If I had a ruble for every time I heard the words “apartheid,” “colonization” and “ethnic cleansing” at a UN-sponsored seminar in Moscow last week, the only reason I wouldn’t be rich is the poor state of the Russian currency. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention money, as one Palestinian journalist declared that Jews control the banks and the media. I might be feeding a hungry stereotype.
Another participant, Dr. Abdel Razzaq Takriti, a Palestinian associate professor at the University of Houston, tried to prevent me and other Israelis from speaking, telling Haaretz journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer that he “won’t let my oppressor have the last word.”
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The 2018 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, which took place in the impressive building that houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, was organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the ministry, the United Nations Association of Russia and the Russia Peace Foundation. It was aimed expressly at presenting the Palestinian narrative but with just enough Israelis to make a pretense of being even-handed. (That’s if you ignore the fact that the Israelis included outspoken anti-Zionist Dr. Ilan Pappé, who lives in the UK and during the opening panel called for Israel to be turned into a pariah state.)
Cheikh Niang, from Senegal, who chairs the UN’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, claimed in his opening remarks: “Our committee is neither anti-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian.” He did not stay for the second session in which I told the forum that all people should have “inalienable rights.” I also made the point that the UN obsession with Israel and the Palestinians is part of the problem, not the solution.
Many of the speakers noted the US administration’s decision to stop financing UNRWA. I was probably one of the few people in the conference room who thought the decision was a good one. I was definitely alone in voicing that opinion out loud. UNRWA is not empowering but the equivalent of a permanent welfare hand-out to the “perpetual refugees.” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness noted that because of the uncertainty over the future of UNRWA, some Palestinian parents were opting for Palestinian Authority schools over the UN facilities.
I attended a similar seminar in Moscow in 2006 and sadly heard many of the same accusations, distortions and lies then. The only new twist in the rhetoric was a comment by Hanan Ashrawi that “the Zionist movement is exploiting the Bible.” This kind of outrageous comment, such as hearing Ashrawi describe Israel as “misogynist,” were the closest I got to light relief.
The opening panel, moderated by Alison Smale, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, was titled “25 years after the Oslo Accords: Are we any closer to peace?”
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For a brief moment Ashrawi and I manged to agree on something: The answer is “No.”
Naturally, we have different versions of why. Ashrawi claimed that “the rise in Israeli entitlement and exceptionalism is now linked to an absolutist ideology” and “voices for peace in Israel are being silenced.”
Oslo architect Dr. Yair Hirshfield, speaking after Ashrawi, bravely made some of the same unpopular points that I later elaborated on: That the main reasons that Oslo failed were Palestinian terrorism and the anti-normalization movement.
Having listened to Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour, I can tell you – as I told the afternoon panel between the heckling – that the Palestinians have been betrayed by their own leadership. Mansour said, “the US cannot define who refugees are,” and even if the Palestinians were to have their own state they will remain refugees “because it is an essential part of our identity.” He must know as well as I do that a future state based on clan loyalties and the refugee narrative is doomed to speedily descend into tribal warfare.
WALID BATRAWI, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian communications expert from Ramallah, gave an interesting presentation at the outset of the second panel. The session was called “The War of Words: Covering the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Batrawi, who has worked for the and Al Jazeera English, among other media organizations, presented various concepts as seen by Israelis and Palestinians. He noted, for example, that what Israelis call “the security fence or barrier,” Palestinians call “the separation wall or apartheid wall.” One people’s “Judea and Samaria” is another’s “West Bank.” What Palestinians refer to as “Occupied Palestinian territories” Israelis call simply “the territories.” “These phrases not only represent a war of words, they represent a war of fundamentals,” he said. Nonetheless, he sounded a voice of reason and unlike, Mansour, he did not seem in favor of perpetuating victimhood.
I agreed that the use of words is important, and when fellow panelist Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab-American Institute, referred to the deaths in 2014 of “the three settlers,” I sounded like a continuation of Batrawi’s Power-Point presentation when I pointed out that they were “three teenagers, not settlers.”
Covering the conflict as an Israeli can’t be anything other than personal. It is literally too close to home. I know too many terror victims and like most Israelis have run for shelter in rocket attacks.
Terrorism, as horrible as it is, does not present an existential threat to Israel; fostering the cult of martyrdom, however, is dangerous for the Palestinians as much as for Israelis, creating an environment in which violence thrives. Incitement kills. When it comes to the use of words, no good can come out of turning every dead terrorist into a “shahid.” The Palestinian media fuel the anti-normalization monster which in turn threatens them. I know Palestinian and Arab journalists too scared to be seen with their Israeli counterparts.
Bel Trew, correspondent for The Independent, explained the particular challenges of covering the region where there is very little agreement even on the terminology and reporters come under intensive pressure and scrutiny. She said journalists are often forced to write using the passive form and there is no way to please everyone. She gave the example of using the word “borders,” even though they are not agreed upon or recognized, and using the word “clashes, which implies equal willingness to attack,” hence both sides take issue with the term.
I was reminded of the previous UN media seminar I attended in Moscow where a journalist quipped that “the only thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that neither like CNN.”
I mentioned the efforts by the Jerusalem Association of Journalists (of which I am a board member) to establish a hotline with the Palestinian Syndicate of Journalists to try to solve problems on the ground. So far all attempts have been stymied by the PSJ’s anti-normalization policy. The offer still stands, I said, keen that something positive should come out of my flying and trying visit.
Similarly, I could not address a room full of UN officials and representatives of human rights organizations without raising the plight of the only two IDF soldiers in Gaza: Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were both killed and their bodies abducted in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Goldin during a UN-brokered ceasefire. And the need for the speedy return of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, Israeli citizens with special needs being held by Hamas.
As with most conferences, the most important part was not the formal talks but the meetings over coffee. Moscow, beautifully lit up at night, provided a perfect venue for the less formal gatherings and exchanges of thoughts. However, the UN has to realize that a “Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People” can never be seen by Israelis as being impartial, and having a mandate to present the “Palestinian narrative” is not the same as creating a dialogue for peace.
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