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Conflict resolution through cultural diplomacy in the Middle East

By Alan Baker
web posted June 3, 2013

Address by Alan Baker to a conference in Istanbul on
"Conflict Mediation through Cultural Diplomacy in Current Areas of Conflict"

Over the past 30 years I have been a participant in virtually all Track I peace negotiations with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians, involved in negotiating and drafting peace-process documents – peace treaties, interim agreements, and the rest.

Peace cannot emanate only from documents signed by leaders alone, but from mutual good faith and credibility among the peoples for whom the agreements are signed.

All the Middle East peace negotiations have, from the start, always aimed at neighborly, mutually respectful, "people-to-people" relationships, and each agreement includes appropriate provisions on mutual respect of religious beliefs that can serve as guidance to others. Our agreements include provisions for free access and respect for holy sites, respect for and upkeep of graves and memorials for fallen soldiers, and respect for religious beliefs and practices.

The UN Role

The aims of this conference were set out in the preliminary documentation, including the "Mideast Peace Process Berlin Initiative." The UN resolutions adopted with a view to elaborating a culture of peace, as listed in the Berlin Initiative document, are most important and constitute the genuine implementation of the aims and purposes of the UN Charter as set out in its first two articles. These resolutions need to be given greater attention, visibility, ongoing review, and accentuation.

These resolutions include, inter alia:

 Promoting Religious and Cultural Understanding, Harmony and Cooperation (UN General Assembly resolution 58/128)

 Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance (UN General Assembly resolution 59/199)

 UN Millennium Declaration: Principles of the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (UN General Assembly resolution 53/22)

 Culture of Peace (UN General Assembly resolution 53/243)

 Dialogue among Civilizations (UN General Assembly resolution 56/6)

 Madrid Declaration (December 2000)

 Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World (UN General Assembly resolution 53/25)

 Protection of Religious Sites (UN General Assembly resolution 55/254)

 Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace (UN General Assembly resolution 60/L.4)

 Promotion of Interreligious Dialogue (UN General Assembly resolution 59/23)

 Rights of Indigenous People (UN General Assembly resolution 61/295)

Regrettably, other resolutions emanating from the UN General Assembly and other bodies are partisan and politically-loaded resolutions that constitute the brunt of its work and attract the public attention, and are perceived to be the face of the UN. These resolutions, in addition to overshadowing the above important resolutions, also serve to undermine any positive, credible, and serious role for the UN in the Middle East peace process, and in fact damage the capability of the organization to play such a role.

Such General Assembly activity in fact is unrelated to much of the positive activity on the culture of peace. Examples of this are numerous resolutions calling for total removal of Israel's presence in the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria, in total denial of the indigenous rights of the Jewish people to their lands and properties.

The "Arab Spring"

Any of the hoped-for new developments in the Arab world that could have benefited from cultural diplomacy have regrettably given way to an increased lack of stability across the region as well as in the individual countries. How could any agreement involving transfer of territory be seriously contemplated, when faced with the lack of stability and the likelihood that an Arab government or leadership could fall or be removed within months or even days?

The Conflict in the Middle East

The Israel-Palestinian issue is but one item in a wave of instability throughout the entire region, and not, as widely held and described in the Berlin Initiative document, the major cause of regional instability.

The crisis in Syria, and the situation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and other flashpoints have absolutely no linkage to the Israel-Palestinian issue, and any attempt to attribute to Israel responsibility for other conflicts is misguided.

The potential for a peaceful diplomatic and cultural solution between Israel and the Palestinians already exists in the various agreements already reached between the two sides that are still valid, and can serve as an example to others. This is not the case with the other points of conflict.

Cultural Diplomacy and the Aims of This Conference

The goal of this conference, as set out in the Berlin Initiative document, is to "define Track III Cultural Diplomacy and its relevance to the Middle East peace process and its importance as a model for conflicts around the globe," and the "search for common values and principles in the arenas of religion, law and education among the conflicting parties to the dispute" – this is indeed the crux of what cultural diplomacy must do.

In order for it to succeed, practically, it needs to include a compilation of those elements covered in the various UN resolutions listed above on aspects of cultural diplomacy, including:

1. First and foremost, and as an appropriate sign to the general public, an acknowledgment by political and religious leaders that peace, justice, and mutual respect are basic values in all religions, as well as central assumptions in international law and diplomacy. Negative public pronouncements against other peoples and religions by religious and lay personalities and leaders must end.

2. Mutual, reciprocal acceptance and respect by each religion of the others, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Bahai or any other.

3. Ongoing spiritual and practical dialogue among religious leaders, clergy, and lay leaders to establish common principles and interests among their communities.

4. Ending religious incitement and hatred through appropriate guidelines for religious leaders, clergy and other religious staff, such that all places of worship of all religions become centers for positive and constructive religious interaction and tolerance, rather than centers for hatred and incitement of the masses.

5. Educational programs geared to home, kindergarten, school and college, towards mutual respect and acceptance.

6. Ending negative public propaganda. Use of media and social networking to advocate mutual respect, rather than the opposite.

7. Acknowledgment of the rights of all indigenous peoples to their indigenous lands, resources, and properties.

8. Enabling unfettered religious and cultural tourism and visiting holy sites.


These must be the components of any practical and viable road map for cultural diplomacy and peace. They all emanate from UN General Assembly resolutions on the culture of peace. This compilation needs to be expanded at future meetings with practical measures to attain positive results. As a Track I negotiator I'll be happy to lend my hand and assist in this endeavor. ESR

Amb. Alan Baker, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is former Legal Adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry and former Ambassador of Israel to Canada.






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