Prominent Palestinian reporters and editors joined a debate at the Knesset on the nature of Israeli democracy Tuesday for the first ever visit of a group of Palestinian journalists to Israel’s parliament.
"I welcome you to the shrine of Israeli democracy," Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset, told the Palestinian journalists, who passed a labyrinth of Israeli security checks and rain storms to get from the West Bank to Jerusalem. "Israel is a Jewish democratic state, and by this very definition we have a conflict. We have to find a way to breach the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and the idea of Israel as a democratic state."
Organized by The Mideast Press Club, an initiative of The Media Line news agency that has brought hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian journalists together for various events, the Knesset gathering was attended by dozens of Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists. A group of Palestinian journalists did not receive permission from Israel to attend the event, while another group of Palestinian journalists from Gaza received Israeli permission but were barred from exiting the coastal enclave by the de facto Islamic Hamas government.
In a lively debate, the journalists discussed the nature of Israeli democracy with a cross section of Israeli political leaders, including Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a member of the centrist Kadima party; Avishay Braverman, Minister of Minorities and a member of the center-left Labor party; Danny Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister and a member of the right Israel Beiteinu party and Ahmad Tibi, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and a member of the Arab Ra’am Ta’al party.
"All the leaders, Jews and Arabs, need to commit ourselves to a new deal concerning the Arab Israeli population," Avishai Braverman, Israel's Minister of Minorities and a member of the left-leaning Labor party told the crowd. "The (Israeli) government in the past did not give the same allocation of resources to Arabs and Jews. Declarations are words are insufficient. Only allocation of resources and deeds matters and we have committed ourselves."
Israel Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi used the heavy presence of Israeli media to blast the government and called upon the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) not to accept Israel as a member until it stops discriminating against its Arab citizens.
"There is not one (Israeli) law talking about equality as a value," Tibi said, outlining his efforts to legislate an equal rights amendment to Israel's Basic Law. "If I were to propose a law asking for equal rights for all citizens – not just Jews and Arabs – it would not pass."
"According to the OECD rules Israel should deal with equal rights for all citizens," he said. "Israel is not: Budgets, allocation of land, education, housing, Islamic properties, infrastructure."
Tibi also traded verbal spars with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, condemning initiatives to require Israeli citizens to swear a loyalty oath to the country as a Jewish, Zionist state.
"No one can force the victims to be loyal to those who acted against them," Tibi said in response to questions from journalists. "We are against Zionism. We totally denounce the attempts the attempts of Israel Beiteinu and Danny Ayalon to accept us as guests. We were not brought here by airplanes. We are indigenous. We were born here."
"I feel euphoric standing much higher than you Danny Ayalon," Tibi said to laughter, a reference to a recent diplomatic faux pas in which Ayalon publicly sat the Turkish ambassador to Israel on a low-sitting stool. "I demand equal rights with Danny Ayalon."
"Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state," Tibi said. "We believe that there is a contradiction between the two values. You cannot deal with equal terms between Ahmed and Danny if you are defining the state as Jewish. Danny will be superior to Ahmad just because he is Jewish. We cannot accept discrimination on ethnic grounds."
'All of us here share a common vision'
Ayalon rebutted that Israel was a merit-based democracy and challenged Tibi that his acceptance to attend a prestigious Israeli medical school, which Ayalon had not been accepted to, was proof.
"Equal rights also prescribe equal obligations," he said. "It is a double standard that Arabs would not accept Israel as a Jewish state even as a minority. As Jewish minorities we paid allegiance to Islamic countries. We were loyal to the country whether it was Christian or Muslim."
"At this point, because emotions are too high, we cannot discuss effectively the past," Ayalon said. "Palestinians have their own narrative, they have the right to their own narrative, just as Jews have their own narrative. There is no point to arguing about the past. Let’s build a future together."
Palestinian and Israeli journalists questioned the lawmakers and discussed public opinion in their respective societies.
“I think it’s an important opportunity to be inside the Knesset and to raise our voices, as Palestinian journalists, to have our say and express the point of view of our people, who are suffering under the occupation,” said Yousuf A-Shayeb, a senior reporter with the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam. “But impacting public opinion is not something that one journalist, or even two or three can do alone. It will only happen over a period of time. We hope there will be more visits.”
The Mideast Press Club seeks to advance professional and interpersonal relationships between Israeli and Palestinian journalists through programs, master classes and incentives for the study of journalism and the enhancement of coverage of the Middle East. The project has brought together hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian journalists together on a professional basis, fostering the communication and cooperation necessary for the enhancement of reporting from the region.
“This is a watershed event,” said Felice Friedson, founder of The Mideast Press Club and President and CEO of The Media Line news agency, which sponsored the event. “We are meeting today in the most visible and tangible manifestation of Israeli democracy. This historical inevitable needed a push, and we are delighted to do the pushing."
Heading into its fifth year, the Mideast Press Club is an initiative of The Media Line (TML), a non-profit American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East and journalistic education.
Tuesday’s event comes less than ten days after a special session of The Mideast Press Club in which top officials from Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories met to discuss regional cooperation in emergency medical response.
“Since the onset of violence in September 2000, it became clear to independent observers that journalists on both sides of the conflict had stopped communicating with each other and, in effect, became either willing or de facto combatants,” Friedson told the Knesset gathering. “Journalism demands that the complete story be told. Lack of access of one side in a conflict by those who cover the other side naturally impedes optimal coverage. The American founders of TML, recognizing their unique position as honest and unbiased brokers, established the Mideast Press Club as a forum for reducing the tensions among working Israeli and Palestinian reporters and as a means to return the journalist community to its proper professional footing.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, Chairman of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the host of the event, echoed Friedson’s comments.
“All of us here share a common vision,” he told the audience. “We have a common commitment to preserve the Palestinian Israeli dialogue.”
“Israeli and Palestinian media can have a huge influence over the peace process,” Hanegbi said. “They do not sit in the negotiation rooms or on the negotiation table. But if Israeli and Palestinian journalists will get to know each other better the (media) consumers will get a better understanding of both societies. This is why the work of The Mideast Press Club and The Media Line is so important.”
“We call on Felice to go forward to make such meetings as many times as you can,” he added in referenced to The MidEast Press Club founder Felice Friedson. “This was a great opportunity to get to know one another.”
Article by Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Arieh O'Sullivan
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line