit de facto annexation via settlement expansion.
“That is the reality,” she continued. “This is not about being partners; it is about Palestinians’ need to be emancipated from this occupation.” Recalling that their lands were taken without their voice, or participation, she said Palestinians still agreed to the creation of a State on 22 per cent of their territory. “They are the only ones asked to deliver the proposed solution,” she said, pointing out that in no other conflict were people under occupation asked to convince their occupiers to be benevolent enough to end the occupation. “That is a flaw in the status quo conversation.” She went on to state that given the racist ethnocentric ideology espoused by the President of the United States and the Republican Party — and the extreme wing in Israel — it is hard to be optimistic, warning that, unless Israel is compelled, like other occupiers, to abandon such behaviour, the conversation will remain disconnected from reality.
Ms. WERMENBOL agreed that the current United States administration enacted harmful policies that upended long‑standing norms. They markedly favoured Israel and disenfranchised Palestinians, attempting to force them to the table by withdrawing aid, an approach that proved ineffectual, she said. Observing that peace “seems increasingly remote”, particularly since the incoming United States administration is unlikely to prioritize a new peace effort, she said it could nonetheless offer changes in United States foreign policy. Citing those changes that the United States could promote to reassert itself as a credible partner and mediator in a peace process, she pointed out that the incoming administration has indicated a desire to reinstate assistance to Palestinians and reopen the United States consulate in East Jerusalem. How that will occur in the context of the Taylor Force Act is not yet clear and legal hurdles will have to be overcome, she cautioned.
She went on to say the incoming administration should make clear its adherence to international legal standards, notably by returning the United States to the Human Rights Council. It should also return to the pre‑2018 practice of referring to the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied”, and to Israel’s settlements as being in breach of resolution 2334 (2016). It should further denounce the destruction of Palestinian homes, which embodies the creeping annexation or imposition of Israeli law, she emphasized. Even if a peace deal with the same interlocutors is unlikely, the United States should act on every opportunity to engage in peace talks as its current absence parallels the ongoing violence, she added. Among other ideas, she said the United States can leverage the anniversary of the 1991 Madrid Conference and re‑engage in a new international conference aimed at reinvigorating the peace process.
In a second round of discussion, the Moderator sought panellists’ views on how to restore hope and revive the peace process.
Ms. WERMENBOL recommended a multilateral approach to restarting negotiations, with the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, United States, Russian Federation, European Union) taking the lead role and Arab Gulf States involved in ways that do not disenfranchise the Palestinians.
Mr. MELCHIOR, responding first to Ms. Odeh’s comments in the first round of discussion, agreed that there are different narratives about who is more at fault. Pointing out that he works closely with Palestinian partners — including the President and more radical elements — to address breaches of human rights, he insisted: “I know this situation from very close up.” Condemnations of Israel in international forums “have not brought help to the Palestinian people,” he emphasized. Recalling a time when everyone supported peace, he said it is important to ask what went wrong. “We need to bring in the forces that are dead set against it,” rather than simply organize a conference, he stressed. “We need to change the mindset and make people believe that peace is possible.” He went on to reject the divide‑and‑conquer policy espoused by Israel, the West and many in the Arab world. “We are not equal partners, I understand that,” he declared. “But if the tent of peace can be opened to more players, then they can force leaders to change.”
Ms. ODEH said freedom is the inevitable destiny of Palestinians, and once they are able to exercise their inalienable rights, peace will become a reality. While objecting to the counter‑intuitive process described by Mr. Melchior, she said, “I understand where he is coming from” and the privilege that allows him to speak about a tent of peace. “But his house is not under threat,” she pointed out. She went on to emphasize that the only way to create change is to hold accountable those who breach international law. Israel has never been pushed into respecting its international legal obligations, she said, adding that, to prove it can be a credible partner and balanced mediator, the incoming United States administration must pursue a paradigm shift. Rather than basing the relationship on how much the United States can extract from Palestinians, to the benefit of Israelis, it must engage in a bilateral relationship, building up to a peace conference through a multilateral approach advocated by the President — including to the Security Council — since 2018. Resolving the legacy of the previous United States administration will be among the hurdles, she cautioned, while insisting: “What is needed is for this occupation to end.” The media, for their part, should study the role they have played in domestic and international politics, she said, stressing that they have engaged in polarization rather than taking a detached role and providing objectivity, nuance and facts.
