18 July 2002
International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Discusses Lessons Learned in Past Decade
Six Speakers Address Second Session
COPENHAGEN, 17 July (UN Information Service) -- The international media seminar on peace in the Middle East this afternoon heard six speakers in the second session of the two-day meeting. They discussed lessons learned in the peace process, from the 1991 Middle East Peace Conference to the 2001 Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-finding Committee (also known as the Mitchell Committee), and discussed the future course for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Participating speakers were: Yassir Abed Rabbo, Minister of Information and Culture, Palestinian Authority; Yossi Beilin, former Minister of Justice, Israel; Henry Siegman, Senior Fellow on the Middle East and Director, United States/Middle East Project, Council on Foreign Relations (United States); André Azoulay, Counselor to His Majesty the King of Morocco; Smadar Perry, Editor, Yediot Ahronot (Israel); and Nabil Khatib, lecturer in journalism, Berzeit University, West Bank, and Bureau Chief, Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (West Bank).
Mr. Rabbo gave a first-hand account of the daily hardships of Palestinian life. He said that recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory had "paralyzed everything in the country", and that the destruction of the Palestinian economy and infrastructure was unprecedented. Under those circumstances, he said, the Palestinian Authority could not perform basic tasks, let alone heed United States President George Bush's calls for immediate Palestinian reform.
He asserted that the American position on Palestinian reform was inherently paradoxical. "While talking about reforms in the Palestinian Authority, we are witnessing an escalation in violence against Palestinian institutions," he said, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s insistence upon Palestinian reform as a precondition to renewed political negotiations provided political cover for continued settlement expansion. Stating that the issue of Palestinian Authority reform skirted around the root cause of violence -- the occupation of the Palestinian territories -- he called upon the European Union and the United Nations to play a more vigorous role in the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Beilin voiced his support for reviving the peace process and noted that the Israelis and Palestinians must come to a mutual understanding because "I do not believe at the end of the day the world will save us." In order to understand the deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, Mr. Beilin said, it was instructive to analyze the successes and failures of peace initiatives ranging from the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference to the dormant Mitchell Plan. After the Madrid Conference, it was assumed that a gradual process of confidence-building would foster a favourable political climate for peace negotiations. But, applying such a framework had proved increasingly difficult for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who wrongly believed that the Israeli centre/right would support difficult concessions in order to advance the peace process. But the centre/right had rejected Mr. Rabin's efforts.
Mr. Beilin added that a drawn-out process of interim agreements had allowed extremist elements in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory to disrupt the negotiations. Moreover, Mr. Beilin said, those interim agreements demonstrated that the parties needed a referee to mediate negotiations.
Mr. Siegman said that the recent American and Israeli calls for Palestinian reforms as a prerequisite for Palestinian statehood were being exploited for political purposes. Paradoxically, the future of Israelis and Palestinians were entwined, as the Israelis were now approaching a demographic catastrophe, as well as mounting Arab anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the Palestinians were being driven to despair under Israeli occupation.
A third party was necessary to mediate Israeli and Palestinian grievances, Mr. Siegman said. As the world's lone super-Power, the United Sates was the only country capable of intervening. However, the Administration of President Bush was unwilling to waste its political capital on an uncertain outcome. He felt that President Bush's vision was meaningless unless there was an American determination to see it through.
Mr. Azoulay said a realistic solution to the Middle East dilemma must include an international presence, given the intransigence of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He faulted both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships for failing to lead their people. He said that the Israelis must sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, and in turn, the Palestinians must hold the Palestinian Authority accountable. Ultimately, coexistence would be crucial to a solution.
Ms. Perry argued for reviving a genuine peace movement on both sides, involving various segments of the Israeli and Palestinian societies. With violence on the rise, the peace movement was practically dead in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. Unless a genuine peace movement could be forged, the future would remain very bleak. She asked the Arab media to show greater responsibility and to condemn all acts of violence against Israeli civilians. Citing the example of some Arab media that tended to "glorify" suicide bombers, she recalled a recent interview she had with an intended suicide bomber, a young Palestinian woman, who felt suicide bombing was justifiable because someone close to her had died while working with explosives. "We need to change the mindset that creates the suicide bombers, and the Arab media must do more to help in this regard", she said.
Mr. Khatib felt that since the Oslo peace accords, many Palestinians had become disillusioned and seemed more inclined to support violence. "The peace accords did not bring independence, they brought only more occupation", he asserted. Instead of one authority, the Palestinians were now subjected to two authorities -- and still had no real freedom.
The violence, he said, was a direct result of the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. The path to peace so far had been very humiliating for the Palestinians. The international community was giving its vision of peace without taking into serious consideration the real aspirations of the Palestinian people. "Most Palestinians are now scared to go back to negotiations, lest such negotiations bring more occupation and more humiliation," he said.
In the ensuing discussion with media representatives attending the seminar, several speakers argued strongly for renewing negotiations under international guidance. Mr. Rabbo said neither Israel nor the Palestinians could afford to close the door to negotiations. However, no real peace could be achieved by imposing preconditions, such as the removal of Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority. "By demanding that he be removed, we are asking a major player to be removed from the political scene", he said. He also said that the Palestinian leadership was against suicide bombing, but that the issue "was being used by the present Israeli administration to justify the occupation of the Palestinian territories and other repressive measures", he said.
Mr. Beilin said that the news media in Israel, as well as in the Arab countries, needed to do a lot more against violence and about incitement to violence. Such incitements existed on both sides and nothing could justify such acts. It was futile to argue over who was more responsible and who was less. "We should fight together against all such incitements, irrespective of their sources," he said.
The international media seminar, sponsored by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry of Denmark, has brought together over 40 present and former policy-makers from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, international experts, United Nations officials and representatives of international media. The seminar will continue tomorrow, 18 July, with panellists discussing the question of a Palestinian State and the role of the media as a partnership for peace in the Middle East.
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