9 June 2006
International Media Seminar on Peace in Middle East Opens in Moscow
Secretary-General's Message: Parties Must Deal with Each Other Face to Face; No substitute for Durable, Negotiated Solution
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
MOSCOW, 8 June -- The fourteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened in Moscow this morning, hearing from speakers who found hope in the fact that majorities of both the Palestinian and Israeli public supported a two-State solution, and looked at ways the media could support the peace process.
The Seminar, which is entitled "New Challenges in the Middle East Peace Process and Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue", is organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.
In a message to the Seminar, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the seminar was being held at a time when potentially transformative decisions were being contemplated that could affect the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and the prospects for peace, for many years to come. The overarching goal of the United Nations remained lasting peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. For that to be achieved, the parties had to deal with each other, face to face. Any Israeli desire to withdraw from the West Bank was to be welcomed, but there was no substitute for a durable, negotiated solution, and no other way to resolve final status issues.
Alexander Saltanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said that the nucleus of Russia's Middle East policy was based on finding a political solution. One of the most difficult problems was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia was deeply convinced that an international legal foundation for a solution was possible and that it was the only appropriate way to resolve the problem. There could be no solution through unilateral efforts, such as terrorist acts or the construction of a separation wall. Such steps would not ensure peace and stability for Israel, for Palestine or for their neighbours. The final solution would be the fruit of negotiations, no matter how difficult those might be.
Shashi Tharoor, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, the moderator of the Seminar, said in welcoming remarks that this was the fourteenth in a series of international media seminars that the Department of Public Information had organized at the instruction of the General Assembly. The objective of the United Nations was not only to sensitize the people about the question of Palestine, but also to provide impetus and support for a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, to help them sustain their hopes and visions for a peaceful future and perhaps even to contribute to the realization of those hopes. Ultimately, as war began in the minds of men, it was in the minds of men that peace must be constructed.
Paul Badji, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of Palestinian People, said that this meeting in Moscow was another example of United Nations efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict. The lack of awareness, distorted information and lack of comprehension of the situation of the Palestinian people exacerbated their predicament. Unfair and inaccurate media coverage of the issue should be closely monitored, and, whenever possible, corrected. That was an area in which civil society could play a major role. The Committee on the rights of the Palestinian people would continue to assist its partners in providing venues and opportunities to network and coordinate their joint activities at the regional and international levels.
Alvaro de Soto, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)and the Palestinian Authority, said in the keynote address that he actually saw a couple of positive elements on which it might be possible to build. The first was Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, with nearly all public opinion surveys showing that the two publics still supported a negotiated two-State solution. The second was at the very top; Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas had expressed their desire to engage in dialogue with a partner who was willing and able to deliver. It was the job of the international community not just to show the parties where their performance fell short, but also to help them. Destabilizing forces radiated out of the conflict, and into it as well.
Following the statements, a panel discussion was held entitled "In the Aftermath of the Israeli and Palestinian Elections: Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities", in which Nabil Shaath, former Minister of Information of the Palestinian Authority; Yevgeny Volk, Coordinator of the Moscow Office of the Heritage Foundation; and Igal Sarna, a correspondent for Yedioth Aharaonoth, participated. A question and answer session was also held.
When the Seminar reconvened this afternoon, it would hold a panel discussion on the impact of the media on the peace process and view a documentary film, Encounter Point, which chronicles the lives of Israelis and Palestinians involved in the conflict and offers a message of peace.
Message of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, read out the message of Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, which said that the seminar was being held at a time when potentially transformative decisions were being contemplated that could affect the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and the prospects for peace, for many years to come. He hoped everyone was aware that the United Nations had just issued a revised Consolidated Appeal to address the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people, which reflected the real concern of the United Nations about the extent of the current difficulties. In addition, the United Nations was working very closely with the European Union and other Quartet partners to create a temporary international mechanism to ensure assistance to the Palestinian people, and he hoped that that could be put in place as soon as possible.
