Press Releases

    UNIS/INF/305
    3 December 2008

    Re-issued as received

    International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Holds Panels on New Regional Dimensions, Future for Peace Process

    Participants Underscore Need to Find Comprehensive Regional Solution

    (Received from a UN Information Officer)

    VIENNA, 3 December (UN Information Service) - The sixteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Government of Austria, continued its meeting in Vienna this afternoon with two panel discussions - one looking at new regional dimensions and the role of neighbouring countries in the peace process, and another examining prospects for the future of the peace process itself.

    Introducing the panel on "New Regional Dimensions: The Role of Neighbouring Countries in the Middle East Peace Process", Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, and moderator for the two panels, drew attention to the Arab Peace Initiative - launched in 2002 at the Beirut Summit of the Arab League - and to the assistance Turkey had been providing for informal contacts between Israel and Syria. Those examples "illustrate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was closely intertwined with the larger Arab-Israeli conflict", he said.

    Participating in that panel were Gudrun Harrer, a senior editor with Der Standard newspaper in Austria; Fritz Froehlich, Coordinator of "UNRWA at 60"; Adli Dannna, Director-General of the Palestine Centre for Media Research and Development in Hebron and President of the International Organization for Youth based in Brussels; and Eli Dayan, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Israel.

    The discussion in the panel pointed to the need for a comprehensive solution that engaged the whole region. It also looked at the dynamics in the region, where it was felt that countries were turning ever more inwards to their own concerns and that greater emphasis was being focused on the Sunni-Shiite conflict, with the Arab-Israeli receiving less attention. The efforts of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the region was also examined, including its new role as a protection agency and a player in peacebuilding on the ground. Other questions discussed were the role of the United Nations in addressing the conflict; the religious dimension of the conflict; the role of Syria and Turkey in the process; and the need to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons.

    For the panel discussion on "Prospects for the future of the peace process in the Middle East", Mr. Akasaka outlined topics, including what was needed to make the Annapolis process succeed, whether the change of Administration in the United States would affect the peace process, what impact Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics had on the peace process, and what the role of the international community - and of major donors - was in assisting the peace process.

    Participants in the panel included Liat Collins, Managing Editor of the International Jerusalem Post; Mr. Danna, Director-General of the Palestine Centre for Media Research; Ian Black, Middle East Editor of The Guardian, a British newspaper; Elena Suponina, Head of the International Desk at Vremya Novostei, a Russian newspaper; and Robert Treichler, Editor of the Austrian Magazine, Profile.

     

    The panel heard from "peace optimists" and "peace pessimists", but many agreed that the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency was likely to be positive, with one panellist saying he felt there was good reason to believe that President Elect Obama, once in office, would "move quickly and energetically to address the question of the Middle East". The role of the Russian Federation, and of the Quartet, in the peace process, and the central role that Security Council resolutions still had to play in any settlement were also discussed.

    This year's media seminar, entitled "Israeli-Palestinian Peace and the Role of the International Community", which opened this morning, is organized around four round table discussions. A first panel discussion, on "The Role of the International Community in the Israel-Palestinian Peace Process: Ways and Means", was at held at the morning session.

    When the International Media Seminar reopens tomorrow, at 9:30 a.m., it will hear a final panel discussion on "Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative: What has been Accomplished since 2007 Tokyo Media Seminar", broken down into two sections, before officially closing its sixteenth annual programme.

    Panel on 'New Regional Dimensions: The Role of Neighbouring Countries in the Middle East Peace Process'

    KIYO AKASAKA, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and moderator for the panel discussion, observed that, if United States President Elect Barack Obama's phrase was "Yes, we can", the United Nations slogan could best be described as "What can we do?" That was clearly the case in regard to finding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Regarding regional peace approaches, Mr. Akasaka noted that the Palestinian Authority had recently published newspaper advertisements about the Arab Peace Initiative in Israeli newspapers, as well as in Arab and European papers. The Arab Peace Initiative had been launched by then-Crown Prince, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, at the Beirut Summit of the League of Arab States in 2002. It proposed a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, essentially on the basis of the "land for peace" principle. It had also been understood that Turkey had also been assisting with informal contacts between Israel and Syria. Those examples illustrated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been closely intertwined with the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

    They clearly needed to look at the regional dimension of those issues, as well as new realities, to see how they affected, and might hopefully contribute to, the search for peace and a durable solution to the long-standing conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Akasaka concluded.

    GUDRUN HARRER, a senior editor with Der Standard newspaper in Austria, said that all agreed that any solution that was not comprehensive and did not engage the whole region was doomed. Gaza was the best or the worst example of what happened without consensus and lack of support.

    Concerning the role of neighbours in the peace process, Ms. Harrer noted that, while some had had spent lots of energy on inter-Palestinian mediation, unfortunately those efforts had not had sustained success, perhaps partly because of a credibility problem with some of those who talked to Hamas (i.e. Egypt or Jordan), the same people that wanted to keep similar people away from power at home.

