Gershon Baskin believes that civil society peace activists must work together across the conflict lines to design a new process that empowers the common people. Their well-established cooperation provides the basis for bringing the voices of both societies to the table. It is time for the public to stand up and it is time for civil society peace activists to take the lead.
To a great extent, the Israeli and Palestinian publics have been passive observers in the single most important issue affecting their lives–the continuation of the conflict. During the summer of 2006, the Israeli public in its silence supported the government in its war against Lebanon. More than one million Israelis fled from their homes in the face of katyusha rockets falling in the north and still the public was silent. Last week we saw the same thing in Sderot, and who can blame the Sderot residents? In both cases we have not witnessed the masses taking to the streets calling for an end to the violence and a return to a peace process.
But perhaps there are some changes sprouting. For the first time that I recall, Israeli television and radio channels gave space to voices in Sderot calling for an end of the violence, including a call not to avenge the Qassam rockets. Perhaps there is the beginning of public understanding that the army has run out of tricks and that the only way to end the violence is by returning to the table. Even two Kadima ministers expressed something new, one saying that the time had come for the prime minister to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas–“either you make history or you will become history” (Meir Sheetrit)–and another calling for an immediate unilateral ceasefire with the Palestinians (Gideon Ezra).
The Palestinian public in recent weeks also demonstrated new behavior patterns that point to new possibilities for public action. In Beit Hanoun we saw Palestinian women face Israeli tanks, and even though soldiers opened fire on the crowds, the following week we witnessed hundreds of civilians serving as human shields in order to prevent the bombing of a house by the Israel Air Force.
It should be clear by now to both sides that our governments and military forces are not going to provide security. Our leaders’ policies have only brought more violence and more suffering. Both sides suffer from weak leaders. Both sides’ leaders either use force to compensate for their weaknesses (Israel) or are incapable of preventing the use of force because their militants are stronger than them (Palestine). In either case, it is quite clear that the leaders have failed to bring peace and security to their people.
Our leaders and most of the people, Israelis and Palestinians, know very well what the price of peace is. Most Israelis and Palestinians are willing to pay that price. Most Israelis and most Palestinians share the sense that their leaders and, even more so, the leaders of the other side are not interested in peace and will not lead us to negotiations. There is no “peace directive” in Israel or in Palestine; perhaps there has not been one since before November 2005. The continued violence and destruction has led most Israelis and most Palestinians to believe that the other side does not want peace. But that is not so.
It is time for the people to design and lead a new peace process. In Northern Ireland they called it “Initiative 1991”. Civil society peace activists on both sides called on their own communities to step forward and provide input into a process of designing the future. Common citizens on both sides of the conflict were called on to “testify” before public hearings on how they view the future. It is time for us to do the same. The most difficult part of this work is within our own communities, where we must confront our extremists and radicals–the spoilers who bear responsibility for driving us off the course that Rabin and Arafat agreed to in 1993.
Our leaders have failed us. Our leaders are primarily concerned with their own survival. Our leaders will not lead us to peace and security. When we do not act, we are taking responsibility for the continuation of the deterioration. If we are silent and passive, we are to blame for our continued suffering. It is time for the people to take to the streets. It is time for the common people on both sides to raise their voices loud and clear demanding that we return to negotiations and end the violence. It is time for us to return to sanity. Our voices must sound out from all corners of Israel and Palestine.
When our political leaders fail us, it is time for civil society actors to lead us forward. There are more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations now working together in a new network called “The Israeli-Palestinian Peace NGO Forum”. These civil society organizations have been working together across the conflict lines, non-stop, throughout all of the past years. New organizations of young activists on both sides have joined the ranks and are ready to take to the streets. We civil society peace activists must work together across the conflict lines to design a new process that empowers the common people. Our well-established cooperation provides the basis for bringing the voices of both societies to the table. It is time for the public to stand up and it is time for civil society peace activists to take the lead.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.