Speakers examined ways to revitalize the peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as diplomats, journalists, media experts and youth representatives gathered virtually for the opening of the annual International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East today.
Organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications, the Seminar takes place over two days, with the panel discussions exploring the themes “The 30th Anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference: Can hope prevail?” and “Solutions journalism in the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
In a recorded video message, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said this year’s event marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference, a historic moment that led to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and established a crucial foundation of peace upon which to build. “But over the last years, we have witnessed more setbacks”, he added, noting that many are questioning the viability of a negotiated two-State solution.
Stressing the need to explore every opportunity to revitalize the peace process, he urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to demonstrate the political will necessary to revive and resume dialogue. A two-State formula, as defined by United Nations resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements, remains the only path to realizing the legitimate aspirations of both sides: an end to the occupation and the realization of two independent, sovereign States, living side by side in peace and security, based on the 1967 lines, and with Jerusalem as the capital of both States.
To realize that goal, the United Nations remains committed to working with Israelis and Palestinians, and with international and regional partners, including through the Middle East Quartet, comprising the United Nations, Russian Federation, United States and the European Union, while also recognizing the crucial role of the media. Free and independent journalism is a cornerstone of building peaceful societies, he stressed.
Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, welcomed the participants connecting virtually by webcast, saying that 30 years have passed since the first United Nations Media Seminar was held in 1991 in Helsinki, Finland. “While we realize that having the same status quo after all these years is dispiriting, we can neither lose hope nor stop trying,” she said, stressing that efforts will continue to enhance dialogue and understanding and promote a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Cheikh Niang (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, recalled the Committee’s mandate to raise awareness and advocate for a solution to the question of Palestine. Through the Committee’s outreach efforts with Member States, including those of the Quartet and the Security Council, the Committee encourages the implementation of the international consensus based on two States, he emphasized.
Expressing great concern over the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, he said settlements have continued to expand while confiscation of property and structures, as well as evictions, are creating an extremely volatile situation. In the course of 2021, another military conflict against Gaza took place, he said, noting that such events are reminders that the Committee’s work is more relevant than ever. To deliver its General Assembly mandate involving disseminating and sharing of information on the Question of Palestine, the Committee considers working with the media as essential, he added.
Drawing attention to the Committee’s website, www.un.org/unispal, he said it is the world’s largest online repository of more than 36,000 United Nations documents on the Question of Palestine. The website also contains all information on the Committee’s activities. He also noted the Committee’s social media presence, including on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. “I see much scope for complementarity and cooperation between the Committee and the media to develop materials on the Question of Palestine for dissemination and to maximize our collective impact,” he said.
The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will reconvene at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 17 November, to hold its second panel discussion.
Panel I: “The 30th Anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference”
Moderated by Melissa Fleming, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, the first discussion explored the theme “The 30th Anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference: Can hope prevail?”, featuring the following panellists: Yossi Beilin, former Minister and Member of Knesset (MK), Israel; Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations; and Grace Wermenbol, Non‑Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Ms. FLEMING noted that November marks the thirtieth anniversary of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, one of the most important peace initiatives to resolve the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, that event fell short of “putting an end” to the conflict, as the late President of the United States, George Bush, had hoped at the time, she said, adding that the panel discussion would examine the Madrid Conference and consider whether a two‑State solution is still viable.
She said that 20 years ago, the late Secretary of State Colin Powell recalled on the tenth anniversary of the Madrid Conference that it was time to look forward, “as we try to capture the spirit of Madrid and create a renewed sense of hope and common purpose for the peoples of the Middle East”. It is now 2021, and the world has not succeeded in capturing the spirit of Madrid, she said, asking panellists to share their views.
Mr. BEILIN described the Madrid Conference as an important milestone and even a “miracle”, recalling that, between 1984 and 1990, a major dispute between the rotating prime ministers in Israel was the issue of an international conference. Yitzhak Shamir of Likud was against holding it because Arab leaders were not ready to negotiate with Israel. Mr. Shamir became Prime Minister in 1990 and attended the international conference, to the surprise of many, he said, describing the event as a milestone in the sense that it was conducive to other efforts that led to the Oslo process in 1993 and to peace between Israel and Jordan in 1994. The bottom line was that Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab leaders were in the same room, negotiating bilateral peace on the one hand and multilateral talks on the economy, water and refugees on the other, he emphasized. The Madrid Conference built the basis for other important processes, he said, adding that the absence of peace now is tragic. But “we are not in the same place”, where there was no road map towards a two‑State solution, a vision of Jerusalem as the capital of both sides and land swaps, he pointed out. Whereas development is too modest, hope exists, he said, urging serious consideration of his idea of creating two States under a confederation system.
