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In new ads, Palestinians try to sway Israeli public on peace plan

On Hebrew language billboards and newspaper ads, the Palestinian Authority promotes an Arab peace initiative to skeptical Israelis.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 2008

Freed: Israel set free 224 Palestinian prisoners Monday in a gesture of goodwill to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ronen Zvulun/reuters

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Tel Aviv; and Ramallah, West Bank

Along Route 2, which follows the Mediterranean coastline, motorists are seeing an unusual sight: a Palestinian flag next to an Israeli one.

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Below the image appearing on billboards is a message in Hebrew: There's a viable peace initiative on offer from Arab states. Reach a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians, and we will recognize you. The signature? The flags of 57 Arab and Muslim states – all except Iran.

The unprecedented ad campaign is the initiative of none other than the Palestinian Authority (PA). Late last month, the PA also ran full-page ads with the same message in Israeli papers.

The campaign represents an interesting role reversal. A decade ago, it was the Israeli government that was trying to sell its own skeptical electorate on peace, while the late Yasser Arafat had trouble getting Hamas and other rejectionist groups to sign on to the Oslo deal that he had reached with Israel five years earlier.

Today, the political futures of both peoples are at a critical juncture. PA President Mahmoud Abbas's tenure legally expires Jan. 9, and Israel faces national elections on Feb. 10. That makes it all the more opportune a time to try to win hearts and minds.

On Monday Israel freed 224 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to bolster Mr. Abbas's image in the West Bank and Gaza. For the past year Abbas has been sitting with Israeli officials at US-backed peace talks. Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the latest prisoner release was intended to "strengthen the trust and confidence in the [peace] negotiations."

The ad campaign, in the eyes of the Palestinian movers and shakers behind it, is the PA's way of speaking directly to the Israeli public about peace. But Palestinian critics think this is an embarrassing exercise whose ultimate goal is to defeat right-wing politicians in Israel's upcoming elections – a gambit that might ultimately backfire.

The decision to publish the ads was made by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), whose Fatah faction runs the PA. The ads' aim? "Convincing the Israeli public of the Arab initiative," according to Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO Executive Committee secretary. In her office in Ramallah, another senior PLO official explained why she and others had voted to go out on a limb to appeal to Israelis through their own media.

"We want to create an awareness among the Israeli public about the Arab initiative," explains Siham Barghouthi, the deputy chairman of FIDA, the Palestinian Democratic Union, a PLO faction comprised primarily of intellectuals. "The rightist trend inside Israel since 2002 managed to fill people's heads with the idea that the Arabs are not interested in peace," she says.

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