In round three, the Moderator asked panellists how the media can play a more constructive role in advancing prospects for peace.
Ms. WERMENBOL, addressing earlier comments, said a bottom‑up approach whereby people cajole leaders into peace is “somewhat of an ideal”. In fact, polls show that people’s belief in peace has declined amid greater support for more fringe ideas, she added. Peace deals are created by leaders, and while it is unlikely they can forge an accord any time soon, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said any agreement with Arab‑majority nations demonstrates that talks with Palestinians are unnecessary, she said. Recalling last week’s vote to dissolve the Knesset, she cited polls showing that if new elections are held, the Likud Party — with Prime Minister Netanyahu at its head — would win. As for the media’s role in supporting honest narratives, she pressed leaders to take responsibility for speaking the truth — “on this side of the Atlantic and in the Middle East.”
Mr. MELCHIOR agreed that top‑down and bottom‑up approaches are needed, while saying there is a reason people do not believe peace is possible: “That is what we have been fed for a long time.” Recalling when Israel abandoned its settlements only to incur a “rain of rockets” from Gaza and declarations by Palestinian leaders, he said the past explains current fears that similar events would unfold if agreement was reached on the pre‑1967 borders. “The narrative is that credibility must be restored,” which is why Israel’s right wing, after the Second Intifada and the mid‑1990s, does not believe there is a partner on the other side, he observed. “We can change that,” he said, adding, “The situation is different today.” When it becomes known that the religious movement involves thousands of people from around the Arab world, “this will change attitudes and force leaders to do what is necessary: make peace.”
Without that influence, the new United States administration will not “force the arm” of Israel’s Government to do what the [Barack] Obama administration did not force it to do, he said, emphasizing that neither the international community nor Arab countries will exert such influence. The pressure must come from the two parties, he said, reiterating: “It needs to come from us.” He went on to explain the aim of the religious peace movement through the words of Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]: “You’re taking the main obstacle in the 1990s and you’re moving it away from the main path to peace.” Clarifying that the conflict is not religious, but national in nature, he said people in Israel are convinced there can never be peace with Islam, so those in the peace camp believe peace must be made with secular Palestinians. However, the latter’s numbers are few, he noted, emphasizing: “You need to make peace with all Palestinians.”
Ms. ODEH, asked about her views on the religious movement, said that while making a commendable effort, “religious leaders should stick to religion.” Agreeing that the conflict is not religious in nature, she emphasized, “This is about self‑determination,” rejecting the formula whereby captives and captors are partners. “We cannot be partners at this point,” unless it is on the ground resisting the occupation together, she stressed. In such a case, however, that partnership would still be unequal, born of a need for a political opening, she pointed out. Efforts to end the occupation must stand on a clear political foundation of international law and recognition of what must be done, she said, explaining that Israel’s unilateral exit from Gaza was not the result of negotiations. In its place came a draconian regime of restrictions that separated Gaza from its natural extension in the West Bank, she noted.
All other conditions that came into play, including sanctions arising from elections, resulted in what is now a political divide that has weakened the Palestinian position, she said, while underlining that even in such conditions, the right of Palestinians to self‑determination is non‑negotiable. “We are not asking permission; it is not a right that the international community can debate,” she asserted, stressing that when the political process goes nowhere and leaders are unable to reach a deal to end the occupation, the alternative will make itself “very clear” on the ground. She advocated upending the entire framework upon which the Palestinian‑Israeli conflict has been addressed in the past, saying young Palestinians are “fed up with everything that is being said because it has led nowhere.” Agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan do not advance the prospects for peace, but only embolden Israel, she noted.
In final rounds of questions, the Moderator asked panellists how the pandemic has affected Palestinians and Israelis, and how it has influenced prospects for peace.