Mr. Annan said that the overarching goal of the United Nations remained lasting peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. For that to be achieved, the parties had to deal with each other, face to face. Any Israeli desire to withdraw from the West Bank was to be welcomed, but there was no substitute for a durable, negotiated solution, and no other way to resolve final status issues. He was pleased that Prime Minister Olmert had said that he would exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, President Abbas was a partner whose commitment to a peacefully negotiated two-State solution was unquestioned. The Quartet, for its part, had made clear its position on what was expected of the Palestinian Authority Government. The Secretary-General hoped that the well-known desire of the Palestinian people for a negotiated two-State solution would emerge strengthened from the internal Palestinian discussion and debate now under way, and that their desire would be reflected in the position taken by the Government.
In conclusion, Mr. Annan said that the agenda for the seminar reflected the great breadth of issues facing the parties. The international community, for its part, had an interest and a duty to help them not only to return to negotiations, but also to see them through to a just, lasting and peaceful conclusion, in accordance with Security Council resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 1515.
ALEXANDER SALTANOV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in charge of Middle East region, said that the situation in the Middle East was a serious concern for Russia. The nucleus of Russia's Middle East policy was based on finding a political solution. One of the most difficult problems was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia was deeply convinced that an international legal foundation for a solution was possible and that it was the only appropriate way to resolve the problem. There could be no solution through unilateral efforts, such as terrorist acts or the construction of a separation wall. Such steps would not ensure peace and stability for Israel, for Palestine or for their neighbours. The final solution would be the fruit of negotiations, no matter how difficult those might be.
The situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territory was dire, and measures had to be taken to help them, he said. In order to help the Palestinians to take steps in the right direction, everyone had to join their efforts and take stock of the real situation. In that connection, he hoped Mr. Abbas would be able to resolve the current impasse within his Government. Israel should also be constrained to refrain from the use of force and to return occupied territories.
Finally, Mr. Saltanov said it was impossible to build peace without peace in Iraq and without putting an end to the arms race in the region. Terrorism and poverty were other factors that had to be addressed, which required efforts by the international community and regional mechanisms, if there was to be peace. He hoped that today's seminar would help, by putting its intellectual input into the question of the stabilization of the region and finding peace.
SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said he was very pleased on behalf of the United Nations to welcome everyone to the fourteenth in a series of international media seminars, which the Department of Public Information had organized at the request of the General Assembly. This was the first time the seminar had been held in Moscow, and it showed the clear determination of the Russian Government to contribute to the search for peace in the Middle East. The objective of the United Nations was not only to sensitize people about the question of Palestine, but also to provide impetus and support for a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians to help them sustain their hopes and visions for a peaceful future and perhaps even contribute to the realization of those hopes.
Mr. Tharoor said that the seminar was taking place at a time when new challenges had arisen in the Middle East, on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. The wider regional dimension was also impacting the Middle East peace process in various ways. The focus of the Moscow seminar was to analyse the new challenges now facing the Middle East peace process and to explore ways and means of facilitating a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region.
The seminar was a media seminar, Mr. Tharoor stressed, and it was hoped that participants would continue to write about the problems and opportunities facing Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately, as war began in the minds of men, it was in the minds of men that peace must be constructed. It was the people -- the readers, listeners and viewers -- who had the power to demand peace and perhaps even deliver it.
PAUL BADJI, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of Palestinian People, said that this meeting in Moscow was another example of United Nations efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict. The lack of awareness, distorted information and lack of comprehension of the situation of the Palestinian people exacerbated their predicament. Unfair and inaccurate media coverage of the issue should be closely monitored, and, whenever possible, corrected. That was an area in which civil society could play a major role. The Committee on the rights of the Palestinian people would continue to assist its partners in providing venues and opportunities to network and coordinate their joint activities at the regional and international levels.
The Committee was very disturbed by the current state of affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Repeated incursions in the Territory, Qassam fire at targets inside Israel, and the indiscriminate shelling of a wide area in the northern Gaza strip in response to Qassam launchings, which had often led to large civilian casualties, were causes for continuing concern. The Committee was also concerned by the worsening humanitarian situation within the Occupied Palestinian Territory over the past year, owing to Israeli-enforced movement restrictions. Since the Hamas victory in the January elections, things had worsened, with Israel withholding taxes and other revenue collected by the Israeli Government. With the Palestinian Authority unable to pay its staff, the already high rate of poverty was expected to increase to 74 per cent. It should be remembered that the Palestinian Authority, which was on the verge of fiscal collapse, was responsible for most hospitals and primary and secondary schools in the Territory.
