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Restoring Public Confidence in Peace

By David Newman

January 16, 2002

Public confidence in the peace process is, as to be expected, at an all-time low. This is no different among Israelis or Palestinians and is reflected in all public opinion surveys which are carried out on a continual basis among both populations. No one would expect otherwise.

We in Israel don't see an end to the violence, while the Palestinians don't see any foreseeable end to the occupation and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements.

It is not just the process per se, but even the principle of peace which is no longer appreciated by a growing percentage of both populations. What had been translated from an abstract hope into a concrete reality during the past decade, has been returned to the realms of the abstract.

Even if negotiations were to get going again tomorrow, it would require a great deal of persuasion by the leaders of both sides for the respective populations to support such a move. While, in the past, there was general agreement that a majority of the population would support an agreement made by any government if it was signed and sealed, even this can no longer be automatically assumed.

The breach in mutual trust is such that one can foresee a scenario where negotiations would be resumed, a deal would be signed between the leaders of both sides, only for the respective populations to reject the deal in a referendum.

When prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat went to Camp David, the public (on both sides) had not been prepared for the concessions which were to be made - especially over Jerusalem for Israelis, and refugee repatriation for Palestinians. Perhaps a signed agreement would have passed the test of the respective populations, but at the time of the negotiations it was by no means certain and, at the most, it would have been a close shave. It would need much stronger guarantees than those proposed at Camp David for even a close referendum result to be the outcome in any future agreement.

But while we are affected by the somber daily realities of the conflict, we have almost entirely given up on the need to educate toward peace - both as an abstract situation and as a concrete reality. It is essential for leaders of both sides to reinvest in peace education. Not brainwashing, not wallpapering over the very real difficulties and gaps which have to be traversed, but a concerted attempt at reminding people that, regardless of what concessions have to be made, the implementation of a future peace agreement which will result in security for Israelis, and statehood and an end to occupation for Palestinians, will always be better than the alternative of endless conflict.

Why, for instance, is there no peace radio or television station, jointly managed and directed by Israelis and Palestinians? In this era of open airwaves and cable channels, this should not be such a difficult task. Why is there no radio station in Israel or the West Bank which preaches the positive message of peace - even in its most abstract form - in the same way that Arutz Sheva peddles its ideological hard line of no compromise and a Greater Israel on a daily basis? One of the greatest mistakes of the early Oslo years was the closing down of Abie Natan's Voice of Peace radio station because, as it was mistakenly assumed at the time, the work had been done, the message had got across and all that was needed was for the politicians to finalize the deal.

Peace education is not just about the dissemination of simple messages, such as those which have appeared in both Israeli and Palestinian streets recently and which assert that "the pains of peace are preferable to the agonies of war." It is also about the preparing of populations for the "painful concessions" which have to be made for the sake of peace. It is about translating the grandiose ideas, such as Jerusalem and refugee repatriation, into concrete and measurable realities so that we all understand just exactly what the implementation of a peace agreement entails, rather than leaving us in the dark as occurred at Camp David.

Peace education is also about the long term and what takes place after the implementation of a peace agreement on the ground. It is about changing the content of our respective textbooks, so that we learn to perceive each other as human beings, rather than as terrorists or settlers, or as people who have exclusive rights to the land at the expense of the other. It is about visiting each others' countries and learning about different societies, cultures and traditions. It is about sharing each others' airwaves and appearing on each others' radio and television stations on a regular basis. It is about understanding the root beliefs of each others' religions and in playing up the messages of peace and common humanity to be found in the scriptures and narratives, rather than focusing - as is currently the case - on those texts which justify violence and retaliation.

Clearly, none of this is worth anything if the reality doesn't change for the better, if the present violence doesn't come to an end. But neither should peace education be pushed aside to wait for those changes to take place, as by then it will probably be too late to play any major role in restoring public confidence in the very essence of peace.

It requires a parallel track - to be facilitated, if necessary, by third party arbitration and investment. It requires us to rise above the present situation of violence and retaliation, so that even if we cannot accomplish an agreement tomorrow or next year, we can invest in the peace of tomorrow.

David Newman is chairman of the department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.