Most grassroots peace efforts in the Middle East try to build on areas of mutual agreement, but one group of Israelis and Arabs has taken a different tack – looking for arguments against peace between Israel and Syria.
The OneMideast project, which formally goes public on Wednesday, is making its debut at a time of high tension between Syria and Israel, with gloomy prospects of resumed peace talks and very real fears of another war roiling the region. The effort drew together two teams of 10 Arabs – most of them Syrian – and 10 Israelis, each of whom who were asked to come up with a list of objections to peace between Israel and Syria.
“The dominant paradigm of peace process initiatives is to begin by searching for common ground, postponing discussion on problematic areas,” says Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese political analyst and author of the Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki. “OneMideast turns this model on its head, beginning with the stickiest issues, and trying to see if they really are as insoluble as they seem.”
Grew out of heated exchanges
The idea developed a year ago from the heated daily exchanges in the comments section of the Syria Comment blog authored by Joshua Landis, director for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. As with many blogs dealing with contentious Middle East affairs, Syria Comment attracts devoted Arab and Israeli readers whose variant views provoke stimulating and sometimes impassioned arguments.
“As each new Israeli and Syrian would find the site and begin discussion, often they would start with the repetition of accusations and casting of blame, then little by little a shared humanity would emerge as would a shared interest in finding a way out of the cyclical insults,” says Mr. Landis.
Israel and Syria are in an official state of war, which makes personal contacts between Israelis and Syrians problematic. But the Internet allows citizens from both countries to penetrate the political wall separating them – and a dialogue to flourish.
“We want people to know that dialogue is possible, and that the Web offers new opportunities to learn firsthand about the human beings on the other side,” says Yoav Stern, an Israeli commentator and journalist.
Requirements for peace
The requirements for a peace deal between Syria and Israel are well known. Syria’s main stated priority is the full recovery of the Golan Heights, the volcanic plateau that was seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel’s chief priority is to ensure that Syria no longer poses a threat, either directly or through supporting radical groups such as Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah.
Although achieving a peace deal between the two countries theoretically is far less complicated than the Israeli-Palestinian track, there have been no direct bilateral negotiations for 10 years. The continuing impasse encourages grassroots efforts such as OneMideast to broaden the debate from the diplomats to the peoples of both countries.
The project began when some Israeli contributors to Syria Comment proposed a separate discussion to further explore the arguments raging on the blog.
Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, a Syrian and founder of Creative Syria, offered to build a private website dedicated to the dialogue – OneMideast.org.
“This site is designed in a totally symmetrical way that does not give any side more time or space [by limiting the lines allowed for each side's arguments and counterarguments] and therefore no one can complain that their side was the victim of biased moderation, like they do in other discussion forums, in the media or elsewhere,” Mr. Otrakji says.
The forum gathered a mix of academics, students, journalists, analysts, engineers, and business executives. The Syrian members were asked to come up with a list of objections to peace with Israel from the Syrian perspective. The Israeli members were asked to do the same from their point of view. The results were then swapped and both sides wrote two or three counterarguments. The results were posted on the website.
Sparring on Golan Heights
One of the Israeli objections accuses Syria of supporting terrorism against Israel. Among the three counterarguments, one notes that Syria’s support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas is because Israel illegally occupies the Golan Heights.
“This support can change its form under a peace treaty guaranteeing the security of Syria and Israel,” it says.
A Syrian objection asserts that what was taken by force – the Golan Heights – can only be taken back by force. One of the Israeli responses says that the “objection sounds familiar because we Israelis have heard it from our own demagogues…. Those who said it were wrong.”
A second phase to the project is in the pipeline, says Otrakji, in which a large sample of political science students will be questioned on the list of objections to allow an analysis of the popularity of these arguments and counterarguments.
“This will help decisionmakers in Syria, Israel and elsewhere who are involved in the quest for a solution for that complex conflict,” Otrakji says.
Notes Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, “The cost of not finding a way out of this conflict is very high.”
The Israeli army has gradually come around in recent years to supporting a peace deal with Syria that includes the return of the strategic Golan. But, says Mr. Stern, the Israeli commentator, the Israeli public is losing interest in peace with a country that it views as a supporter of terrorism.
“Nevertheless, losing hope is bad, very bad,” he says, “and so we keep hoping that the atmosphere can eventually change.”