Briefing by Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon Sponsors of "The People's Voice" Peace Initiative (December 12, 2003)

Text and Transcript provided by Foundation for Middle East Peace:

On December 12,2003 the Foundation for Middle East Peace and the Middle East Institute sponsored a briefing by Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington on their "Peoples' Voice" initiative. Ayalon is a retired Commander of the Israeli Navy and former Director of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency. Nusseibeh, a long time peace activist and leader in Palestinian politics, is now the President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem. The People's Voice is a campaign to obtain Israeli and Palestinian signatures on a six-point program for peace based on a Jewish and a Palestinian state. So far, it has attracted 65,000 Palestinian and 100,000 Israeli signatures. Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Introduced the two speakers. An edited transcript, provided by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (www.fmep.org) follows, with the text of the "Peoples' Voice" platform.

Wilcox: For the first time since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, there are signs in both Israeli and Palestinian society that the voices of peace are growing stronger. Civil society groups and others are beginning to realize that peace, if left to their leaders alone, may never come, and they are turning away from despair to activism. One reason for this positive change is the remarkable work of Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon and their Peoples' Voice campaign to win grass roots support for a peace platform that meets the needs of both peoples. These leaders are not armchair philosophers. They are practitioners trained in the hard school of politics and patriots for their national causes. They have great credibility. We are honored to have them here today.

Ami Ayalon: A Palestinian friend, whom I met years ago, a psychiatrist, came to me and told me, Ami, finally we Palestinians have won. I asked him, how come? Are you crazy? You've lost so many people, you are losing your piece of freedom, you are losing your dreams. He said, Ami, you don't understand us. Victory for us means seeing you suffer. And as long as we shall suffer, you will suffer. Finally, after 55 years, we are not the only ones who suffer in the Middle East, and this is victory for us. For me, this was something new that I had not previously understood. Thereafter Prof. Nusseibeh and myself met many times. Finally we decided to something and came up with the initiative that we are trying to move forward today. It is based on the idea that violence has failed and that victory has no meaning in the Middle East today. More and more Israelis understand this, after so many deaths on both sides.

I spent 38 years of my of my life in the security field, years in the Israeli Navy, and 4 ½ years thereafter as Director of the Shin Bet. My understanding of how to create security is totally different from the current policy of Israel.

During the twelve months before the intifada broke out in 1999, we enjoyed security. Only one Israeli was killed as a result of terror, whereas we have lost 900 Israeli lives during the last three years. Although we say in Hebrew that each of us is a whole world, one Israeli death in twelve months is something we can live with. What was the reason for the collapse of security? It was not because the Shin Bet was better when I was in charge. I can tell you that the security organization of Israel is much better today in spite of the fact that we're losing people almost every day.

The answer was somewhere else. It corresponds to results in monthly Palestinian polls by Khalil Shikaki, which we in the Shin Bet used every month for our analysis. These polls showed a close correlation between support for the peace process among Palestinians and the level of terrorism by HAMAS. When Palestinian support for the peace process was rising, the incidence of terrorism by HAMAS was declining. HAMAS will never fight against the majority opinion of the Palestinian "street," so if the "street" opposes terror in favor of a peace process and a political solution, HAMAS will not carry out terror, or at least will reduce terror.

The behavior of the Palestinian security services also reflects the reverse correlation between movement in the peace process and terrorism. At times when it was clear that the Palestinian street supported the peace process, Palestinian security organizations fought HAMAS without being perceived as collaborators with Israel. The Palestinians used to tell us, "we are not your agents, we are fighting terror because we believe this will bring us a Palestinian state and freedom. The moment that we lose this vision of hope for our freedom, forget about our help in fighting terror."

This is exactly what happened. The moment that the Palestinian people lost hope, there was terror against us. So the missing part of the puzzle is hope. The Peoples' Voice is trying to restore hope. The peace process collapsed, because at a certain point in time, both sides lost hope, and ambiguous undertakings on both sides were not enough to re-energize the process.

The time for constructive ambiguity is gone. Today we need a very clear vision of what a final status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will be, including solutions for Jerusalem, borders, refugees, security, and settlements. Unless we touch these five sensitive nerves of the conflict, we shall not be able to make the painful concessions that both sides must make. We cannot bring settlers back to Israel, and then find out that Palestinians are not going to give up the right of return. Palestinians will not fight other Palestinians, who are Muslim extremists that oppose compromise, unless they know that we are going to give up settlements.

So defining the future becomes a condition to our capability to move forward. We have to start from the endgame, and then to go backward. Therefore, the two pillars of our initiative are, "back to the future," and "back to the people." Back to the future means to start from the future and then to go backward. Back to the people means we the people have to do it, because the two leaderships do not have the power to do it. The two leaderships are waiting for us to tell them what price we are ready to pay. Palestinian leaders never had the courage to shake the taboo about giving up the right of return, and our leaders never had the power or the courage to abandon settlements and bring the settlers back to Israel.

Now it is the responsibility for the majorities of the people on both sides, who understand what is necessary in order to move forward, to shout as loudly as possible, so that our voice will be heard, in Israel, in Palestine, and within the international community. This is what we're trying to do today.

