Aug 04 2013

US Must Sell Peace Talks To Israeli, Palestinian Public

Published by at 1:12 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics,US-Middle East



By Daoud Kuttab

Peace talks generally require a parallel strategy aimed at communicating and convincing a reluctant public of its importance, value and ultimate benefits to the warring parties. One might think that nine months of publicly stated “secret” talks would require little communication. But the contrary is the case.

The United States, which is the single and only direct patron and sponsor of the current peace talks, is pulling all the stops to make sure that the Palestinian and Israeli public “are well-informed” — even if all sides agree that the talks are to be private.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has told the world that both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have agreed that he is the only official who can make an authoritative comment or revelation about the peace talks.

Having added the role of peace communicator-in-chief to that of negotiator-in-chief, Washington now has the task of delivering information to the two publics. US officials called back from retirement one of their experienced hands in this area. Veteran communications diplomat Bill Cavness, who served as the information officer both in east Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was asked to fill in at a position vacated in Jerusalem in the summer, when a sudden breakthrough in talks caught everyone off guard.

On Aug. 1, US Consul General Michael Ratney held a private, off-the-record meeting answering questions to a select group of Palestinian journalists and commentators, including Al-Monitor. The briefing unsurprisingly did not reveal anything new, but it was clear that the Americans realized that their largest current problem is the apathy and skepticism among the majority of Palestinians.

In dealing with the issue of Palestinian and Israeli media, the United States has some major obstacles to overcome. The level, experience and capacity of the media of the two sides is extensive. Palestinian media is generally much more inferior to that of the Israelis, as the years of occupation, a weak economy and restrictions have done little to strengthen it. Some of this imbalance in the past was rectified by Arab media such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, to name a couple, but their coverage of Palestinian issues has gone down dramatically as a result of the post-Arab Spring instability in the region. This has left Palestinian media to cover its own affairs.

A recent report by the International Press Institute (IPI) reveals the difficulties facing Palestinian media under occupation in the West Bank and under siege in the Gaza Strip, focusing on frequent travel restrictions as one of the major obstacles. According to the IPI report, Israel does not officially recognize any Palestinian media institutions, and it has refused to accredit them on that basis. Palestinian journalists working for Arab and international media institutions are recognized and accredited.

The US Consulate has been trying to remedy this problem, with little results to show for it. While they insist on having Palestinian media present at all official peace process functions, state-run Palestine TV has to rely on Jerusalem-based accredited contractors rather than its own staff. The Palestinian Journalist’s Syndicate complains that the Israelis are not serious about solving this issue on a strategic basis and constantly look for one-off solutions.

Abdel Nasser Najjar, head of the union, told Al-Monitor that his organization was recently asked by the Americans to submit a list of 50 journalists wishing to cover the peace talks, and therefore obtain the needed accreditation and travel permits. After the Israelis made the routine security checks of the list, they approved permission to a mere three out of the 50 journalists who applied.

With almost every Palestinian having served some time in an Israeli jail over the past 46 years, it is likely that if merely having spent a day or more in an Israeli jail disqualifies a person from accreditation, it will be next to impossible to get most Palestinian journalists to cover the peace talks — whenever they take place in west Jerusalem or other parts of Israel. Palestinian journalists are also circulating a petition demanding the right of freedom of movement.

For their part, the United States plans to use all available resources to make sure that all parties and peoples are fully briefed and informed about the peace process. The Jerusalem Consulate, which is responsible for the Palestinian side, has assembled a team of communicators who regularly issue reports, briefs and summaries of the US positions on relevant issues.

US officials realize that they cannot depend on the Palestinian press alone, so they have created their own Facebook page to ensure that they can communicate directly with Palestinian youth. The page has already gained more than 40,000 likes and over 2,000 followers on Twitter.

As the United States takes on the role of the single sponsor of the Palestinian-Israeli talks, and as the parties agree to keep the peace talks under wraps, the Americans will have yet another role in this complicated conflict. As the peace communicator-in-chief, the United States will have the daunting responsibility of convincing a highly unsupportive Palestinian (and Israeli) public. The information job will not be easy, but can be assisted if the talks can in fact produce real solutions on the ground that can help end the 46-year-old occupation.

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