Geneva - “What Israel now needs is an uprising.” This is the comment I heard on the side-lines of the discussions at a conference called “Enriching the Economic Future of the Middle East VI” that took place in mid-May in Qatar.
Over 600 participants from 80 counties gathered to discuss the implications of the recent Arab uprising and the future economic prosperity of the Middle East and North Africa. Although talk of an Israeli uprising was not the main theme that emerged from the two-day conference, it had the ears of the handful of Israelis in attendance ringing.
When talking about an “uprising”, the speakers were not calling on Israel to transition to a democracy, since Israel is already considered a democracy by most of its citizens. The comments were referring, rather, to the absence of an Israeli voice of peace, or a perceived Israeli indifference towards solving the conflict.
I feel a responsibility as an Israeli to correct this skewed impression. I wanted to tell the participants – many of whom are leading political and business figures in the Arab world – about the Israelis who are working hard to make peace a reality and are now gaining momentum. Their actions may not yet constitute an uprising, but their emergence is a symptom of the growing concern amongst left-wing but also left-of-centre people across Israel over the absence of a government-led peace process.
A major initiative that I tell people about is the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI), established under the leadership of Koby Huberman, a leader in the Israeli high-tech industry and a civil society entrepreneur; Yaakov Perry, former head of Israel’s General Security Services; and Yuval Rabin, son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The IPI’s mission is to urge the government to accept the extraordinary Arab Peace Initiative from 2002 – which offers an end to the conflict and full normalisation in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories – as a basis for regional negotiations.
It may be only a civil movement at this time, comprised of prominent citizens and business leaders. However, civil movements have a record of influencing public opinion and generating pressure which governments cannot then ignore. The members of the IPI are also keenly aware of the “Economic Intifada” by the Palestinian community to pressure international businesses to withdraw from economic cooperation with Israel, and are warning that the lack of a political process could prove destructive for the currently thriving Israeli economy.
The seeds of the uprising in Israel may be fomenting now in meeting halls and private salons, and are also being given some attention in the media. It is a growing demand for the government to save Israel from a future of endless warfare and to propose a two-state solution along the 1967 borders.
I have been talking about the IPI in public forums and in private discussions with my Arab colleagues. There is a thirst to know about these initiatives and we need to help disseminate the message.
Straddling the fence between the Arab world and Israeli society, I repeatedly encounter the need to dispel the ignorance which each side displays about the other. One recent impromptu encounter drove this home with particular force.
In a Sheraton Hotel lobby in Doha, a group of young Israeli participants congratulated young Egyptian revolutionaries for their courage. The Egyptians were surprised, since they did not know that there are Israelis who applaud the revolution. The exchange between these young people continues via Facebook and hopefully will expand to include other Israelis and Egyptians.
There is an urgent need to create channels of communication between “ordinary” Israelis and Arabs, not just governments. It is not difficult to imagine how perceptions in the Arab world would shift toward Israelis if many more knew about exciting initiatives like the IPI. At the same time, Israeli attitudes towards their Arab neighbours would also change if they knew about the real desire pulsing through the Arab world to live according to democratic values and cultivate economic and individual freedoms. Yes, there will always be extreme elements amongst us. However, we should harness the moderate voices on both sides and bridge these streams of goodwill.
Knowing that the other side is not a monolithic society but is rather comprised of many different groups with competing values and priorities, including large segments of society who actually want to live in peace with each other, could begin to shape a Middle East which is a healthier neighbourhood for all its inhabitants.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and Editor of MEDABIZ economic news. Sherif El Diwany contributed to this article. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).