Steps to peace

A UN-sponsored conference in the Austrian capital tries to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
I didn't waltz while I was in Vienna a week ago. The toes I stepped on were metaphorical. They say it takes two to tango. Or to do a waltz. They also say it takes two to make peace. They (whoever they are) have never attended a peace conference. Some 200 people sat in a splendid conference room at Vienna's Hofburg Congress Center, the former imperial palace, for the 16th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, organized by the UN's Department of Public Information and the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs in Austria on December 2 and 3. The city, smothered with Christmas decorations, seemed to be gift wrapped to welcome the participants. Since the theme of the conference was "The role of the international community," it is hardly surprising that the seminar was attended by more than just those directly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian situation. An Obama-supporting Native American by the name of Silverbird, for example, handed out business cards listing him as "ambassador, historian, entrepreneur." Seeing as it was a media conference, I unapologetically spent time interviewing other journalists. Indeed, it was the discussions during coffee breaks or while seeking the nightlife in a city that goes to bed early which proved most interesting. A journalist from Jerusalem doesn't often get the chance to talk to a colleague from Algeria, even off the record. A chat with the Cairo bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel, Randa Abul-Azm, was also illuminating. When I mentioned the Sunni-Shi'ite split, she countered: "That's an American invention. It didn't exist before the Iraqi invasion." I suggested that Egypt take some responsibility for Gaza, eliciting the response: "You can't expect Egypt to absorb the refugees. We're overcrowded as it is." Fritz Froehlich, coordinator for "UNRWA at 60," pointed out that the problems have only just begun. In his assessment, the issue isn't the number of residents currently in Gaza, but the exponentially growing number in the future. Many participants expressed concern about the Hamas hold on Gaza, cutting it off from the West Bank more effectively than any Israeli-imposed sanctions ever could. Clearly we have a long way to go to reach solutions. The opening panel demonstrated just how far. UN UNDER-SECRETARY General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka stressed that "the process under way has kindled new hopes that peace can be attained" and read a message from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urging: "If people are to have faith in the political process, there is a need for tangible improvements in living conditions and security." Throughout, the UN struggled to preserve an image of impartiality. But the feeling of hope and goodwill dissipated as the PA's deputy foreign minister, Almutawakel Taha, took to the floor with a speech that strung together every cliché in the book, starting with: "The crucifixion continues in Palestine, not only of human beings but of birds, children, trees and houses..." I wondered if the "so on and so forth" I heard through my headphones was the literal translation of Taha's speech or a sign the simultaneous interpreter couldn't keep up. This wasn't a peace dialogue; it was a Palestinian narrative. A very distorted version of the truth. I sat there, far from home, wondering about the ramifications of walking out of the conference in its first session. I decided to stick around, if only to counter some of the arguments in my own speech in the afternoon panel. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait that long. ELI DAYAN, a former deputy foreign minister in Israel, who spoke immediately after Taha, put aside his planned address and responded directly to Taha's attack. The Moroccan-born Dayan, kippa on head, recalled good neighborly relations with Arabs. He also noted that when he served as mayor of Ashkelon, the city where he still lives - under almost daily rocket fire - his first step was to create a working relationship with the mayor of Gaza. Such speeches don't help promote peace in any way, Dayan berated Taha. Dayan said there is a consensus in Israel for the two-state solution and much of the Arab world is no longer taking the stance of non-recognition of Israel. "We should be looking ahead," Dayan said. He also took the co-hosts to task, stating: "The UN should lay off its ritual annual decisions condemning Israel, which have no effect." His sentiments were echoed by two other Ashkelon residents: Benny Vaknin, who has just been reelected mayor after a period out of office, and a Mekorot water company official, Sion Cohen. Vaknin, Cohen and others were in Vienna to discuss the Israel-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative, chaired by Prof. Ilan Juran. The initiative, which got off the ground following the Moscow seminar two years ago, furthers peacemaking through inter-community cooperation at a local level. Juran noted the joint wastewater program between Hadera and Beit Sahur. Hadera Mayor Haim Avitan explained the triple advantage: saving water, preventing pollution and building trust. Beit Sahur Mayor Hani al-Hayek also urged the use of joint projects for peace. WHEN IT was my turn to speak, I felt like a party pooper. A string of panelists had warned Israel and the Palestinians that "time is running out." But how can you make real peace while holding a stopwatch? Peace is more than a signed document and photo opportunity. The aim should be to stop people from suffering or being killed. It seems more important to use the coming year to develop environmental, health and educational projects than to chase an elusive agreement, especially when the world's ability to fund even these projects is limited. Sitting comfortably in the old imperial palace, it was as if participants were deliberately avoiding the topic of the Iranian threat and evidence of global jihad. I was also ignoring Austria's own past, although a German participant suggested I visit Vienna's Jewish Museum, and I wondered if I could find the building where my late aunt used to live - and, perhaps, a clue to the exact fate of her parents in the Holocaust. One issue I was not prepared to overlook at a conference addressing human rights: captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and the several MIAs. A member of Women in Black heckled me about the Palestinian prisoners, but, I pointed out, she knew exactly where they are, how they spend their time, and when they can have visitors. WHILE WE were away, Kassams continued to fall and terrorists were arrested on their way to carry out an attack in Tel Aviv. As I returned, Israeli police evacuated Hebron's House of Peace, and hotheads attacked local Palestinians. I was pleased I didn't have to face questions on that, inexcusable, behavior. At Ben-Gurion Airport, I overheard a discussion about Hanukka presents. I collected my suitcase, put aside emotional baggage, and headed for home in Jerusalem, far from Vienna's Christmas lights. We might not have made peace, or even danced together, but perhaps we had taken a step - or two - in the right direction.