MEDIA SEMINAR ON PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST OPENS IN GENEVA
12 June 2012
The 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened today at the International Geneva Conference Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. The Seminar will focus on the role of the media in covering different aspects of recent events in the Middle East, especially the Arab Spring, and how they relate to the situation in Israel and Palestine.
In his message to the participants, Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General, said that much had been achieved across the region for the past 18 months, but for too many the suffering continued. The killings in Syria had not stopped despite repeated pledges by all sides and the dangers of a full-scale civil war were imminent and real. The Secretary-General expressed his concerns over the fragility of the peace process and urged the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct, bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions. More effort was needed by Israel to improve the unsustainable situation in Gaza. The United Nations would continue its engagement to help parties forge the way forward and create the conditions for meaningful negotiations that would resolve the core permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security.
Maher Nasser, Acting Head of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, in opening remarks, emphasized that this was a media seminar and that much of the discussion would focus on the role of the media in covering different aspects of recent events in the Middle East, and how they related to the situation in Israel and Palestine. It was an opportunity for representatives of the media and civil society from the region and beyond to come together to share their experiences and exchange views, he stressed.
Wolfgang Amadeus Brülhart, Assistant State Secretary for the Middle East and North Africa of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, said that this Seminar was an opportunity to discuss ways to revive the peace process in the Middle East and reiterated the commitment of Switzerland to those efforts. Switzerland condemned all violations of international humanitarian law to which the Syrian population had fallen victim and emphasized that it was imperative to find a peaceful solution to conflicts by all means.
Following the opening session, the Seminar held a panel on the prospects for peace approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which looked at the current status of internationally sponsored peace efforts, following almost two decades since the signing of the Oslo Accords. Speakers agreed that the prospect of peace was a critical issue.
Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, delivered the keynote address in this panel. Other panellists were Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations; Jean-Daniel Ruch, Special Representative for the Middle East of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs; and Daniel Levy, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
The 2012 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East is organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland. It will hold two panels this afternoon to explore the impact of the Arab Spring on media coverage of the question of Palestine and discuss the role of women’s activism and the media in the Israeli-Palestinian peace and the wider region.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS BRÜLHART, Assistant State Secretary for the Middle East and North Africa of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, in his opening remarks said that the panelists of the 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East would be able to discuss the ways to revive the peace process in the Middle East and reiterated the commitment of Switzerland to those efforts. Switzerland had embarked on a number of measures to support the outcomes of the Arab Spring, reinforce democracy and protect vulnerable groups in the society. Switzerland condemned in all possible terms all violations of international humanitarian law to which the Syrian population had fallen victim and emphasized that it was imperative to find a peaceful solution to conflicts by all means.
BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General, in his message to the 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, which was read out on his behalf by MAHER NASSER, Acting Head of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, said that this seminar had gathered at a pivotal time in the Middle East and North Africa. The world had witnessed profound changes across the region in the past 18 months, driven by brave and committed citizens. Many participants in the seminar had played important roles in those events as journalists, activists, policy-makers and representatives of civil society and the Secretary-General urged them to continue to promote peace and increase mutual understanding between communities. While much had been achieved across the region, for too many the suffering continued. The killings in Syria had not stopped despite repeated pledges by all sides and the dangers of a full-scale civil war were imminent and real. All violence must end, said the Secretary-General, adding that now was the time for the international community to take bold and concerted action.
The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was now essential. The Secretary-General expressed his concerns over the fragility of the peace process and urged the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct, bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions. Mr. Ban welcomed the progress achieved by the Palestinian Authority in building the necessary institutions of governance and the significant progress on security in the West Bank. He reiterated the Quartet’s call on the Palestinian Authority to continue to make every effort to improve law and order, fight violent extremism and end incitement. The expansion of settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was contrary to international law and Israel’s Roadmap commitments. The Secretary-General underscored the Quartet’s concern over settler violence and incitement in the West Bank, and repeated its calls on Israel to take effective measures, including bringing the perpetrators of such acts to justice. The situation in Gaza was unsustainable with a continuing need for the free movement of goods and people; more effort by Israel was needed. The United Nations would remain engaged to help parties forge the way forward and create the conditions for meaningful negotiations that would resolve the core permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security, and an end to the occupation that began in 1967.
