The Quartet for Middle East peace met in Washington last week, and after the meeting a senior U.S. administration official said, "there are still gaps [between the Israelis and Palestinians]," and "more work needs to be done."
A new path to peace and better lives for Israelis and Palestinians are desperately needed, and the pro-democracy movements sweeping across the Middle East point the way.
A key lesson of the Arab Spring — that everyday people can and must play a critical role to achieve fundamental change in the Middle East — also applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, efforts to reach an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians have been top-down. A peace-process cottage industry that seeks to end the conflict only through talks among leaders has flourished in Washington and other capitals. This approach, as the Quartet meeting demonstrated, has not worked.
Diplomacy is necessary, and responsible talks among those committed to peace must start soon. But the battle for hearts and minds is just as important. Leaders and nongovernmental organizations must incorporate a bottom-up, grass-roots approach. It should focus on mutual respect and recognition between the Israeli and Palestinian people, and between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It needs to show them the benefits they will all enjoy when and if an agreement is put into place.
Recognition has to be between both peoples; it cannot come from an outside institution, including theUnited Nations.
Confronting the conflict's fundamental issues — mutual recognition and respect, ideology, dignity — requires working with people on both sides and presenting each side's narratives and wishes to the other. There must be a peace agreement, certainly. But this work must also entail such fundamental activities as rewriting textbooks, eliminating hate-filled speech and television programs, and developing civil societies among both peoples that prepare them to accept the other's humanity.
Preparing people for a peace agreement is essential. Yasser Arafat turned down peace proposals at Camp David and Taba, because, it was reported, he feared he would be killed, either physically or politically.
The leader-to-leader approach could not succeed then and will not succeed now without a massive, people-to-people effort. But until now no serious, broad-based grass-roots outreach has even been attempted.
That is why our group, The Israel Project, is attempting to communicate with millions of Arabs through traditional and social media. Our nascent effort indicates that many are receptive to such a grass-roots approach.
Two months ago, The Israel Project initiated a major program reaching out to Arabs in Arabic through Arab media and Facebook to, among other things, help Israel's neighbors understand that a majority of Israelis want peace and a two-state solution. Our Facebook page in Arabic has so far attracted more than 70,000 followers and 8 million views. We developed another Facebook page exclusively for Arab-language media that already has 900 friends.
We focus on breaking news and beyond-the-conflict stories, seeking to present authentic Israeli perspectives, with all their complexities. These have rarely been offered to Arab audiences.
For more than a year, we have been conducting press conferences for Arab media with Israeli leaders and experts, arranging interviews and writing and placing op-eds in Arab and Palestinian papers, and disseminating background materials to Arab journalists daily. Because of the Arab Spring, Arab media are hungry for this information.
Our organization is investing $2 million to implement this grass-roots outreach, and we see promising results. This is a significant sum for us, but it is a tiny fraction of what is needed and what the international community is capable of allocating.
The members of the Quartet, as well as oil-rich Arab states, all recognize the critical importance of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the leader-to-leader approach for decades — with little to show for it. Now they realize the power of people-to-people for achieving massive change in the Middle East.
It's time for them to seize the opportunity offered by the Arab Spring. Just a fraction of the hundreds of millions countries give to the peace-process industry, the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptian government and others could be spent on grass-roots programs to bring about lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Potomac resident, is founder and president of The Israel Project (www.theisraelproject.org), an educational organization that provides information about Israel and the Middle East to the press, policymakers and the public. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.