The Committee considered that the root cause of the conflict remained the continuing occupation of Palestinian land and the denial to the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination. Israel's so-called "realignment" plan, which aimed to incorporate large parts of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley into Israel within permanent borders, would only perpetuate the core problem and push a fragile possibility of peace, as envisioned by the Quartet's Road Map, farther away. Mr. Badji believed that part of the responsibility for preventing such a dangerous scenario from developing rested with the media. While covering the conflict, international and national electronic and print media organizations should be professionally responsible and feel morally obligated to provide their audiences with factually accurate and editorially balanced reporting. They should also help to educate public opinion about the existing norms of international law and relevant United Nations resolutions.
ALVARO DE SOTO, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, said that the most jaundiced could be forgiven for being overcome by a sense of hopelessness and despair, with daily news stories from the Middle East of senseless killing, needless suffering, exclusionary and rejectionist political discourse, the creation of facts on the ground, a lack of trust, and genuine fear of the situation spiralling out of control. The United Nations had been at the forefront of warning the parties and its partners of the dangers that existed, and the need for action to avert them. The most immediate was the growing danger of a humanitarian or security crisis -- or both -- in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in Gaza, where suffering was already acute.
Mr. de Soto actually saw a couple of positive elements on which it might be possible to build. The first was Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. Nearly all public opinion surveys showed that they had two publics that still supported a negotiated two-State solution. The second interesting part of the landscape was at the very top -- Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas had expressed their desire to engage in dialogue with a partner who was willing and able to deliver. Third party involvement could also help the parties overcome the obstacles they faced in meeting their commitments. It was the job of the international community not just to show the parties where their performance fell short, but also to help them. Destabilizing forces radiated out of the conflict, and into it as well. The importance of regional involvement was important and inexorable. The deepening engagement of the Quartet with regional neighbours was evidence of that fact.
While some elements in the media promoted conflict, others became an inescapable part of the search for peace, Mr. De Soto observed. By informing and stimulating debate, they were the bridge to the real world and to the people whose lives and communities were destroyed by conflict. Likewise, civil society initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians had been beacons of light, even in the darkest moments of the conflict.
Panel on Aftermath of Israeli and Palestinian Elections
NABIL SHAATH, former Minister of Information of the Palestinian Authority, said that this was a continued crisis of a very deadly confrontation of two people over the Holy Land -- and important crossroads of peoples and civilizations. The occupation of Palestinian land had continued, as well as the settlement policy -- perhaps the main issue of contention and the crux of the whole problem. There had been a high cost for both sides, but particularly for the Palestinians, including the destruction of half the Palestinian national income, which was a considerable obstacle to the peace process. The lack of trust or, as the Israelis put it, "the lack of Palestinian partner", was an old challenge that continued to fester. Arafat, Abbas and Hamas had all originally been rejected and had later become partners with Israel in the search for peace.
Mr. Shaath said that the exercise of democracy was behind the two challenges being discussed today. The two elections had reflected disenchantment on both sides with the peace process, the turning of the process into a process without peace, without final results. Both parties were equally disenchanted with occupation. The two elections had also been similar in that they had come after two important leaders had left the scene. Among the differences, there had been some bizarre results in the Palestinian elections. Fatah and Hamas had received about the same popular vote, but Hamas had been able to translate that into many more seats in the Government. Mistakes over a faulty electoral system had produced such results. In Israel there had been the emergence of the new party, Kadima, and the eclipse of the Likud party, but all in Israel had felt like nobody really won, as neither of the two majority parties had had a project for peace. Regarding the internal politics of the Palestinian Authority, there had to be cohabitation, in order for the peace process to move forward.
