CULTIVATING CULTURE OF PEACE, RECONCILIATION THROUGH GRASSROOTS
INITIATIVES, SUBJECT OF MIDDLE EAST SEMINAR
Panel Weighs Ability of Civil Society to Influence
Political Leadership, Reset Public Opinion among Israelis and Palestinians
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
BEIJING, 17 June –- Given the mainstream views of the Israelis and Palestinians about past and present failures along the road to peace, the chance of near- and medium-term success was dim, but civil society movements offered some rays of hope, the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East heard this morning during its third panel discussion.
Opening the second and concluding day of the seminar organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, introduced the discussion on “Cultivating a Culture of Peace and Reconciliation through Grassroots Initiatives”. It was aimed at examining the key obstacles to facilitating the Palestinian/Israeli dialogue.
The panellists were: Adina Shapiro, Co-Director of the Jerusalem-based Middle East Children’s Association (MECA); Daniel Lubetzky, Founder and President, One Voice; David Rieff, political analyst and contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine; and Nasser Al-Kidwa, Permanent Observer for Palestine to the United Nations.
Mr. Rieff highlighted the obstacles to changing public opinion on both sides of the conflict. He said that unless Israelis could be persuaded that the deal that Mr. Arafat had refused at Camp David was not a good deal, and had not meant a rejection of peace or of a two-State solution, he was pessimistic about success in settling the conflict.
Similarly, on the Palestinian side, the population was living in a state of imprisonment, with Gaza and the West Bank being two very large prisons. Under those circumstances, belief in the “bona fides”, or good intentions, of the Israeli Government was a very difficult sell. So there was one community in jail and another persuaded of certain inaccurate realities. That was the ground in which civil-society actors had to operate. It was a tribute to them that they had been able to do as much as they had.
Adding the voice of the United Nations to the ensuing debate, Ezzedine Choukri-Fisher, a senior aide to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Terje Roed-Larsen, said that both sides should admit their mistakes. Each should internalize the legitimate claims and rights of the other side. The Middle East conflict was not one in which one side was completely wrong and the other just had to give in. It would be much more helpful if each side stopped questioning the intention of the other and insisting that the other side was bluffing, and seized opportunities and moved ahead.
He urged both sides to realize the complexity of the other -- Israelis were not only soldiers using deadly force in densely populated areas, and Palestinians were not only people blowing themselves up on buses. Each side had a wide range of views, attitudes, projects, and so forth. If the civil society turned itself into a defender of official policy, much would be lost, as there were already governments for that, he cautioned.
Recalling yesterday’s discussions at the seminar, Mr. Tharoor said he had heard much about the deep sense of mistrust and resentment when eyes were cast upon neighbours in the Middle East. The result was often an environment where political initiatives were viewed with suspicion. It might be true that reconciliation was possible only once the violence had stopped, but where would the motivation for those initiatives originate, unless from the ordinary people themselves who had decided to give peace a chance.
Highlights of Panel Discussion
Ms. Shapiro, speaking also on behalf of Dr. Ghassan Abdullah, said there was an assumption that the architects of a peace process should work on developing the important political aspects, but education must be an integral part of any strategic agreement and should be given a strategic mandate. She had not meant that children on one side should be educated that their side was more right than the other. She was talking about a process of learning that enabled people to change and create their own sense of identity, leading to the ability to resolve conflict. That was a crucial element in creating a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
She said the formal educational system should be targeted, and the teachers should be trained. If they did not know how to balance the issues and values, they could not instil them in their students. Her group had worked with several hundred teachers on each side who, in turn, worked with thousands of students, both Palestinians and Israelis. Mostly, the educators were dealing with the issue of trauma and stress in the children; that was the young people’s reality. Demonizing the other side, however, was not healthy. Putting a human face on the complex issues allowed them a wider view.
Mr. Lubetzky cautioned against being deluded about the challenges ahead or assuming that a particular idea would attract the necessary traction on the ground. All change historically had come from the people, through popular action. But, the challenge in societies, even in vibrant democracies, was to work with people living under the perception of an existentialist threat, where the extremists had generally “won the day”. Extremists usually held hostage the process.
He said that, over many decades, the people of the Middle East had been de-programmed and de-sensitized to their duties to be active citizens. They must recognize their responsibilities and their power to make a difference. His movement, One Voice, was trying to build a platform and a movement to motivate people to take their lives back. His ultimate goal was to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians and to build a constituency of support at the grass-roots level, in order for their voice to be heard by the political leaders.