Ms. ODEH said COVID‑19 has made life extremely difficult for Palestinians. In the West Bank, the Government can only impose lockdowns in areas where it has enough control, notably in Area A, the city’s heart. In periphery areas of Ramallah, however, the authorities cannot ensure a lockdown will be effective. She said record home demolitions in occupied East Jerusalem have compounded suffering in Area C. The Government, under financial sanctions by the United States and pressure from Israel, is unable to deliver enough support to affected populations, she explained. Problems faced by small businesses around the world are amplified in the Palestinian territories, where authorities are unable to pay civil servants, let alone offer other assistance.
Mr. MELCHIOR agreed that the pandemic has hit both Palestinians and Israelis hard. Among Israel’s 9.2 million citizens, casualty numbers rival those registered in the United States in one day, he said, adding: “For us, it’s a very big number.” He said the World Health Organization (WHO) asked him to join a religious task force after a false story emerged that WHO would pay $40,000 each time a person died of COVID‑19. “So, people inflated the numbers,” he said, recalling that he and his team held a Zoom conversation with religious leaders, doctors and other stakeholders, and Palestinian newspapers refuted the false claims the next day.
Ms. WERMENBOL, citing the Yom Kippur war to indicate the magnitude of Israel’s COVID‑related losses, said people in the United States similarly point to the events of 11 September 2001 to capture the pandemic’s toll on daily life. She expressed hope that Israel’s recent transfer of $1 billion in customs and tax duties to the Palestinian Authority will help to fill the salary gap, noting that cuts in United States aid affected hospitals, including those in East Jerusalem. While agreeing that the conflict is primarily over land, with narratives around religious designations and disenfranchisement adding dimensions, she cautioned against conflating religion and ethnicity, whether through historical narratives or textbooks. Also, the United States Department of State’s labelling of the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement as anti‑Semitic could be harmful as it is conflates Israel and Judaism, she warned.
Ms. WERMENBOL, responding to questions sent through the #UNMediaSeminar Twitter feed — first as to why there was no mention of the so‑called Abraham Accords — said the incoming United States administration can leverage the agreements to ensure there is no further settlement expansion in the West Bank or occupied East Jerusalem. There have been passive references to the Accords in the present discussion, she added.
Ms. ODEH recalled having mentioned the Accords on several occasions without using that particular name. Their most dangerous component is that they serve to normalize Israel’s impunity and annexation plans, she said, describing them as transactional agreements motivated by geopolitical interests, illusions about military alliances, and the need for an arms deal. She added that she sees no potential for the Accords to advance peace.
Mr. MELCHIOR agreed that panellists referred to the agreements and questioned their label as the “Abraham Accords”. Recalling that he was asked to bless the arrangements and declined to do so, he pointed out that Israel’s core conflict is not with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Sudan, but with the Palestinians. If the agreements are about business, “I have no interest in this,” he said. “I am preoccupied with peace,” he added. “Without peace, there is nothing.”
Mr. MELCHIOR responded to a question about when the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict will end and peace prevail in the Middle East, by emphasizing that all parties must take responsibility and do what they can. “You can always say, ‘It’s somebody else’,” he said, recalling his father’s adage that if one cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is not because the light is not there. It is because the tunnel is not straight and one cannot see around the corner, he explained. He went on to agree that the right to self‑determination is impossible to argue.
Ms. ODEH said the unholy situation unfolding in the Holy Land will end when it becomes more costly than pursuing the reality of injustice, when impunity is no longer encouraged and the humanity of those who have been dehumanized is recognized and respected — rather than conditioned upon anything. “Our freedom as Palestinians is an historical inevitability,” she reiterated.
Ms. WERMENBOL stressed the need for a change in leadership, saying it is “wholly unlikely” that President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu can reach agreement. There must be a desire for change, she added, saying that aspiration is clear on the part of Palestinians because they have everything to gain. Israel, however, has something to lose from a governance perspective. “It is about understanding the other side,” she said. In that context, she said, citing a common saying that if it were up to [former Foreign Minister of Israel] Tzipi Livny and [former United States Consul General in Haifa] Aubrey Lippincott “it would take them two weeks.” There must be a willingness to understand that the conflict will not end without sacrifices from both sides, she added.