    Looking at the region, Ms. Harrer also had the impression that today countries were busier looking inwards than before. Some were in transition, like Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia, which now was taking up the challenge of cultural modernity. Some would also say that, as a result of the "Bush policy", there was a new problem in the region: the Sunni-Shiite conflict, with the Arab-Israeli problem shifting to second place. A further draw on the attention of countries of the region had been the financial and food crisis.

    Finally, regarding the Arab peace offer, Ms. Harrer said that it was more about ethics and spirit, and that the details and negotiations remained to be done. That said, she agreed with critics that there should have been more enthusiasm on the Israeli side.

     

    FRITZ FROEHLICH, Coordinator of "UNRWA at 60" with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA), noted that UNRWA's mandate, which had been created in 1949, was a temporary one, and was renewed every three years. Today, it was a major player in the region, with 4.6 million refugees registered with UNWRA. However, despite the enormous size of the refugee population, the issue of refugees was often overlooked in the peace negotiations going on.

    About 70 per cent of the population of the Gaza Strip were Palestinian refugees. The Agency today had nearly 30,000 employees, running over 700 schools, clinics and other facilities throughout the Middle East, in cooperation with host countries, providing education to millions of children and absorbing some 10 million patient visits a year. In his view, UNRWA was the biggest sign of the international community's commitment to peace, Mr. Froehlich said. Today, however, they were faced with a lack of funding. Moreover, although originally mandated to provide social services, now they were held to also have a protection mandate.

    In Lebanon, they were faced with a destabilization of the refugee situations there, where, last year in the Nahr el-Bared camp, over the course of three months, the living areas for 30,000 people was completely razed to the ground. UNRWA was no longer just a humanitarian agency, it was now a protection agency and a player in peacebuilding on the ground in the region. However, without funding that was not possible. Mr. Froehlich concluded with the caution that no solution to the peace conflict would work that did not include the refugees. For its part, UNRWA would try, through contacts with the media and with new partners in the private sector, as well as by expanding its cooperation within the United Nations family, to build its mandate in that regard.

    ADLI DANNNA, Director-General of the Palestine Centre for Media Research and Development in Hebron and President of the International Organization for Youth based in Brussels, began by noting that Israel could not be brought to the table, and peace would not be achieved without serious external pressure of super-Powers, as had been done in the Madrid Conference in 1998.

    On the regional dimension of the conflict, Mr. Danna said the bilateral treaties that Israel had undertaken so far had basically been failures. That was true of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, which was stalled, as well as the treaty with Jordan of 1994. Unless a true regional dimension was included, no peace treaties with Arab countries in the region would really work.

    The Arab Initiative launched in 2002 could work, provided it was coupled with guarantees by the international community to implement it, as well as that of Israel. It was a good initiative, and one that addressed all the major issues, including refugees, Mr. Danna said.

    The floor was then opened to participants for questions.

    Responding to a question on what rehabilitation services there were for those who were disabled, Mr. FROEHLICH said the procedures and measures were in place. What were lacking were the resources. More importantly, he saw the conflict itself as a kind of handicap. It had created restrictions on movement and it had reduced the Palestinian per capita income. More effort was needed to know what was needed to build peace today.

    Answering a question of whether Israel was ready to truly end the conflict on the basis of a two-State solution, the short answer, provided by Mr. DAYAN, was "yes".

    Other questions discussed were the role of the United Nations in addressing the conflict, the religious dimension of the conflict, and the role of Turkey, as a Muslim country straddling East and West.

    The issue of nuclear weapons was also discussed at length, with Mr. DAYAN stressing that Israel was determined to seek peace with Syria, with hopes that that would have an effect on Iran's determination to seek atomic weapons. It was not acceptable to Israel that Iran should possess nuclear weapons, he had underscored. Participants had then objected that if Israel wanted a Middle East free from nuclear weapons they should get rid of their own weapons. If Israel was afraid of Iran, it should realize how much more the Arabs in the region were afraid of Israel with its nuclear bomb. Responding, Mr. DAYAN said he could not say that Israel had such a bomb. But, he could promise that Israel would never use it first, as Israeli leaders had pledged in the past. Israel supported a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East.

    Panel on 'Prospects for the Future of the Peace Process'

    Mr. AKASAKA also moderated the panel that examined "Prospects for the future of the peace process in the Middle East". He noted that, in his message this morning to the media seminar, the Secretary-General had mentioned that, while regretting that the goal of reaching a peace treaty this year, as set out in Annapolis, the parties had engaged in direct, intensive negotiations, and had succeeded in creating trust and a framework where none existed only two years ago. He also said that next year had to be the year that bore fruit in a peace agreement. Their "shared goal remained clear: an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and the achievement of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel, in accordance with all relevant Security Council resolutions".

    In the panel discussion held this morning, several journalists had raised a number of issues posing obstacles to peace, including the territorial border, the issue of Jerusalem, refugees, security problems and others. But the real question was the political will to make those solutions possible, Mr. Akasaka said.

    The panel would address what was needed to make the Annapolis process succeed and would ask such questions as whether the change of Administration in the United States would affect the peace process, what impact Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics had on the peace process and what the role of the international community and major donors was in assisting the peace process, Mr. Akasaka said.