Ms. WERMENBOL said that the three‑day Madrid Conference represented a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Israel and the Arab world. Beyond multilateral negotiations on the economy, water and refugees, it opened the door to direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. The conference’s principal success was that it created a framework for future bilateral and multilateral peace negotiations, including the 1993 and 1994 Oslo Accords and talks between Israel and Arab countries, the effects of which continue to this day, she noted. However, it is evident that Madrid and the ensuing peace processes failed to provide a sustainable solution to the ongoing Israeli‑Palestinian conflict. Israel’s settlements have eroded any ability to maintain the status quo, and the current landscape in both Palestine and Israel leaves little hope for a near‑term peace settlement, she said, citing intra‑Palestinian wrangling, postponed elections for the Palestinian Authority and the emergence of a new Government in Israel that rejects a near‑term peace process. Israel no longer feels it must make progress on the Palestinian track, and instead engages in making compromises to normalize relations with Arab countries, she said. Thirty years since Madrid, Israel’s position in the world has increasingly become normalized without resolving the final status issues and achieving the sustainable peace accord that formed the premise of the 1991 conference, she pointed out.
Mr. MANSOUR said he agrees with those who call on both sides to resume negotiations as long as they are not detached from the rules of international law. Israel insists it will retain control of all borders and will be the sole sovereign “from the river to the sea”, thereby negating the 1967 border and undermining the prospect of a sovereign independent State of Palestine, he noted. Moreover, Israel seeks to annex East Jerusalem and has no intention of dismantling its illegal settlements. He said Israeli authorities have detained 1 million Palestinians over the years, including children and women, and many died in prison. The current situation resembles that of 1991, he said, recalling that the Shamir Government was against the rights of Palestinians and considered the Madrid Conference as a photo opportunity that would not change anything. But in reality, the will of the international community was stronger than Israel’s colonial will, he emphasized, recalling that Prime Minister Shamir was dragged into the conference, which generated the momentum that led to bilateral negotiations, the Oslo Accords and other processes. There is need to regenerate that impetus by convening an international peace conference, he said, calling for a ministerial‑level meeting of the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, Russian Federation, United States, European Union).
Ms. FLEMING then asked panellists whether it is possible for the international community to create another historic opportunity to resolve the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict.
Mr. BEILIN said he does not see the world taking on the burden of convening such a conference, recalling that before the Madrid Conference, Secretary of State James Baker of the United States shuttled between Israel and Palestine eight times. He added that he does not see the same level of effort by the United States now. President Joseph Biden is not in a situation to invest in Middle East peace, he emphasized. Noting that Israel and Palestine went to Oslo without the suggestion by the United States and the Russian Federation, he said the parties to the conflict should not expect the superpowers to do something in their spare time.
Mr. MANSOUR said that at the time of the Madrid Conference, the two sides were not in a position to talk to each other, but the international community helped pave the way for negotiations. The Oslo process would not have happened were it not for the Madrid Conference, he added. Noting the Russian Federation’s recent invitation to convene a conference in Moscow, he said only one party was ready to attend. China is willing to host an international conference, he added, going on to emphasize that, meanwhile, Israel continues its illegal activities without accountability.
Ms. WERMENBOL said it is possible to convene “another Madrid”, but probably not in the same formula. The United States can adopt the carrot‑and‑stick policy with Israel, and the Biden Administration can take steps to establish itself as a more equitable mediator by undoing some of the actions undertaken by former President Donald Trump, she added. The United States can reopen its consulate in Jerusalem and allow the mission of Palestine to be represented in Washington, D.C. However, she does not see peace happening at least in the next two years.
Mr. MANSOUR concurred, saying that small steps by the Biden Administration, including reopening the United States consulate in East Jerusalem, could keep hopes alive. He also welcomed Washington’s return to its position of supporting the importance of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Ms. FLEMING then asked Mr. Beilin, a co‑drafter of the Geneva Initiative — also known as the Geneva Accord, a draft permanent status agreement to end the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict — whether a comprehensive agreement of that nature is still feasible.
Mr. BEILIN said that a group of people, including former negotiators from both sides, sat down informally, spending two and a half years, and then another two years to compile 500 pages of the annexes. The Initiative was offered in the worst situation amid the intifada, he added. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later said in 2004 that he decided to withdraw from Gaza because the Geneva Initiative was so popular. Noting that support from civil society was powerful, he went on to emphasize that peace does not necessarily mean convincing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. It can happen at the grass‑root level. In recent opinion polls, public support for a two‑State solution increased by 10 points from 36 per cent to 46 per cent, he said, reiterating the need for two States under a confederation.
Mr. MANSOUR acknowledged the role of civil society in making peace, while pointing out that “at the end of the day”, it is ministers and high‑level officials who make decisions. He expressed concern that the peace camps in Israel are decreasing.
Ms. WERMENBOL said that pro‑peace civil society organizations are operating in an increasingly difficult environment, noting as an example Israel’s recent designation of six non‑governmental organizations as terrorist entities. Israel has also enacted legislation to make it difficult for pro‑peace non‑governmental organizations to get funding from foreign Governments. Describing a one‑State solution as “never realistic”, she said it will not create an equitable society for Palestinians and Jews. Regarding her book, A Tale of Two Narratives, she said it captured the perpetuation of conflict narratives on both sides. Today’s discussion does not reflect such narratives, she said, adding that she heard different interpretations on the Clinton parameters from the other two panellists.