A question of occupation

THE Petra Nobel Laureates conference unfolded for the third year in this historic Jordanian town without a hitch; but what should have been smooth sailing ran into troubled waters with somewhat of a controversy arising at the closing session.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Fri 18 May 2007, 9:02 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:27 AM

The incident began with a simple question from an Arab journalist to Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and co-sponsor of the prestigious event that has brought together some of the sharpest minds on the planet under one roof with the aim of conjuring innovative ideas on how to tackle some of the major ills plaguing today's modern society. Items such as war, hunger, poverty, education and diseases were on the agenda.

The other co-sponsor is King Abdullah II of Jordan, who was not present when the unfortunate incident occurred.

Raghida Dergham, a well-respected New York-based correspondent for the pan-Arabic language daily Al-Hayath, asked Mr Wiesel why in all their deliberations over the two days during which the participants discussed a multitude of ways on how to help the Palestinians, no mention was made of Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian lands. A matter that lies at the crux of the Arab-Israeli debate.

It was a legitimate, pertinent and politely placed question from an accredited member of the media to which Mrs Dergham never got an answer. Instead, Mr Wiesel, who looked ill at ease with the query, tried to avoid the issue all together. The result was a public relation fiasco.

Mr Wiesel replied that Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, had addressed the issue the previous day, that Mr Peres' explanation should suffice and that he "was not going to politicise the conference."

As far as excuses go, this must have been among the poorest ever given to a journalist's question. It was particularly lame given such august company.

First, Shimon Peres is not a spokesman for the Nobel Laureates' conference and thus requests for bona fide clarification by a member of the media should not have been directed to statements he made 24 hours earlier. The task of speaking for the conference —the public face of the debate to the rest of the world is that of Elie Wiesel. As such, Mrs Dergham deserved a proper response. Otherwise, why invite the Press if you decide to shun their questions?

Reporters are paid to ask questions. And sometimes the questions we ask are displeasing. But that goes with the territory, both for the reporter as well as for the spokespeople. And sometimes the stories we write will upset because the point they make stirs the waters even more. Such as this one, which is bound to ruffle some feathers. But that is the price of democracy.

Second, telling a reporter that her question was answered a day earlier is a non-starter. Mr Wiesel is assuming that the reporter was present at the previous session.

Third, and perhaps the most pertinent point, and with all due respect to Shimon Peres as the seasoned politician that he is and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the fact that he is an Israeli official should automatically disqualify him from responding to a question relating to the conference's agenda and the occupation of Palestinian territory. By default, he is part of the occupation.

This whole incident could have easily been avoided had Mr. Wiesel chosen to give a simple reply such as "I am not sure. I will look into it," rather than try and dodge the issue as he did.

In fact, Mr Wiesel only made matters worse when he went on to say that he did not want to "politicise" the conference. Yet by its very nature the conference takes on a political leaning. How else would you describe a question and answer hour-long session with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held on the opening day of the conference if not political?

In giving Mrs Dergham the cold shoulder Mr Wiesel hoped the matter would quickly go away. It didn't. Instead it lingered like a heavy fog over the audience —well at least part of the audience. The only other question from non-Nobel winners came from a Jordanian lady in the audience who firmly, but politely told Mr Wiesel how wrong she believed he was in rebutting the journalist from al-Hayath.

As the public face of the Petra conference Mr Wiesel owed the journalist a proper reply, regardless of how much he disliked the question. As it stands he now owes her an apology.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com

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