Sanctions had complicated the situation. Mr. Shaath said he had never seen such immoral or illegal actions. For example, the freezing of accounts by the United States, and Israel keeping all the taxes it collected from the territory, as well as effecting closures of the borders that made it impossible to survive physically or financially. The sanctions really had to go, as they had created a situation for the Palestinian people, not just for the Government of Hamas, that made it very difficult to find a way to negotiate.
In conclusion, Mr. Shaath did accept that public opinion polls did bring a ray of hope, showing both sides' commitment to support a peace process and a two-State solution. Also, the Arab countries continued commitment was another sign of hope. The United Nations activities and those of the international community were still ongoing and their help had to be utilized if a solution was to be found. Iraq, he noted, was an example that power was an important part of the international political equation, but that it had its limitations. President Abbas had used the threat of the referendum to get the parties to move to accept a programme of action that would lead to reconciliation. It had taken Fatah 24 years to get the Palestinian people to the peace process, and it had taken 88 years to put it in language that was acceptable to the international community. He hoped it would not take Hamas so long. They needed internal reform, reform in Fatah, and help from the media to stop incitement between the parties. For Israel, he said they must end the siege and the extreme violence, especially against Gaza. Walls of separation did not create viable peace between partners. He hoped the present Israeli Government, like Hamas, would find a way out through real dialogue; first inside Israel and then with Palestine. There was no other alternative.
YEVGENY VOLK, Coordinator of the Moscow Office of the Heritage Foundation and Chairman of the Board, the Hayek Foundation (Moscow), said that his role was to brief participants on the role of the United States in the peace process. His view did not necessarily reflect those of the Heritage Foundation, but were his own views, he noted.
The United States concerns in the region centred on its military involvement in Iraq, the growing tensions in the region because of the Iranian nuclear problem, and the possible threat of cut off of oil supplies to the rest of the world, and, in Israel and Palestine, the United States primary concern centred on the recent elections in the Palestinian Authority and the loss of such a prominent figure as Ariel Sharon. The United States and the Bush Administration looked quite suspiciously at Olmert's plan to continue withdrawal from the West Bank. Washington knew that withdrawal from the West Bank, unlike withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, would be many times more risky and dangerous. Israeli settlements in the West Bank were more populous and that area had greater religious significance. There were doubts if the United States would finance what would be a very costly withdrawal of Israel from West Bank settlements. The Bush Administration also feared, seeing the reaction to the Gaza Strip withdrawal, that withdrawing from the West Bank Israel would merely incite more attacks from militants and serve as a territory from which to launch attacks against Israel.
Mr. Volk said that Washington felt that Abbas was a powerless figure, negotiations with whom did not lead to anything. Washington wanted to isolate Hamas and deprive it of every economic support, but, at the same time, it was highly aware of the delicate situation and wanted to avoid a humanitarian crisis, as it would decrease trust among the two peoples. To avoid such a crisis, they wanted to use non-governmental organizations to provide support. Finally, he had wanted to highlight some positive aspects, but negative aspects prevailed for the moment, he noted.
IGAL SARNA, of Yedioth Aharaonoth, an Israeli newspaper, said that he would be very brief, but not very cheerful. As a journalist, he had the privilege of describing, without offering a solution. He had been covering the Palestine-Israel relationship for 24 years; years of hope and frustration. He had never felt as hopeless as he did now. The biggest symbol for him was not the elections, but the wall. The wall and the fence was the new Middle East that was created after four bloody years of fighting from 2000 and 2004, and the events of 11 September 2001. It was a substitute for dialogue, it was the new relationship between the two parties, the new reality. It was a physical and mental wall between the two sides, which, despite everything, had always had some kind of dialogue. The big question, to which he had no answer, was how they could cross that wall.
Mr. Sarna was challenged by a participant, who said that it was not enough to raise the question, he must have some ideas about how to deal with the situation.
Another participant noted that, previously, it had always been a situation in which they had been looking for a political solution to a political problem. Now, they were talking about problems that the Palestinian people had to face every day; violations of their rights by the Israeli Government. Instead of resolving their problems, their problems were increasing, and the separation wall was part of that.
