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A Mideast Disconnect and a Digital Divide

There is a town in Portugal called Belmonte, about four hours north of Lisbon, that’s home to the only community of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula known to have kept their identity intact and well-hidden since the days of the Inquisition. Though they’re open about it today, they managed for nearly 500 years to live peaceably among their neighbors while their true beliefs remained secret. It’s a fascinating story. I’ve always hoped to visit one day if I ever found myself in Portugal.

Well, I got to Portugal this summer, but I didn’t make it to Belmonte. Instead I sat in a hotel in Lisbon, attending a United Nations seminar on the media and the Middle East conflict. I was one of about three dozen participants, mostly journalists and new media types, plus a handful of policy makers, divided roughly evenly among Israelis, Palestinians from the territories and outsiders (like me) who cover the conflict from afar. The idea was for us to open up, to get beyond political stereotypes and share our real thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t exactly the same as shmoozing with Marranos, but it was close.

It’s not that the participants tried to hide their feelings. Everyone showed up with the best intentions and eager to bond. If anything, the radiant good will had a blinding effect, helping to obscure the fact that speakers were talking past each other.

There was a broad agreement, for example, that human interaction and understanding are essential to true peace, which makes the media a crucial channel of communication. Where consensus broke down was on the chicken-and-egg question: Does understanding bring peace, or does peace clear the path toward understanding?

Nearly every Israeli who spoke agreed with newscaster Efi Triger of Israel’s Channel 10: “Before political peace can come, we need interpersonal peace.”

Just the day before, Triger recalled, he found himself chatting on a plane with a Palestinian journalist headed for the seminar. “We didn’t talk about Gilad Shalit or the flotilla,” Triger said, smiling. “We talked about flight delays and airplane food.”

Achieving peace “will take years, if not generations,” Triger said. “We need more dialogue, but keep governments out of it.”

Knesset member Ronit Tirosh of Kadima agreed. “When there are more and more people in civil society who understand the problems of the other side and bring their understanding to the ballot box, they can make a change,” she said. (She didn’t mention that she’s currently sponsoring a bill to outlaw nongovernmental organizations whose accounts of the other side’s problems serve — intentionally or not — to buttress war-crimes charges against Israel.)

Every Palestinian who spoke saw it the other way around: politics first, then understanding. In order to build trust “we must combat extremism,” said Mona Mohamed Al-Khalili, secretary-general of the Union of Palestinian Women. “And the only way to do that is to end the occupation.” (Palestinians, she added, “have been suffering from war and occupation for over six decades,” or roughly since 1948. “But we are a peace-loving people.”)

“I am asked to play a humanitarian, cultural role that will enhance understanding for future generations?” said Nasser Laham, editor in chief of the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency, in the most impassioned presentation of the seminar. “With what money? Before Israel bombed Palestinian Television in 2002, the rating of local television was 84%. This year it was down to 2.5%.” Not surprisingly, the channel “doesn’t have any kind of advertising,” he said. It operates on an annual budget of $1.5 million, he said. Compare that to the vast resources of Al Jazeera, the inflammatory satellite channel that picked up the lost Palestinian viewers.

The last big spurt of Palestinian television advertising, Laham said, was a hefty purchase of airtime by Hamas during the run-up to the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. “After they got into government, they closed the channels they had used to campaign. People say that Hamas treats the media like toilet paper — use once and discard.”

The Middle East media seminar is organized annually by the U.N.’s public information department, together with the jauntily named Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The committee has a well-earned reputation for systematically smearing Israel; insiders told me that the media seminar is a product of U.S. congressional pressure following the 1993 Oslo Accords. It meets each year in a different city with a different theme. This year’s theme was “The Role of the Media, Including the New Media, in Advancing the Middle East Peace Process.” (The U.N. just has this gift for turning a graceful phrase.)

Surprisingly, the new media — blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet itself — were more lamented than praised. Most participants on both sides saw them as coarsening public discourse, giving extremists a megaphone and circulating rumors so fast that “eventually government ministers are fired without fact-checking,” as British writer Ian Williams put it. “Our colleagues are allowing the lunatics to run the asylum.”

Others, however, praised the Internet’s ability to break down barriers. One entire session was devoted to a cross-border blog jointly run by Ruth Eglash of The Jerusalem Post and Hani Hazaimeh of the Amman-based Jordan Times.

Another Internet booster was Triger, the Israeli television journalist. He recalled trying to get an interview with Octavia Nasr, the Lebanese-American CNN editor recently fired for tweeting her admiration of a Hezbollah leader.

“Fifteen years ago, finding her phone number would have taken me days,” Triger said. “With the Internet I was able to find it in a few minutes. She didn’t agree to be interviewed, but we were able to reach her.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected] and follow his blog at

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