MAHER NASSER, Acting Head of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, said that the objective of the Seminar was to sensitize public opinion on the question of Palestine and to explore how the events in the region related to the relations between Palestine and Israel. It was also an opportunity for representatives of media and civil society from the region and beyond to share their experiences and exchange views. This Seminar was taking place during a period of profound and tumultuous change in the Middle East. People across the region, led by women and youth, continued to call for freedom and human rights, democracy and accountability and for an end to corruption. The home-grown democratic movements were a credit to the Arab people, but they came at a heavy cost as the loss of life had been large. Mr. Nasser noted that what had started as a popular call for democracy in Syria had turned into a dangerous spiral of violence and everyone was watching in horror the mounting death toll in this country. A regional awakening based on the ideals of freedom, dignity and non-violence cannot be complete without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Panel 1: The prospects for peace approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords
ROBERT SERRY, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, said that the prospect of peace was a critical issue today, because 20 years of violence had turned the optimism into skepticism. The current situation was that of deep deadlock and lack of substantial negotiations despite the international community’s efforts. Progress had been elusive and it was clear that after 20 years of peacemaking the prospect of a two-State solution was weak. Instead of achieving a two-State solution, it was possible to move to a one State solution and further away from the progress and spirit of the Arab Spring. One State was unlikely to satisfy the aspirations of the Israelis and the Palestinians and this would further aggravate the situation. Substantive negotiations would not resume without mutual confidence building measures between the parties to resume their quiet negotiations. This so far had not happened. The recent actions of the Israeli Government in approving new settlements undermined the peace prospects and the Palestinian faith in peace process.
The Palestinian Authority had made huge progress in transforming itself and its institutions over the past four years; still some claimed that Palestinian State building was at the risk and if it was not matched by progress in peace negotiations it would fail. The State building project needed more space, time and resources. The division between the West Bank and Gaza also prevented the Palestinian State from reaching its full potential. Much of Gaza’s economy was empowered by the illegitimate and unsustainable tunnel trade; exports and movement of people and goods must be facilitated. The situation in and around Gaza would remain fragile until Gaza and the West Bank were reunited under the Palestinian Authority. Elections must be made an integral part of the reconciliation process. There could be no two-State solution without a one Palestinian State polity, which would also be consistent with the two-State solution. The Arab Spring offered new opportunities to the peace process and the striving to the two-State solution. Twenty years after Oslo it would be mistaken to think that time was still on the side of peace; peace should have been achieved yesterday. A two-State solution was difficult to achieve today, but it was still easier than it would be tomorrow.
RIYAD H. MANSOUR, Permanent Observer of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations, said there was a big question in the mind of everyone concerning the intentions of the Palestinian people and their leadership and their strategy in moving forward. The Palestinians were still struggling to end the occupation and to have an independent State of Palestine; this was the overarching objective. Three issues were crucial: the political reality, the international options and the national reconciliation and getting ready for conducting the struggle and resistance in a peaceful way if left with no other option.
The peace process was at an impasse; efforts had been put to participate in direct talks, in proximity talks, and in exchanging letters. This meant that the Palestinians had done everything in their power; Israel on the other hand had continued to undermine the process through the building of settlements. Palestine had made a mistake earlier in negotiating with Israel while Israel was still engaged in the building of illegal settlements and changing the facts on the ground. Everyone agreed that colonization had reached the phase where not only did it threaten the structure of the two-State solution, but the possibility to administer such an agreement because of the monstrosity of illegal settlements and the violence of power by some settlers. Palestine did not request that settlements be eliminated but that construction of new ones be stopped to show the good will and the intention to one day comply with the agreements.
One of the main options available to the Palestinians was the international one, namely the application of Palestine for membership in the United Nations in September 2011 and the recognition of Palestine by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. The fact that the application was now in the Security Council put the Palestine question in the area of entering the gate of no return. Palestine did not accept the position of Israel and the United States that independence should come as a result of negotiations; this was an exclusive domain of the Palestinian people who did not need someone’s permission to exercise their right to self-determination. There was a global consensus today on the two-State solution, which implied the recognition of the independence of the State of Palestine.
Reconciliation was a national necessity for Palestine and many efforts were made in putting the house in order and implementing elections and establishing the unified Government.
JEAN-DANIEL RUCH, Special Representative for the Middle East of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained at the heart of peace and stability in the Middle East, which was important to Europe and Switzerland. Four years ago, with the arrival of President Obama in office, there had been a lot of optimism and everyone hoped that the last piece of the agreement would now fall in place. Then everything broke down at the end of 2008, with the 2009 Gaza war and the new Government in Israel coming to power. The situation today was absurd; in both societies there were parts of the populations in favour of two States but the current impasse eroded the viability of a two-State solution every day. The awareness of the impact of illegal settlements on the viability of a two-State solution was growing in Europe. There were several possible scenarios that could play out: the two-State solution becoming a reality, which was unlikely; United Nations Special Committee on Palestine UNSCOP II project to establish a group of eminent persons to draw a new peace plan, which so far did not enjoy too much support; and waiting for the second term in office for President Obama and new wind to negotiations. The most likely option was the continuation of the status quo, which would lead to a one State reality that filled absolutely no conditions regarding international law, international humanitarian law, human rights and democracy. Even though everyone seemed to know what the solution was, no one actually knew how to get there. Switzerland was not a big player in this situation; it could engage emerging forces in the region on the issue of Israeli-Arab peace, whose positions had not been fully crystallized. Further, Switzerland could continue to use its comparative advantage with regard to international humanitarian law, human rights and the Geneva Conventions and work with the youth on peaceful solutions for peace.
