Peace advocates in Egypt revive efforts
After three years of silence, Arab and Israeli groups met again last month.
CAIRO — Early last month, William Welles heard that the Israeli ambassador was coming to visit his downtown Cairo art gallery - again. He locked the doors and went to sit in a coffee shop across the street to watch. The last time the Israeli ambassador visited his gallery unannounced in March, Mr. Welles was condemned in the local press.
This time, the ambassador arrived to find a closed gallery.
The incident is one small measure of how politically and socially unacceptable it has become in Egypt to host envoys of the state of Israel. Almost a quarter century after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, sentiments, particularly in the media, still run high against the Jewish state - especially since the beginning of the latest Palestinian intifada in 2000.
Recently, however, Egypt's fledgling peace lobby has begun to rebuild itself after three years of silence. With the unveiling of the Palestinian-Israeli road map for peace, followed by this week's summit in Aqaba, Jordan, some activists see a fresh opportunity for attitudes to change.
A hundred activists, intellectuals, businessmen, and former diplomats from Jordan, Egypt, the occupied territories, and Israel met in Copenhagen, Denmark, last month to revive public dialogue about the Middle East peace process.
Originally founded in 1997, the group first went to Copenhagen in an attempt to set up parallel dialogue outside government peace efforts and show the world and people of the region that there are Arabs and Israelis ready to talk peace. The group's chapters strive in their respective countries to present pro-peace points of view to combat the knee-jerk, angry rhetoric that often dominates public discussions. Through conferences, seminars, and opinion pieces in newspapers they promote the idea that a real peace will be possible one day.
"Just the fact that 100 Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians are getting together to resume contact and declare publicly that we've had enough of the violence is important," says Israeli peace activist and conference attendee Gershon Baskin. "Peacemaking is too important to be left in the hands of politicians." Baskin founded the only joint Israeli-Palestinian public-policy think tank back in 1988 and has long been working on coming up with practical solutions to the conflict.
The delegates used the US-backed road map as a basis for their discussions and talked about how peace could properly be implemented.
"I think this [the road map] is possibly the last chance for peace in the Middle East," says Hisham Kassem, a member of the Egyptian delegation and the publisher of the Cairo Times weekly news magazine. Waiting another year for another peace plan, says Kassem, will be too late at the current pace of settlement building. "They'll be nothing left of Palestine, which means terrorism forever in the Middle East."
IN Egypt, the result of the first Copenhagen meetings was the Cairo Peace Movement which went on to hold conferences and publish articles between 1997 and 2000 and represented a lone voice supporting peace with Israel.
The organization's high point was a July 1999 conference featuring Israeli peace activists. Attendees called for an end to violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and condemned the settlement-building of Israel's government. A headline in the opposition Nasserist weekly Al Arabi said, "Those responsible for putting together the conference should be prosecuted for committing crimes against Egypt." The death of several prominent members and the outbreak of the intifada, however, resulted in the organization's subsequent disappearance.
Israel's peace movement was similarly hard hit by the intifada ,and Copenhagen delegates see the latest meeting as an effort to rebuild the movement and regain credibility in the population.
"The peace camp is in disarray and we are trying to get it reorganized - we want to be the umbrella organization in Israel for the whole peace movement," says David Kimche, a member of the Israeli delegation and former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We want to bring to the Israeli public the fact that there is a peace camp which is working with our Arab neighbors for the sake of peace."
The Israeli group is planning on publicizing their views in the media, taking out advertisements, holding public meetings, and distributing pamphlets in an effort to reach the public. While opinion polls in Israel reveal a great deal of skepticism about whether the Palestinians are viable peace partners, they also show that most are willing to make major concessions for peace, such as recognizing a Palestinian state.
According to members of the Egyptian delegation, that same majority support for peace in the region exists among the Arabs and in Egypt - despite the strident tone in the press. "The media is dominated by the other side," says Adel Al Adawi, a former diplomat and the head of the Egyptian delegation. "We have to talk about our ideas as much as we can, since we think this is the choice of the Egyptian people - in the end we will have the support of the majority."
"We are working very slowly, but I am sure we will be able to change the image," says Mr. Adawi. Then one day, perhaps, the Israeli ambassador in Cairo will no longer find the doors of art galleries locked.