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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Freed: Israel set free 224 Palestinian prisoners Monday in a gesture of goodwill to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
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Along Route 2, which follows the Mediterranean coastline, motorists are seeing an unusual sight: a Palestinian flag next to an Israeli one.

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.

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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.

Part of what's driving the campaign, Ms. Barghouthi says, are concerns that following the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama – and soon afterward, a new Israeli government here – Israel will put any peacemaking energies into reaching a deal with Syria and leave the Palestinian issue in the dust.

"Peace cannot take place in the region without solving the Palestinian issue," adds Barghouti. "We wanted to get our voices heard by the Israelis that if you want peace, you have to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into consideration, first and foremost. We hope it will have an impact on upcoming elections in Israel."

But Hani el-Masri, a leading columnist in the Al-Ayyam newspaper, says the whole idea was ill-conceived. "The issue is not an issue of public relations. Israel is an occupying state which thinks it can impose its decisions on the Palestinians," he says.

"There is a Palestinian group that believes we are very close to reaching an agreement with the Israelis, and they believe that appealing to the public and holding all these meetings, conferences, and workshops will make it happen," he says. "This group believes that if Benjamin Netanyahu wins, it is disastrous, and this is what sparked this campaign."

Mr. Masri warns that such a strategy could push Israelis further to the right. "I think it will backfire. The problem is not lack of knowledge. The Arab initiative is clear and can be summarized easily: complete Israeli withdrawal for complete peace." The plan stipulates that if Israel pulls out of the territories it occupied in 1967 and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state, all members of the Arab League will recognize Israel. An earlier version of this plan was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

"It's a futile exercise, because Israel is not interested in this initiative," says Masri. "The number of Israeli supporters of this initiative is tiny, and most of the people in positions of leadership are against it. Meanwhile, the popularity of Netanyahu has risen since this campaign began."

One poll, released last week by Israel's Channel 2 TV station, showed that if elections were held today, right-wing Likud – led by Mr. Netanyahu – would win 32 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, while the centrist governing Kadima Party would get 26.

"We will not be happy if Netanyahu is elected, because his positions and announcements tell us that he's not exactly interested in peace," says Bassem Salhi, a senior official in the Palestine People's Party. "But our main goal [with the campaign] was that we don't want Arab countries to go directly into talks with Israel before ending the occupation."

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