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French Version

Peace movements do exist in Israel and the Arab world

Organizations and activists are present in the region but need wider popular support to be effective

Immediately after the completion of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, world leaders and observers, including President George W. Bush, expressed hope that such a step would revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Stepping back and taking a look at the entire Middle East shows that peacemaking is missing an important link.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was more like pulling teeth than a genuine step toward peace. After decades of formal agreements with Egypt and Jordan, peace - like the one enjoyed today between France and Germany - does not exist. In 2005, and after seven armed conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, victims continue to fall, houses are demolished, and populations displaced. Right-wing policies still dominate Israeli attitudes - which hardened in recent years partly in reaction to Palestinian suicide bombings - and Arab government are incapable of bringing a peaceful settlement that meets the aspirations of their peoples. The economic benefits and social possibilities of peace are simply overlooked by both sides. Yet, supporters of peace do exist in Israeli and Arab civil societies and they need wide popular support to be effective.

Peace Not Pax?

For decades, many Israelis believed that military superiority over the Arabs would bring peace. They point out the treaties with Egypt and Jordan; the accords with the Palestinians; the talks with Syria and Lebanon which could be restarted; and the commercial and other ties in place with many Arab countries. Why, it is a matter of time before all the members of the League of Arab States establish diplomatic relations with Israel - as often stated by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

However, achieving peace through the barrel of the gun may be tantamount to a Pax Hebraica, i.e., a semblance of subdued tranquility at the expense of long-term prosperity and security. The ill-advised Israeli invasion of Lebanon has led to tragedies: holding to hostile territory for 22 years and causing the deaths of 23,000 Lebanese and the physical destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure. One thousand Israeli soldiers died in Lebanon, and Israel withdrew in May 2000 without achieving peace. Israel used an iron-fist policy toward Palestinian uprisings, which were genuine expressions of long-term grievances of a people under occupation. Instead of dialogue and reconciliation, Israeli governments used violent measures to crush the popular will, and the Palestinians attacked civilian centers inside Israel. Loss of civilian life and serious economic damage occurred on both sides.

The Israeli's swift victory in June 1967 has led to popular resentment on the Arab side and created a huge psychological barrier that can only be removed by concerted efforts of Arab and Israeli civil societies.

The Israeli Peace Movement

The Israeli civil society boasts an old and large peace group whose equivalent does not exist in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo or Baghdad. The Peace Now movement started in 1978 when a group of 348 reserve officers and soldiers published a letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin calling on him to work for peace: "A government that prefers the existence of the State of Israel within the borders of Greater Israel to its existence in peace in a good neighborhood will be difficult for us to accept; a government that prefers existence of settlements beyond the Green Line, to ending the historic conflict and the normalization of relationships in our region, evokes questions regarding the path we are taking. A government that causes a continuation of control over millions of Arabs will hurt the Jewish-democratic character of the state."

Peace Now believes "the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the territories occupied in the 1967 war is the only viable solution to the conflict." It led massive rallies supporting the two-state solution and pressed all parties in power in Israel to initiate steps to bring about the end of the occupation and negotiate for peace. The movement operates through public campaigns, advertisements, petitions, distribution of educational materials, conferences and lectures, surveys, dialogue groups, street activities, vigils, and demonstrations. It organized the largest demonstration ever held in Israel, some 400,000 people protesting the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982.

The group launched Settlement Watch, which monitors - and protests - the building of settlements, including housing tenders, expropriation of lands, budget allocations, along with studies of settlers' attitudes regarding possible evacuation (and compensation) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Credible and reliable data and maps produced have raised public awareness of the terrible price of settlements that are obstacles to peace. The movement highlights the economic and political costs of occupation and the moral damage to the fabric of Israeli society - in addition to the untold hardships brought on the Palestinians. It is engaged in joint activities with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and has created the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, composed of public figures and activists from both sides. The movement also conducts joint activities and issues public statements with the Palestinians.

