Winning over public opinion

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Have you ever stood at a busy street intersection, holding up a large placard, demonstrating against your prime minister? I did that, back in May 1998, when Binyamin Netanyahu had brought the peace process to its knees. I felt very foolish and embarrassed at first until I grew accustomed to the stares, the catcalls, the hooting of the cars and also–luckily–the well-wishers. For a whole week some of my colleagues and I stayed in a “peace tent” that we erected on the pavement near the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem. During that week, many hundreds of citizens visited our tent, to identify with us or to argue with us. More to the point, we had full media coverage, especially after the City Council tried to evict us and we appealed to the High Court.

I believe that the fact that some prominent professors and a former director-general of the foreign ministry were willing to spend a week on an inhospitable Jerusalem sidewalk had an effect on some people. A hundred, nay, a thousand such acts would have had considerably greater effect. And this, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the peace movements in Israel–how to make an impact that can affect public opinion.

There are today some 30 major peace movements in Israel, and a similar number of smaller fly-by-night groups of concerned citizens who meet to discuss how they can become relevant. Representatives of those 30 movements met together recently under the aegis of the “Peace Coalition” to discuss possibilities of greater cooperation, but there was no breakthrough on the vital question of how to impact public opinion. One of their major problems is the dearth of funds needed to organize activities. Another problem is the lack of interest in their activities on the part of the media. A newspaper editor once cynically told me: “Peace stories don’t sell newspapers, nor do stories about Arabs, unless there is a negative slant.”

Huge “Peace Now” demonstrations, which take an enormous effort to organize, are rewarded at best with 30 seconds of coverage on TV and a few lines in the press. No wonder that hands are lifted in despair, that many fall by the wayside.

Yet the despair is not justified. The pessimism is out of place. For the truth is that the activities of these 30 or more peace movements have had an enormous impact on public opinion and have helped to shape the attitude existing in Israel today favoring a withdrawal from the occupied territories and a dismantling of settlements in return for a real peace with the Palestinians. Dr. Tamar Hermann, one of the leading experts on public opinion in Israel, confirmed this to me after making an exhaustive study of the co-relationship of peace activities and public opinion.

Indeed, the plethora of peace movements and splinter peace groups existing in Israel today is in itself significant. Each one has its ways and means to influence its own circle, each one has its own modus operandi.

The situation in the Arab world is different, but there, too, there have been some significant developments, especially in Palestinian society. The tireless efforts of Sari Nusseibeh to recruit supporters for his joint declaration with Ami Ayalon are creating a new kind of dialogue in the Palestinian street. More than 20,000 Palestinians have already signed the declaration.

Similarly the activities of the Copenhagen Group, formally known as the International Alliance for Arab-Israel Peace, have created a new agenda not only for the Palestinians, but also in Egypt and in Jordan. The Copenhagen Group is unique in the sense that it is the only regional peace movement in the Middle East. It is the only movement in which Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians work together in friendship and in harmony for a common cause–the promotion of peace and the creation of a public opinion amenable to peace.

Under the slogan “peace is too important to be left only to governments” the Group has held numerous activities, such as the “Partners in Peace” conference held in Copenhagen in May 2003 in which more than 100 members of the four chapters of the Group participated.

The mere fact that Arabs, among whom were leading intellectuals such as the late Lutfi el Khouli, agreed to work together with Israelis in the same organization has had a dramatic effect. There have been literally hundreds of articles written in the Arab press for–and against–Copenhagen. The press conference that was held after the Group’s Peace Conference in Cairo in 1999 was attended by more than 100 Arab journalists. Fuad Ajami, Edward Said and other leading Arab intellectuals have all written about the Copenhagen phenomenon.

Peace Now, Copenhagen, the Peres Center for Peace, Nusseibeh-Ayalon, and all the other peace movements are, each in its own way, contributing to creating a new climate in the Middle East. The difficulties are tremendous. Given the extremism, the hatred, the prejudices existing on both sides of the divide, their work is all the more important and their success all the more remarkable.

David Kimche, former Director-General of the Israel Foreign Ministry and Ambassador-at-large, is President of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations, and heads the Israeli chapter of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace (the Copenhagen Group).

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