Gershon Baskin addressing the Copenhagen Group of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace

Can they stem the tide?

Gershon Baskin says that we are in a period of very intensive activity trying to re-launch contacts between the Israelis and Palestinians with three Israeli-Palestinian working groups on water, economy and Jerusalem that are meeting almost weekly.

A planned meeting in Jordan on Sunday of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists of the Copenhagen Group could signal the renewal of a regional dialogue that has all but disappeared in the last 18 months.

After nearly a year and a half of violence and mounting casualties, dormant peace groups are rising up in a flurry of activity, spurred by a sense of urgency that bridges of communication between Israelis and Palestinians must be repaired before they are irrevocably destroyed.

Senior Palestinian officials and laymen have put pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to lift a ban imposed on meeting Israeli peace lobbyists at the outbreak of the intifada. At the same time, the umbrella organization of Palestinian NGOs has revoked an order to its members to cut all ties with Israeli counterparts.

Perhaps one of the most significant signs that the peace camp is coming back to life is the reconvening of the Copenhagen Group or International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace, the regional peace group formed in 1997 by Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals. The alliance, which last met in Rome following the start of the violence in September 2000, is scheduled to meet in Jordan on Sunday.

Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), an Israeli-Palestinian think tank, says this period is the busiest in the organization’s 13-year history.

“We find ourselves in a period of very intensive activity trying to re-launch contacts between the Israelis and Palestinians,” Baskin says, pointing to three Israeli-Palestinian working groups on water, economy and Jerusalem that are meeting almost weekly.

Moshe Maoz, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former head of its Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, also notes a “picking up of activities” that had subsided after the intifada erupted.

At the start of the intifada, a joint seminar held by the Truman Institute with Al-Quds University was suspended when the Palestinian students were pressured by Hamas not to attend. The violence also increasingly led Israeli academics previously active in such talks to pause and reconsider.

“There was a slowing down of the process for various reasons,” says Maoz, who has been extremely active in informal talks with his Palestinian counterparts, even through the present wave of violence.

“One reason was a lack of trust that touched some of the participants who were disillusioned. In the Israeli case many became more hard-line, less trusting of the Palestinians. The feeling was that nothing can help and we have to have separation, let’s forget about negotiations, and it affected the participation.”

The Palestinians were deterred not only by disillusionment, but by official bans on meeting Israelis, threats by militants against such talks, and the physical difficulties on their traveling created by the security establishment.

A clampdown on the issuance of permits meant either sneaking into Israel by trekking over dirt roads to dodge roadblocks or going through a long, time-consuming, frustrating process to receive a pass into Israel.

Holding meetings became ever more difficult and had to be more and more discreet to protect Palestinian participants. Those meetings that were planned were held abroad in part to eliminate the option of walking out on talks, when daily events such as suicide bombings or Israeli raids took their toll on participants’ goodwill.

The move abroad, however, failed to ease the physical and emotional hardships of Palestinian peace activists. Instead, it created another set of humiliations at the airport, where security guards, working under the threat of terrorist attack, subjected all Palestinians without exception to stringent strip searches.

‘It is beyond imagination,” says Palestinian peace activist Zakaria al-Qaq. “You feel like you are a suspect. We feel humiliated… and this is where it starts, [at the airport] where you want to break the ice.” Such humiliation is counterproductive, argues al-Qaq, co-director of the IPCRI think tank.

Most Palestinian participants agree to attend meetings only with the greatest trepidation, he adds. Many use the current tensions as a pretext to not attend meetings and much of al-Qaq’s time is spent persuading people to participate in the peace group’s activities and then working on the logistics to bring them in.

“We lose money on airline tickets because the army doesn’t give us permits on time. If, for example, there is an explosion the morning of the flight, all permits are then null and void. Or, Israel can raid Ramallah and the Palestinians say ‘why go?'”

Despite the frustrations, al-Qaq, who on a recent morning came to work with a high fever to work out travel plans for an upcoming meeting, says there is no other way.

“The last 17 months have brought hostility to the two camps,” al-Qaq says.

“The first intifada was one that led to moderation, to the recognizing of one another. This intifada has reversed the trend. It has created hostility and a situation that more resembles post-1948 than it does 10 or 20 years ago,” he continues. “The hostility is getting greater and greater and the separation is getting wider and wider.”

“We have to give both sides a sense or a glimpse of optimism, so we talk and we meet,” says al-Qaq. “We have to keep the lines of communication open because if we abandon even that there will be a dead silence and no way to warm it up afterwards. It will mean that the people will be dragged into a dark reality.”

The meetings, when they do take place, are surrealistic, says Baskin, who tells of a weekend session on water held in Istanbul in mid-February that was attended by academics. After formal discussions, group members sat together past midnight, reluctant to sleep and anxious to exploit the opportunity to talk, even as the violence continued at home.

The need to chat in an informal setting contrasts the seriousness of the discussions themselves, which sometimes turn stormy and are much more sober than those held prior to Camp David, says Baskin.

Difficulties are addressed directly and previous attempts to impose opinions on the other side have given way to a Middle East bazaar debate with each side putting up its highest price in order to be bargained down.

“There is a sense that we understand the basic principles so we don’t need to deal with ideology which the talks dealt with in the past. We are beyond the principles and moving onto details, which is surrealistic given that we are talking about a final peace treaty at a time when it seems more distant than ever before,” Baskin says.

The Copenhagen Group, the only regional peace coalition, formed in January 1997, is moving back into the public domain after months of hibernation in which the group kept in touch by phone. At the time of the alliance’s last meeting, the group’s chief decision was to keep the organization intact despite everything.