Other Israelis who work for peace include Amira Hass, the Haaretz journalist who chronicles the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Yossi Beilin, leader of the Yahad Party, who approaches peace as a full-time job, and co-signer of the Geneva Document with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a joint Israeli-Palestinian blueprint for peace.

The Arab Peace Movement

There are many Arabs who either work for or desire peace with Israel. In contrast with the Israeli peace movement that can show gestures of peace from a position of strength (as the victorious side), Arab peace activists face a harder sell in their communities. They need to justify their efforts of rapprochement with Israelis to an angry Arab public watching the harsh realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands; the history of the Israeli invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights; and the substandard treatment of Israeli Arabs.

While most Arabs want peace with Israel, they are skeptical about the ability of the civil society (which they see merely as "Jews and Arabs talking") to stop Israel from bombing and killing Arab citizens. At a lunch I had, on a recent visit to Beirut, with Lebanese friends who are successful economists and who hold moderate views, a female professor at a major university in Lebanon told us that she attempted to shock her students by inviting them to work for peace in the Middle East, explaining that peace and security are important for Lebanon. People around the table reprimanded her ("Don't you see what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians? Did you forget the thousands of Lebanese victims of Israeli wars? Do you trust Sharon?"), and a respected intellectual at the table compared her peaceful intentions to a naive Palestinian professor who lived under occupation but believed and worked for peace till the Israelis approached him and exploited his enthusiasm, and eventually ruined his future. The conclusion around the table was that "the Israelis couldn't be trusted."

Arabs who want to engage in peace issues and conduct peace studies encounter negative reactions since peace with Israel is almost a state monopoly in most Arab states. Departures from the official line may be tantamount to sellout and simple signs of normalization - called tat'beeh - such as participation in beauty pageants or sport shows that include Israelis - are labeled as contacts with the enemy. It is not customary for private Arab citizens to initiate steps promoting dialogue (which contradicts the official Arab line that "peace is a strategic objective") as this would jeopardize the negotiating positions of governments. Arabs who publicly promote peace and dialogue are ostracized by hardliners and the experiences of Adonis, Edward Said, and Ali Salem, and many others illustrate the difficulties.

The accomplishments of Edward Said and Adonis are celebrated as major contributions to Arab culture. However, their political views are unpopular and are met with harsh criticism. Said, a Palestinian-American professor, never failed to call for peace and for Palestinians to engage like-minded Israelis and in peaceful resistance to occupation. Adonis, a Syrian and a leading figure in Arab literature, made statements supporting peace and invited people to a modernist dialogue away from religious fanaticism. Yet, an avalanche of writings regularly curses both men as unrealistic defeatists. Ali Salem, an Egyptian playwright, was expelled from the Union of Egyptian Writers in 2001. According to the union's statement, Salem had "visited Israel several times and wrote several articles supporting normalization, which contradicts the general bent of union members and the resolutions of the General Assembly in several sessions."

There is the bright side as well. The political views of those Arab intellectuals who seek a just peace through dialogue may not be popular with hardliners but their writings and activities are making inroads in Arab circles. Their articles appear in pan-Arab publications, and Adonis and Salem write regularly in Al-Hayat. Salem's travelogue to Israel has sold 60,000 copies, a rarity in Arab publishing and a revelation that Arab readers are curious about Israel. Adonis is received as a celebrity in Arab capitals, and Arab TV channels and daily and weekly publications regularly interview Israeli officials or commentators.

Peace movements in Israel and the Arab world could influence governments, yield pro-peace election results, and strengthen moderates on both sides. Ongoing conflict is not only handicapping the socio-economic well-being of Israel and the Arab states, but also seems absurd to this writer.

Kamal Dib(kamaldib@videotron.ca) is a Canadian economist of Lebanese descent and the author of many books, most recently "Warlords and Merchants." He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Star

Beirut,29August2005
Kamal Dib
The Daily Star


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