Sari Nusseibeh: I have just a few more items to add, on the Palestinian side specifically. When we started working on this piece of paper, the idea was to garner support for it, not necessarily from the upper echelons of Palestinian society or leadership, but from the people across the community. The focus was not on whom, but on how many. Therefore, although we presented this initiative to the leadership, to inform them, and to try and solicit support, we continued trying to gather support for this further down in our community. The further down we went, the more able we were to find the support we needed. By support, I mean the willingness of a person to stand up and express commitment, not simply by sharing a sentiment, but also by putting their signature to a document, which spells out, more or less, the principles for a final settlement.

This has never been done before. Various documents have been drawn up and small groups of people have gathered the courage to put their names to these. But never in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have so many people come forward and signed a shared document, as have done so in the past few months. We already have on the Palestinian side well over 65,000 names. This is immense number, both given the time that we have been working, and given the circumstances in which we have been working. 65,000 people means that you have in fact a solid foundation within the Palestinian community for achieving peace on the basis of those principles.

Our target groups have been primarily the rural areas and the various regions of the West Bank and Gaza, and the public at large. We have had about 40 activists in various in the West Bank and Gaza who are working with us who are committed to our cause belong to the mainstream of Fatah. They are not leaders in the higher echelons of Fatah, but rather grassroots leaders who have been in the forefront of the national struggle for Palestinian freedom for 10 to 20 years. Many of them have spent years in jail. We are not aiming to get support from any particular organization or movement. Through these activists, we have reached the public at large. Since we have not aimed our campaign at members of any movement or faction, we have been quite successful in collecting signatures over the past few months. Looking ahead, we believe we can expand this grass roots movement, and collect more than 100 or 200, or 300 thousand signatures. This is my forecast for the kind of pattern of growth that we have in fact been experiencing for the past few months.

Support for this initiative gives a very clear message to the Israeli public, which is our partner in any future peace, that we the Palestinian people, are indeed committed to a strategic peace with Israel that's predicated on the end of occupation and an independent, free Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The main problem in the document that we have, as you probably all know, is the issue of the refugees, which has created a lot of opposition and resistance. Our message has been very clear. We cannot bring back the past. We cannot promise anybody that they can return to their original homes. We have no capacity to do this. But we do have the capacity to promise people, including the refugees, that there can be a better future. We have the capacity to transform their present condition and to stop the pain and suffering that people today, primarily refugees, experience. We have 200,000-300,000 refugees in Lebanon. They are prevented from working in as many as 20 to 30 kinds of jobs and professions, and they live in camps where even changing a window requires approval from the highest authorities in Lebanon. Development in these camps is almost impossible, and children are born into and live in the worst conditions you can imagine. They've been doing this for the past 50 years and they will continue to do this for the next 50 years, unless we find a way to give them with a different future. We think we can by presenting them with the possibility of creating a state, not only for the Palestinians presently under occupation, but also for all the Palestinian people. Citizens of this state will be equal and have equal opportunities, whether they are refuges or Jerusalemites, or from Gaza, Hebron, or Nablus. This is the only chance we have to build a state, and it is the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership to take the necessary steps to do this.

At no time in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have the people ever been asked about the future, or about the solution. From as early as the 1920's, 1930's, and 1040's there were white papers and blue papers, yellow papers, and what have you. More recently there were U.N. resolutions 181, 194, 242, Camp David and Oslo. The people behind these plans were well intentioned, but they never asked the Palestinian or Israeli people for their opinion. Ideas in these plans were articulated behind the clouds and parachuted down on the respective populations to receive, positively, passively, or negatively. Our initiative seeks signatures indicating public support, and we go after these by discussing it with people. This is not a survey. We do not go around asking people only what their opinion is. On the Palestinian side, we try to persuade people that this is in our self-interest and to join.

Sometimes we confront difficulties and problems. Often I have been prevented from talking to groups by people who didn't want me to express my opinion. That's been going on for the last year. I've been to university campuses, villages, refugee camps, homes, and in town halls. In about 30% of the places I've been to, I've found rigid resistance to the point where I couldn't actually speak. But in the other places I was able to speak openly, clearly, and honestly and to collect signatures. I believe that we now have now a very strong, unstoppable, movement on the ground. It is a movement built on the principle, that the people are the source of power and legitimacy, and it is the people who can make a difference by standing up for what they believe, and by saying to their leaders, this is the path we want you to take.

At the end, we intend to present the principles of the Peoples' Voice to our respective leaderships. We believe that with the number of signature we are going to get, our leaders will find the courage to lead, having shown that the people are already ahead of them. We believe that ion doing so we can reach the peace that we so much desire, on both sides, both Israeli and Palestinian.

Questions and Answers

Question: There seems to be a cottage industry of Palestinian-Israeli initiatives these days, although previous such initiatives have failed. What makes you think, given Sharon's policies, that the two state solution is anything more than a fantasy? Mr. Nusseibeh, what did Mr. Powell say in your meeting about your initiative, the Geneva Accord, or the road map? Have you tried to collect signatures in the refugee camps in Lebanon?