“Then some time ago we decided it was impossible to continue this way and that we had to renew activity,” says leading alliance member David Kimche, a former senior figure in the Mossad, who also served as director-general of the Foreign Ministry. Kimche is a regular columnist on The Jerusalem Post Op-Ed page.

Delegations of up to 10 members will meet in Jordan on March 3 and 4 to decide on the alliance’s annual agenda, revise some of the outdated clauses of the Copenhagen declaration – written five years ago – and prepare for a large peace conference of more than 100 participants, which is expected to be held in Denmark this May. They also plan to work on ways to influence governments in the region “to improve the situation,” Kimche says. He expects the group will reiterate its belief that Israel “give up occupation and the territories,” and also call for an end to the violence.

The initial declaration called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to reach agreement on final status issues by mid-May 1999. Members also pledged to mobilize public opinion behind the peace effort.

In hindsight, one clause seems especially poignant for today:

“We recognize that there is still a long way to go before the true vision of peace will become a reality, that the hope for the attainment of comprehensive peace, leading to regional cooperation and a better life for all peoples of the Middle East may yet be dashed and that the peace process could yet be derailed with the shadow of war again engulfing the Middle East.

“We realize that we cannot afford to watch passively resurgent dangers and the rise of new ones against the peace process.”

Kimche says that all four groups involved “especially the Egyptians and the Palestinians – have decided it is time to be very, very active again. There is a sense of urgency and a feeling that a regional peace movement is of greater importance than we first realized.”

That sense of urgency and significance of action is the common denominator among those who are keeping the unofficial talks going.

In the past such talks between academics and officials have raised points that provided a blueprint for formal negotiations, such as the Camp David talks of 2000.

The same is true of the Oslo accords. But while the trickle-up effect has happened, the trickling down into public opinion is more difficult, notes Maoz of Hebrew University.

Al-Qaq says that even friends and family often find it hard to understand why a Palestinian would want to participate in peace activities.

“With all the restrictions on moving from village to village, even visiting doctors and hospitals, people look at the participant strangely when he says that he is going to talk to Israelis about the issues,” says al-Qaq.

“He doesn’t fit in and can’t even answer questions of why [he is participating], not even questions posed by immediate relatives like children. He doesn’t have the rationale, neither for himself or for them.”

Maoz says he sees similar reactions among Israelis.

“People just don’t believe any more,” he says. “Not just people from the market, but my own colleagues have lost trust.”

However, the tide may be turning.

According to Baskin, the Israeli public is beginning to realize that military force will not resolve the present conflict, a trend reflected in the officers’ letter that expressed opposition to serving in the territories.

A Dahaf poll published last week in Yediot Aharonot that surveyed 504 adult Israelis found that 59% supported an interim agreement that would include a cease-fire, while half supported international intervention to reach a solution to the conflict.

At the same time, only 38% said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was handling the intifada well, and 43% said the territories should be reoccupied in order to fight terrorism and confiscate Palestinian weapons. The poll had a 4.5% margin of error.

“There is a recognition that the government has failed, not just among the hard core of Peace Now but among the general population,” says MK Mossi Raz of Meretz. That recognition is seen not only in polls, but also in the turnout that Peace Now witnessed at a demonstration held last month in Tel Aviv, whose attendance is estimated at somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000.

“The demonstration was not planned to be a large one, mostly for financial reasons, but also because we weren’t sure that the public was ready. We didn’t even advertise in Yediot and Ma’ariv. It turned out a lot larger than we planned,” Raz says.

Sari Nusseibeh, the PA’s top representative in Jerusalem, addressed the protest, calling for the creation of two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both.

Baskin says that a decision by Peace Now to create the peace coalition with the Labor Party and others has breathed life into the national peace camp by broadening its horizons.

That coalition, however, is shadowed by the unprecedented one reached with the Palestinians at a meeting in east Jerusalem in January.

“This is the first time we have a joint coalition with the Palestinians,” says Raz. “We have never had one before, not before Oslo and not during the first intifada. There is an understanding now of the great importance of joint work. Each side needs to know they have a partner and someone to talk to.”

“Today we [the Israeli peace camp] are a minority and they [the Palestinian peace camp] are a minority but I am convinced that in the future we will be the majority and the Palestinians will be a majority as well. I believe that. I see that the public, despite the war, is growing more moderate.”

A survey of 1,198 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip taken last month by Bir Zeit University found that 70.2 percent of the Palestinian population supports negotiating with the Israelis until a final agreement is reached, while only 27.6% do not. The poll had a 3% margin of error.

At the same time, 73.4% felt that once a Palestinian state is established Palestinians and Israelis must continue work together to reinforce peace, and 76.7% believed that both peoples have the right to live in peace and security.

The recognition of the right of both peoples to live in peace comes despite the fact that 74.5% of the respondents said they know Israelis as occupiers only.

Meanwhile, as the violence rages on claiming more and more victims by the day on both sides, even the most dedicated peace activists aren’t immune to the emotional fallout.

“There are days when I say that I am sick of this and I wish I was living in Alberta, Canada, in a forest with a moose, rather than in the Middle East with Palestinians and Israelis,” admits Baskin, who has a 15-year-old daughter riding buses in Jerusalem. “But there is no doubt that this is the right thing to do.

“There is no solution that doesn’t involve talking and negotiations. No one is going to surrender and no one is going to win a military victory here. No one is going to give up their right to exist.”

Gwen Ackerman

Gwen Ackerman has covered Israel and the Palestinians for international news agencies since 1988. She is the Jerusalem bureau chief of Bloomberg News.

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About Gwen Ackerman

Gwen Ackerman has covered Israel and the Palestinians for international news agencies since 1988. She is the Jerusalem bureau chief of Bloomberg News.