Right of Reply: Not just another Israel-bashing event

Is Israel better off boycotting venues where it may be at a political disadvantage?

Yaakov Ahimeir's biting critique of the United Nation's International Media Seminar of Peace in the Middle East in a Jerusalem Post article entitled "The choir practice in Brazil" - in which he says gaps between Israelis and Palestinians were "widened" rather than being bridged - begs the much broader question of whether Israel is better served by boycotting or participating in venues where it will be at a political disadvantage. Having attended the conference and having recommended the participation of Channel 1's Ahimeir to the UN, I feel obligated to offer some additional insight to the discussion.

I was invited to help shape panels on public policy and media, including selecting and inviting both Israeli and Palestinian journalists to serve as presenters and participants by virtue of my position as founder of The Mideast Press Club, an initiative of The Media Line - an American news agency - with experience in brokering cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian journalists.

As an event organized by the UN Department of Information's Palestine, Decolonization and Human Rights desk, that the conference was held pursuant to a resolution empowering the promotion of Palestinian issues was fully understood by all participants. In pre-conference conversations with all participants we recommended - Israeli and Palestinian - we stressed that our panels were set up to deal with journalistic issues, but to expect that pro-Palestinian participants would focus heavily on the Gaza operation and the humanitarian themes that have dominated discussion of the region since.

It was therefore no surprise that an international audience including the host Brazil, UN officials, politicians, journalists, opinion writers and advocates for a number of related causes would harp on allegations of Israeli violations of human rights and international agreements. To the credit of the UN Department of Information, the large number of Israeli participants was part of its effort to provide more balance. In fact, Haaretz's Arab and Palestinian Affairs columnist Danny Rubinstein remarked that there appeared to be more Israelis than Palestinians in attendance.

TO BE sure, criticism of Israel flew fast and furiously, often unchecked by any interest in exploring all sides of the conflict. Yet, undoubtedly the most distressing moments for Israel's proponents - and presumably for Ahimeir - came not from conference officials or even Palestinian participants, but rather from one of its own countrymen.

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy launched into a scathing tongue-lashing of compliance by Israel's Fourth Estate in what he called the "occupation project" that included charges of willing participation in an insidious and anti-humanistic campaign the intent of which is to 'demonize and dehumanize the state's minority population.' The assemblage witnessed a fratricidal detour as Ahimeir abandoned his prepared remarks in order to explain that as a Jew, Israeli and only then journalist, he remains proud of his nation's morality and its ability to be self-critical - a national trait he challenged the Palestinians to emulate.

For the Israelis, the disunity was upsetting and certainly counterproductive to facilitating honest debate. Yet, as regards criticism from Palestinians and their supporters during the conference, charges against the Jewish state were answered - albeit too abbreviated for some - by those who came to speak on its behalf. The alternative, had Israelis stayed home, would have been more of what has become standard fare: total default to those seeking to impugn the Israeli position. In Rio, all sides were heard: witness Ahimeir's passionate remarks.

In comments laudable for their balance and candor, Ahmad Issa Adwiat, Director of Radio for the Palestinian Legislative Council, described where he saw the system break down, challenging both sides to do better.

Also, in attendance at the conference was Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin who was there to sign a historic agreement for a joint waste water management project with Gaza Mayor Magid Abu Ramadan that was brokered by the UN unit sponsoring the conference. Formalization of the project was to have been a highlight of the convention. All participants were made fully aware that blame for the disappointment fell to Hamas, which at the last minute refused to allow the mayor to travel to the conference even though Israel placed no obstacles to Abu Ramadan's travel out of Gaza.

In my remarks during the same panel in which Mr. Ahimeir participated, I admonished that journalists associated with a given "side" of a conflict that see only good in that side and only bad in the opposing side are propagandists, not journalists. It was rewarding to hear participants applying this litmus test in conversations around the hall as well as the accompanying, albeit rare, assertions that the extent to which readers and viewers will be enlightened to recognize the existence of other positions is a direct function of the ability of media to present full and complete - if not strictly objective - coverage. We, too, were disappointed at the number of participants who used their presentations to recite political mantras rather than adhere to the guidelines of the conference. But we were satisfied that no accusation went unanswered.

YAAKOV AHIMEIR was in attendance to stand up for what he believed in and present an articulate defense in lieu of the silent default to which Israeli leaders too often defer. Mayor Vaknin was in attendance as proof that Israel offered no obstacle to a humanitarian project that would benefit the people of Gaza as well as the people of Ashkelon and those communities along the Mediterranean coast. And a Palestinian journalist [name withheld for his safety] was present to ignore threats that he adhere to the "party line" and present a thoughtful analysis of how both sides can do better with less mantra and more reason.

As a participant and eyewitness to the events in Rio, I saw what was wrong and make no attempt to paper over it here. But I also recognize the efforts taken by the UN sponsors, including Undersecretary General Kiyo Akasaka, to prevent its conference from waxing "Durbanesque." There is every reason to believe that when the next conference assembles in Morocco 2010, participants will gloat over their contributions to honest understandings of the elements of the conflict. Such responsible reporting will play a key role in shaping future public policy for the Middle East. I was pleased when Yaakov Ahimeir told me that if invited, he would consider participating next year,

The writer is President and CEO of The Media Line news agency and founder of The Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at editor@themedialine.org