    LIAT COLLINS, Managing Editor of the International Jerusalem Post, said she was sorry that she did not have a positive message to bring. While they had felt they were seeing a "light at the end of the tunnel" two years ago at the media seminar held in Moscow, they had not know then that the light was being held by someone with Hamas arms climbing out through Gaza. They all still had a lot of work to do.

    The problem was not how to intervene, but how to get the parties to sit down together, Ms. Liat stressed. The other issue was what kind of peace one envisaged. For her, the priority for peace was to stop people from dying. Economic benefits were a secondary issue.

    The global financial crisis would certainly have an affect on the peace process, and was likely to deflect attention of Governments, including the new United States Administration, from the issue. Moreover, there would be less money for things such as resettlement, Ms. Collins noted.

    On a more positive note, Ms. Collins said that there could be small pockets of peace on the ground without an overall agreement, and to that end they had to encourage small joint projects, which did have a positive effect. They needed to talk together and eat together. That was how peace was going to come about.

    Mr. DANNA, Director-General of the Palestine Centre for Media Research and Development in Hebron and President of the International Organization for Youth based in Brussels, said that he was a peace optimist and it was time for likeminded persons to inject some hope into the minds and hearts of those in the area. Regarding the position of the new United States Administration, it was hoped that there would be a new position on peace in the Middle East, with Barack Obama and his Administration to play a more balanced role - and not just support Israel.

    In his mind, both sides had to be pushed to find solutions, and the thrust of the peace process should be to implement the Security Council resolutions on the subject, which had been gathering dust for so many years.

    IAN BLACK, Middle East Editor of The Guardian, a British newspaper, said that he was sure everyone agreed that there was tremendous excitement about the possibilities offered by the coming to power of President Elect Obama for prospects for peace in the Middle East. However, it was worth dwelling on the difference between those hopes and the impact President Elect Obama would actually be able to make on the peace process.

    Without adding to the enormous weight of expectations, Mr. Black believed that, even with all the current distractions, there was good reason to believe that President Elect Obama, once in office, would move quickly and energetically to address the question of the Middle East.

    Turning to regional neighbours and their role in the process, Mr. Black said he did not believe, as had been said earlier, that there could be peace with Syria unless the Palestinian issue was resolved. The focus Israel was putting on Iran was a dangerous diversion tactic from the plight of the Palestinians. Iran was a problem for many countries, including the United States, but the Palestinian question was an existential one for the future of the Middle East.

    Mr. Black also felt that it was not possible to achieve peace with the current factional split in the Palestinian Authority; without a halt to settlement activity - without which it would be hard to believe Israel wanted peace; or without an end to the violence. All of those issues had to be resolved to find peace.

    ELENA SUPONINA, head of the International Desk at Vremya Novostei, a Russian newspaper, addressing the role of the Russian Federation in the peace process, noted that Russia again played a significant role in the Middle East today, and was on its way back to becoming an important player in the peace process.

    Since the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the Russian Federation had finally re-established diplomatic ties with the Middle East. But, owing to its internal problems, for a long time it had not been able to play an effective role. President Boris Yeltsin had never paid an official visit to the Middle East. Then, in 2005, President Vladimir Putin had paved the way for the new orientation, paying an official visit to the Middle East, where he had been welcomed by Arabs and Israelis, and since then many visits to the region had been undertaken. Subsequently, President Putin had proposed the convening of an international conference in Moscow for the peace process, Ms. Suponina said, but that proposal had been turned down by the Israeli side.

    Ms. Suponina enumerated other Russian interventions to try and influence the peace process, including to try and reunite the Palestinian Authority, which had split following the United States insistence that it hold democratic elections. The role of Hamas had somewhat changed of late. It should be noted that Russia did not consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization, although it virulently criticized the group, in particular for not attending the Egyptian-organized talks in Cairo.

    With regard to the Quartet, Ms. Suponina said that all too often the United States appeared to forget that there were other members of the Quartet, and the United Nations role was not often enough at the fore.

    Finally, Ms. Suponina noted that the Sharm el-Sheikh conference had agreed to the original proposal for an international peace conference in Moscow in 2009, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had in principle agreed to that. But that was not the main objective. The main objective was peace and the establishment of a Palestinian State that could live side by side in peace with Israel.

    ROBERT TREICHLER, Editor of ProfileMagazine of Austria, said he was optimistic about the peace process. One reason was the advent of Barack Obama. Not only did he represent new fresh thinking, but it marked an end to the ideology of the "war on terror" launched by George W. Bush eight years ago. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been seen only in that context, which was not only wrong, but had not worked.

    There was also an evolution in Israeli society that appeared to acknowledge the failure of a military solution to the conflict.

    In an ensuing question-and-answer session, the issue of political prisoners was raised. A participant felt that it was impossible to make any progress towards peace without resolving that issue. Also discussed was the role of President Elect Barack Obama, among others.

    In brief concluding remarks to today's panels, Mr. AKASAKA said they had noted important changes in the international players, and hopefully changes in political will. It would be good if that could help make a change in the coming weeks, and certainly in the next year.

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    Lothar Mikulla
    Associate Information Officer, UNIS Vienna
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