Interview: Shaul Arieli on Upcoming Peace...

Interview: Shaul Arieli on Upcoming Peace Roundtables

By Shlomi Eldar, Al-Monitor
Shaul Arieli never tires. He doesn’t have time. For several years now he has been arranging guided tours of the West Bank to convince anyone who will listen that there is hope, that peace can be reached with the Palestinians, that the two-state idea is not dead, that giving up is not an option. On June 23, he will head a one-of-its-kind event, unprecedented in scope, called “Setting the Table for Peace.” This is the idea: on that day, hundreds of round tables will be set up simultaneously at 11 focal points around the country, and the public will be invited to take a seat and discuss all aspects of the diplomatic process. The aim of the event’s organizers is to enable people to listen and make themselves heard regarding promotion of the peace initiative and, subsequently, to put pressure on their leaders.
''The idea came up in a conversation between myself, Koby Huberman, a high-tech entrepreneur active in various pro-peace organizations, and professor Daniel Bar-Tal, a Tel Aviv University professor of social psychology. We decided to hold an Israeli-Jewish-international conference in Jerusalem next year to express the voice of that part of Israeli society — we contend they are the majority — which supports the idea of two states for two peoples. In advance of the conference, and without waiting, we decided to present full cooperation among all the organizations and movements right now,” he said. It should be noted that the idea of cooperation among the peace groups was welcomed by all, without exception.
“We’re talking about a main event in Tel Aviv and 10 other events in towns and villages — in the center of the country and the periphery — to demonstrate ideological unity. Among other places, the round tables will be held in Kiryat Shmona [near the Lebanese border], Karmiel, Umm-al-Kutuf [an Arab village] Shfaram [an Arab town], Sderot [on the Gaza border], Ramle and Jaffa. In discussions, we will present the idea that one cannot give up on peace.”
In addition to representatives of the peace movements, 20 current and 25 former Knesset members are expected to join the discussions launched by Arieli and his friends, along with government ministers, former military officers and anyone who could be enlisted to revive the silenced public discourse on the diplomatic process.
In the past, Col. (Res.) Shaul Arieli served as commander of the northern division in the Gaza Strip, and since his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 2001 has been active in a number of organizations advancing a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. He is one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative, a board member of the Peace and Defense Council and a senior researcher at the Foundation for Israeli-Palestinian Economic Cooperation.
“We’re saying that in order for bad things to happen, all that’s needed is for people to remain indifferent. This is an opportunity for the good people to speak out. And people have indeed contributed, both time and money, so that this voice will be heard. In Kiryat Shmona, for example, the discussions are being organized by Massad, the Center for Social Democracy. Bustan Bnei-Avraham — a Jafa-based group established by Israelis and Palestinians to promote reconciliation between the 'sons of Abraham' — is organizing a bus with 50 Palestinians from around the West Bank to take part in the event. In the town of Sderot, an organization named 'A Different Voice' — which promotes a civic-based solution in the Sderot area and in Gaza — is positioning large loudspeakers to enable discussions with residents of Gaza who believe in coexistence.”
Is the timing of the event linked to the sense that there’s an effort to blur, or even to wipe out, the formula of two states for two peoples?
“The idea is first of all to awaken the political discourse in Israel which has been dropped from the public agenda, with the polite help of the media establishment.” With these two words — “media establishment” — Shaul Arieli expresses his pain when he says that the Israeli media has virtually wiped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off its slate and avoids covering it, as though it does not exist. “Israelis are busy with 'Big Brother,'” warns Arieli, “but time doesn’t stand still and it doesn’t work in our favor.”
What do you mean?
“We see a tremendous effort being made on the part of the Americans and the surprising flexibility of the Arab League, and in contrast look how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came back from his visit to Europe — beaten and bruised, covered in threats of international isolation. When [US President] Barack Obama spoke in Jerusalem, he threw down a gauntlet for the Israeli public. 'If you don’t push your leadership, it won’t happen,' he said. And I believe in that. The Israeli leadership raises square sails — wherever the public wind blows, the leaders raise a square sail without switching course and go along with it. There’s no leadership, there’s no willingness to accept these challenges. There’s no willingness to take on political party institutions. And that’s exactly our job. We’re saying out loud, 'there’s a whole, large public that wants to resolve the conflict and believes in peace.'”
Where are you getting this information that the majority of Israelis still believe in an agreement with the Palestinians?
“Polls we conduct, all the organizations — whether the Geneva Initiative, Peace Now or Another Voice. They’re fairly consistent. Not to mention the most recent poll by the University of Ariel, which indicates that the public is leaning to the left and regards settlements as an obstacle to peace. Support for the idea of two states is between 55% and 60%, but the public has been frightened by the endless brainwashing it undergoes daily at the hands of the government and the settlement heads. It keeps hearing that ‘there’s no partner’ and that 'Hamas is going to take over,’ and other such threats. And that’s why even the many people who tend to support a peaceful solution are scared to go the route of a permanent arrangement.”
Many are saying, and we just recently heard Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing this idea, that irrevocable facts have been established on the ground that have made the idea of withdrawal unfeasible.
''According to data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, as of the end of 2011, 325,000 settlers live in Judea and Samaria — not 400,000 as claimed by the heads of the settlements — and in east Jerusalem there are 190,000 Jewish residents and this figure hasn’t changed in the past 10 years. This whole population [half a million residents] is concentrated in only 4% to 5% of the West Bank area, in large blocs. The Palestinians are completely dominant in the rest of the area, in all respects. The problem is that this dominance is disrupted by the isolated settlements and the network of defense and transportation provided by the IDF to ensure their existence. So in actual fact, all the pronouncements about ‘an irrevocable situation’ are designed to mislead the public, which hasn’t a clue. And this is where we come in. We have taken upon ourselves to present the data and explain the truth.”
Despite the scare campaigns …
“Despite the scare campaigns, because no matter what happens, how much flexibility the Palestinians demonstrate, what happens with the Arab League, everything — if Defense Minister Moshe 'Bogie' Ya’alon defines the Arab League’s initiative for land swaps as a ‘spin,’ what can you expect from the public?
''Yesterday, I took a group of some 40 senior officials of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party on a tour of east Jerusalem — rabbis, members of municipal councils, members of religious councils, activists, parliamentary aides and others. I showed them the reality on the ground and proved that a diplomatic arrangement is possible. After the tour, they turned to me in amazement and said, ‘Shaul, we didn’t know, we didn’t understand. Had we known that was the situation, we would have thought differently.' They even asked me, ‘Why doesn’t Netanyahu do what he’s supposed to do?’ And that’s why we contend that only significant public pressure will make him act.”
Toward the end, I don’t hold back and ask, although I can already guess the answer: “Don’t you get tired of it all?”
“People keep asking me that question; I keep telling them that I can’t afford to get tired. If I want to keep living in this country, I can’t remain indifferent.”
On Sunday, energetic as ever, Arieli will move among the tables to persuade other people not to remain indifferent.