The Permanent Observer for Palestine to the United Nations, Mr. Al-Kidwa, said civil society’s work was hugely important. It was essential to build bridges between people and create links. He wished to challenge the conventional wisdom in that regard without challenging the important work being done. He was referring to one false theoretical concept, which concerned the call for the parties themselves to reach agreement without any external interference. That excluded some serious facts, including that the parties had failed to reach agreement and that the international community, through the United Nations Security Council, had a legal responsibility to deal with such conflicts.
He offered as a possible solution a return to the basics, by allowing the Security Council to adopt the final shape of a settlement. There would be no serious movement forward without a deal between the two sides, leaving some room for them to negotiate. Without that, there would be no serious breakthrough.
Concerning the wall, he said he had been offended yesterday at the repeated reference to it as a “fence” or the “security fence”. Whatever it was called, it was a regime, and not the fence of a neighbour. It was a complex physical structure with a series of legal and administrative measures destroying the lives and future of the Palestinians. The wall was going to prevent the two-State solution. Requesting an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice had been a most important step by the United Nations. When it came, it would be a watershed, and everyone should be ready to respond seriously. The slogan should be, “follow the law”. The heart of the United Nations, and that of the international community, was in the right place, and recent votes had been significant, but they had done little to change the position of the United States.
Taking the floor again, Ms. Shapiro said she did not think it civil society’s task to convince the public of its mistakes, for example, to convince Israelis that it was their fault that Camp David fell through, or that it had been Arafat’s responsibility. Similarly, it was very difficult to convince the majority of Palestinians that the security fence was not an apartheid wall, or to convince the Israelis that that was the perception of the Palestinians. If that was the task of civil society, then that was impossible. The task was to at least expose the other side, to introduce to both the way each other perceived the issues. That task was at least doable.
Mr. Lubetzky explained that he was trying to build a movement that reflected the will of the people at the grass-roots level. It was unrealistic, for example, to motivate the United States to exert pressure on Israel, but it was possible to build a base of support which allowed moderate policies to be implemented. He was trying to establish working solutions for the future. If society and individuals did not start to do something, then they had already ceded the stage to the extremists, forestalling progress for the majority that wanted compromise.
Another speaker wondered how it was possible to cultivate a culture of peace and reconciliation among people who were struggling for their rights, and were confronted with the destruction of their homes and cities. Efforts over the past 10 years had failed because the Palestinians had not been ready for real dialogue.
During his diplomatic work over the past 15 years, another speaker said he had not seen any good will on the Israeli side. People in the discussion were talking about civilization, but what had been done to stop the aggression against the Palestinians? Most of the Israeli leaders who had favoured peace had been “kicked out”. There were fundamentalists and terrorists on both sides, and something had to be done for future generations. The ongoing massacres would benefit no one. He appealed to participants to do something.
One speaker suggested that the role of politicians was decisive in directing public opinion and influencing the options. They could create an atmosphere of peace among the publics on both sides of an issue. Another speaker asserted, however, that if everyone joined forces in civil society, that would be much more effective and influential than the government side.
During a heated debate over which side was right -- the Israelis or the Palestinians -- an Israeli journalist said he had been one of the fiercest critics of his Government, and unlike his Palestinian and Arab colleagues, he saw both sides of the same coin. He had not blamed one or the other for the Camp David failure. He knew from very close range that if every Israeli had a Palestinian friend and every Palestinian had an Israeli friend, there would have been peace in the region long ago. If discussions like the one under way today could be taken to leaders on both sides, much could be achieved.
Picking up on the question about the relationship between civil society and political leaders, Mr. Rieff said there was no ironclad law about that. There had been moments during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of great opportunity for civil society, and moments that had not been so great. Whether or not today was a propitious moment for that kind of interaction, he tended to think that initiatives such as the “Geneva Accords” could be a kind of “force multiplier” for the process.
Responding to a series of questions about United States policy towards the Middle East, he said that no American reconsideration was possible before the elections in that country. Moreover, any reconsideration would have to be premised on the belief of an American president that, despite the failure of Camp David, a process could be successful. There was no way after the last four years that that incredibly contentious issue in the United States would be taken up unless people thought there was some chance of success. His worry was that the Sharon Government, in moving ahead with the wall, was making moot a change in United States policy. If the construction continued at the present pace, would there be anything to reconsider? he wondered.
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