DANIEL LEVY, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation, said that the Oslo agreement 20 years ago had been an attempt at a quick fix to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; many of the issues that arose from the 1948 events would be swept under the carpet and it was in favour of the party that had more power at the moment, which was Israel. The political realities today had changed and quick fixes were no longer possible. The sell-by-date on Oslo expired in 1999. The changed situation in the field must be recognized: one in ten Israeli Jews lived now in illegal settlements; Gaza and the West Bank had been disconnected from each other; one in four Israeli first graders now attended extra orthodox school; one in five Israeli citizens within the green line was an Israeli Arab: this number did not change, but this population was disfranchised and was poorly served by Israeli democracy. The spectrum of options under consideration in Israel today ran from variations of the two-State solution, to variations of maintaining the status quo, to open and public embrace of one State, a Greater Israel. For many, it was difficult to see a strategic way out of the impasse. On the Hamas side, there was increased emphasis on maintaining the position of Gaza and less on the overall Palestinian issues. Return to peace negotiations was redundant; it did not make the peace redundant however and there was an absolute need to understand the structural issues at play. There were three resiliencies that remained over the past 20 years: the bastions of Israeli’s impunity were still in place; the continuing existence of the Oslo structures, mainly because of the difficulty in accepting that a State building project failed; and the regional management and support structures, such as that from Egypt or Jordan. Some of those could be used to point way forward. Getting over the status quo would open a whole range of options and opportunities; violence was the next step in the absence of diplomatic and political solutions.
In the ensuing discussion, participants commented on the references concerning the death of the two-State solution and wondered why one State would not provide a satisfying solution and what it was that Hamas should do.
Mr. Serry said that both parties should ask themselves a question concerning the feasibility of a two-State solution; looking at the aspirations of both sides, particularly where Israel was going now with the voicing of the Jewish State, it would be difficult to envisage a bi-national state. The United Nations was supportive of Palestinian reconciliation.
Mr. Levy said there was more than one way to reach human security and dignity for all the people. The creativity did not end with peace plans and burying heads in the sand was not advisable. It was never said to the Israelis to pass a State resolution endorsing the two-State solution; in the absence of this demand, one should take seriously what was going on in Israel and what was happening on the ground which was not indicative of support for the two-State solution.
In a further series of comments and questions, participants asked what the prospects were for the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners and how the United Nations was dealing with the impunity of Israel.
Mr. Serry noted that the United Nations was very concerned about the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners and this situation was closely monitored. The release of pre-Oslo prisoners would be a significant mutual confidence-building step.
Mr. Mansour said that discussions concerning one or two States were not abstract solutions, but issues that affected millions of lives. General thinking and strategy among the Palestinian people and the leadership was the two-State solution, independence and end of the occupation. Illegal settlements, which were spreading like cancer and taking the Palestinian land, were the tragedy of the Palestinian people living under occupation. Settlements were illegal according to international humanitarian law, United Nations resolutions and other international instruments. The settlement campaign was a policy of the Israeli Government and nobody was challenging it.
Mr. Levy noted that answers were there and that the Catch 22 was if one decided to change the balance of power, it would mean mobilizing the consequences vis-à-vis Israeli position.
A participant asked where the attention on Jerusalem was and asked when the lessons from the First and Second Intifada should be learned. Why had Palestine not applied directly to the General Assembly for its statehood? What was the best approach to Jews in America and how could the new political realities be transmitted to them?
Mr. Levy did not know what the best approach was and that there was a space, a platform for Palestinian spokespersons. A narrative of freedom, democracy and human rights and putting those issues to the front would help, rather then going into minutiae of negotiations and failures.
With regard to Jerusalem, Mr. Mansour said it could be a spark of the future eruption. More needed to be done for Jerusalem; without Jerusalem there would be no Palestinian State. Many lessons were to be learned from the First Intifada; the scope of learning lessons would not be fully understood until the eruption. There was a massive debate between the Palestinian people and their leadership concerning the strategy for the way forward and it was still unclear when it would become clear.
Mr. Serry said in closing remarks that the situation was highly complex and it would not be easy for the Palestinian Authority to find a full way ahead. Maybe there was a need to rethink the viability of the two-State solution as it became more difficult to achieve every passing day.
Mr. Ruch said it would be good to start developing red lines that should not be crossed in the search of the two-State solution. Some core issues of the two-State solution would have to be addressed also in a bi-national State solution. Hamas was an actor and must act responsibly: they must have an acceptable vision for the end of the conflict and in their ruling of Gaza they must abide by the international law and international humanitarian law, which was not the case at the moment. There was a deficit of political pluralism for all Palestinian people wherever they lived. On impunity, Mr. Ruch believed that some sort of traditional justice system must be a part of a peace agreement; not much could be done now apart from keeping record and that was why Switzerland was a supporter of the Goldstone report.
For use of the information media; not an official record