Mr. SARNA said that for many years he had believed in a two-State solution. But, because he was so much in the field, he was hopeless. As a result of the second intifada, when he had asked young people what they planned to do after the fighting stopped, they had said they had no plans. They planned to die. He saw himself as an agent of change, not by proposing a solution, but by bringing information to his readers today. Despite the proliferation of information and a huge amount of media, including the Internet, Israelis knew less and less about what was going on in Gaza, and he saw it as his role, as an insider, to bring that information to them.
Mr. SHAATH agreed that real information was much needed; the kind of information that changed peoples' minds. But there was more. He remembered when dialogue had been forbidden under Israeli law, and the ways they had found to get around them. He felt that the people in both Israeli and Palestinian society had to take some more risks to overcome the wall and what it represented.
Mr. DE SOTO said that what Mr. Sarna was reporting, talking to those in the refugee camps and in the Martyrs Brigades, was not incompatible with the fact that there was a clear majority on both sides that supported a two-State solution. What it proved was that there was a disconnect between the two that had to be sorted out and it was up to the leaders to do so.
Mr. SALTANOV said that he had noted that, today, they had promising assessments and ones that were quite pessimistic. Those two extremes were dangerous. The way forward should be somewhere between those two extremes. There was some legal framework and other instruments, such as the Road Map, that had been earlier agreed between the two parties. That should be the context and the framework that they needed to look to restore peace negotiations. Regarding the allusion that they needed "real partners" to talk to, he believed that both sides should seek partners in each other, without pushing possible partners away. He believed in a political solution and a political process, as he saw no other way. Unilateral actions were not enough.
A participant expressed the opinion that, if Hamas rejected the two-State solution, the process was doomed. He also wanted to know how they could prevent the moral trauma to Israel.
A participant challenged Mr. Saltanov's reliance on the Road Map. She felt that Israel and Palestine had rejected it, as evidenced by the fact that they had not fulfilled its conditions. Why should they rather not look for a new plan? Did Palestinians still feel the plan was viable?
Another participant said there were so many differences in the contours of a two-State solution, and wondered whether that concept was actually politically viable. Additionally, regarding United States policy and the fact that they were less willing to fulfil their traditional role to defend and support the Israeli State, was it now necessary to look to other States to step in and lend greater balance to the peace process, the Russian Federation, for example?
A participant, talking from the Israeli side, said that she felt Israel was in the position of being damned if they did and damned if they did not. If Israel could not achieve peace on their own and could not do it through negotiations, how then could they achieve peace?
Mr. SALTANOV, responding, said that the Road Map was still viable, because it was still supported by the main players responsible. Israel and Palestine had not declared it dead; indeed, they were ready to launch a new round of negotiations on the basis of that document. He also disagreed with the assessment that, if the Road Map was not working, they should simply abandon it. They had no alternatives then, except for unilateral action, which, in the opinion of Russia and others in the international community, would not be productive. Only on the basis of the agreements based on Security Council resolution 1515 could they move forward to a historic compromise.
Mr. VOLK said that the United States would continue to support Israel, as it had a very strong Jewish lobby and they voted accordingly. Republicans faced a very real possibility of losing their majority in both houses of Congress in the United States, and for that reason the situation was of real concern there.
Mr. SHAATH said that he understood Mr. Saltanov's defence of the Road Map, not as it was, but as it should be, taking into consideration that there was no other alternative at the moment. That was the same thinking President Abbas followed. However, he acknowledged that the Road Map was not satisfactory and should be negotiated. But that was not a possibility at the moment. Indeed, that was probably the reason behind the feeling of pessimism that appeared to invade this exchange. Once both parties were truly ready, he observed, the United States was not really important. That was why he stressed the need for the two parties to talk.
Mr. SHAATH noted that the unilateral withdrawal by Israel from Gaza had increased mistrust. The actual withdrawal had a measly effect, given the daily humiliation, the daily shelling, and the continued siege that the citizens of Gaza were subject to.
Mr. SARNA, addressing the traumatic nature of the situation, said that both peoples were living in trauma. At the beginning of 2005 and 2006, both peoples had lost their leaders in mysterious circumstances, and perhaps that explained part of the paralysed condition of the two parties.
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