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The Arab Peace Initiative: fear, silence and politics

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What does The Arab Peace Initiative and the 2011 Israeli Social Justice Protests have in common? Fear, silence and politics, writes Israel-based freelance journalist, Kate Johnston.
 
John Kerry (Image by Bruce Keogh / keoghcartoons.com.au)
Secretary of State John Kerry (Image by Bruce Keogh / keoghcartoons.com.au)

ABOUT TWO MONTHS AGO, I got a tip off from an old friend and fellow Palestinian rights advocate about the latest; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to revive the Arab Peace Initiative originally put on the table back in 2002. It immediately took my interest by its very name. What was the Arab Peace Initiative, who was involved and what were they proposing?

The Arab Peace Initiative

My research was surprising. The entire Arab League of 22 Arab states and 35 Islamic nations, including Iran, Syria and Lebanon, had agreed on a political settlement for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that most Israelis would consider reasonable.

It outlined an agreement on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, a just resolution for the refugees as agreed by all parties and East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state. But the funny thing was, it hadn’t even entered the Israeli consciousness.

I immediately recognised its significance, not necessarily for the proposal itself but for its very existence, as I understood that it contradicted much of the scepticism within Israeli society that exists towards their Middle Eastern neighbours.

I often spoke of my findings with Israelis, and was met with a mixture of responses. Yet one similarity persisted, none of them knew about it. The story broke on Haaretz, a left-wing Israeli newspaper, around the same time and, not surprisingly, I learned that 72 per cent of Israelis weren’t even aware of the Arab Peace Initiative. Even more surprising, another study found that 69 per cent of Israelis would support the initiative to a degree. While other media both inside and outside Israel did cover the issue, they didn’t give it the attention I felt it deserved.

Netanyahu’s Silence

Another interesting development, which is not entirely new to Israelis ‒ especially those involved with the 2011 social justice protests ‒ was Benjamin Netanyahu’s silence on the matter. How could a prime minister be silent about such a reasonable and significant political development happening in the Middle East?

As the weeks passed by, little changed in the Israelis’ awareness of the initiative nor in Netanyahu’s silence. And then the peace talks were announced to the world. Suddenly everyone knew about it — or did they?

Netanyahu and Abbas’ current round of peace talks bares little semblance to the initial documents as outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative that gave rise to the present talks. Netanyahu rejected the initiative in 2007 and my guess is that his position hasn’t changed.

Fear and hope in Israeli Society

Fear and scepticism in Israeli society has a very real and tangible effect, especially in regards to the prospect of peace with its neighbours.

Media plays a large role in this process and is, in many ways, responsible for inspiring hope or inciting fear through its framing of events, or complete lack of coverage of altogether.

The emotion of hope on an individual level gives rise to forward thinking, creativity and is goal orientated. Fear on the other hand is an unconscious process that suspends belief and defies rational thinking. Fear is rooted in the past, whereas hope looks to the future.

The individual emotions of fear and hope can also be experienced on a collective level, such as in a society or country. The collective experience of fear is an obstacle to peace whereas the collective experience of hope acts as a conduit.

After interviewing and speaking with many Israelis, I came to discern parts of its role in society and how it was being used to manipulate.



In a conversation with Yoni Mann from Tel Aviv, he said:
“The right has a phrase that immediately ends the conversation: if we stop the military tomorrow, Israel will be wiped to the sea.”
I found this interesting because I wondered how true it really was. Yes, Israel had been at war for 65 years with its neighbours, but did Israel’s neighbours really want to see Israel gone? Or were they willing to reach an agreement and normalise relations with Israel, including its enemies such as Iran, Syria and Lebanon — all of whom have fully endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative?

Another interesting insight came from Eyal Kimhi in Tel Aviv. In a thought provoking interview about the 2011 protests and how fear was used to manipulate them he said:
“I think the Iran threat brought fear back to the people and replaced the hope that the protest had brought. It took the focus off from the social problems back to the old ‘Jewish extinction’ problems.”
While I don’t have a great deal of faith in politics or this round of ‘peace talks’ my faith in humanity and its ability to create a world of its own choosing knows no end.

Perhaps this round of peace talks will fail, as I’m unsure Netanyahu has what it takes. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t all take something from it. Perhaps its greatest lesson is to be extracted from its origins — The Arab Peace Initiative and the entire region’s offer, including Iran, Syria and Lebanon, to normalise relations with Israel and enter permanent peace agreements.

While the prospect of peace has become a difficult one to imagine in light of the realities on the ground, both past and present, we mustn’t lose hope. Dispelling fear, refusing to be silent and participating in politics simply by being aware of its shortcomings and talking about them is enough. Because with an aware, active and informed public, peace might reach us sooner than we think.



Kate Johnston is an independent journalist and activist from Melbourne, Australia currently based in Israel. Read more by Kate at www.discerningkate.com and follow her on Twitter @Discerningkate.

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