Ami Ayalon: I believe that it will work because this is the will of the people. The majorities on both sides want a two state solution. 70-80% of the Israelis want this, and the polls show that 70% or more of the Palestinians want a free Palestinian state. A one state solution will not solve our problem. I'm not talking about in 500 years. A one state solution will not be a safe home for the Jewish people and democratic Zionist state; and the two are synonymous for me. Nor will it be a Palestinian state. Violence will prevail, the economy will deteriorate, there will be no foreign investment, and it will be very unstable entity. This is not what Israelis and Palestinians want.

It is time for the people on both sides to tell their leaders what they want. We have not done this in the past. I am like a shareholder. All my property and children are in Israel. I elected board members and they messed things up. So this is a time for me and others as shareholders to say, this is mine, it belongs to me. This is the time for shareholders like me, to tell our directors exactly what we want. If we do this we shall win. You may have noticed by what are leaders have been saying in recent weeks that they are beginning to listen to us and other friends who are also dissatisfied.

Sari Nusseibeh: I think it's clear to more and more people that the chances for two states are quickly running out. And once it runs out then, as Admiral Ayalon just said, we are going to find ourselves engaged in a prolonged confrontation. In a state where there will be no democracy, we will suffer more pain and more bloodshed for the next one or two or three generations. We have already suffered several generations of confrontation. In idealistic terms of course, one state for all peoples would be the best. But in realistic terms, it is neither what the Jews nor the Arabs want. We want an Arab Palestinian state, and they want a predominately Jewish state. Now, perhaps after many years the time will come when people will be idealistic on both sides, and if it happens, once it happens, it will have to happen with the consent of the two sides. You cannot force the two sides to be married. They have to engage in this with their own free will and consent.

Now about the refugees in Lebanon, we have started talking to people outside, but our focus has been on the inside. If we can gather sufficient numbers of people for this kind of solution, then the leadership of the Palestinian people has to do whatever is necessary to push ahead with the peace talks on this basis. They must consult with people all over the place who participate or have a share in the future we are talking about. That is primarily the job of the leadership. It is also the duty of the leadership to talk openly, honestly to the refugees about what possible solutions there are for them. Concerning Mr. Powell, we had a very open and friendly meeting. He expressed the commitment of the administration for the road map. And reiterated his position concerning the requirements and conditions that need to prevail in order for the US to be successfully engaged in bringing about success to the road map. On our side, we expressed our opinion that one of the conditions for the success of the road map is a clear definition of an end game to be attached to this road map that describes the substance of the two state solution to which President Bush is already committed in principle.

Question: I'd first like to express my profound respect for you initiative. I believe that peace can only come from the people who are suffering, and that is you. Perhaps the greatest roadblock to peace is the question of the refugees. A statement accepting the fact that this situation is a result of the establishment of the state of Israel, in whatever words, would go a long way, for many Palestinians to assuage the humiliation factor. Is that could be a part of your initiative?

Nusseibeh: The Palestinians do express the need to have their pain recognized. I think that psychologically speaking, there is certainly a need for recognition. This happens also, not only in this national context, but also in situations where two people are fighting, or where two people have a problem, that recognition by both sides of their equal worth is a basis for understanding. One of the points in our statement, refers specifically to the pain and suffering caused with the refugee problem, and the need to then address the suffering through compensation and allowing them to return to the Palestinian state.

But what you're asking for is probably something that needs to be done by itself simultaneously, side by side. It's not something we can impose on the other side; it's something that each side has to do by itself. We, the Palestinians, by the way, over the past fifty years have had to learn a lot about the Jews, not because we chose to, but because we found it necessary to try and understand them. We have tried to become experts about their feelings, and their sense of insecurity, and their background, and their fears. We have had to do this in order to find a way forward for ourselves, and I think the Israelis need to do this also. As you rightly said, they have to look at us and try and see what our fears and needs are. But I think this has to be done simultaneously, you cannot impose it. What we have done is basically to draw up a statement based on what we perceive to be interests. And on the basis of those interests, we are trying to push forward in the negotiations, and to get ourselves back on the path of negotiations and peace. But I think you are quite right that a lot of work needs to be done on healing, though I don't know how it will work.

Ami Ayalon: Some people say are plan will not work because it lacks emotion and vision of the kind needed to sell it. This is true, but let me be frank. Israelis hate Palestinians and Palestinians hate Israelis. Unless we understand it, we will not be able to move forward. If we try to hard to resolve our feelings or emotions created by the past first, we will fail. We have to be very pragmatic. We have to separate our dreams and our emotions, from a very pragmatic future. Only then can we resolve our emotions and create new dreams. Otherwise, I don't think we will be able to move forward.

By the way, it has been said that there is competition between our initiative and the Geneva Accord. That's good. It helps create momentum, but many Israelis turned against Geneva, not because of what is written in the document, but because no one mentioned terror in Geneva. Everybody was discussing occupation and Palestinian humiliation. This gave a sense that they were one sided, which makes recruiting Israeli supporters harder.

Question: Our Congress considers itself very pro-Israeli. They believe that after Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians were offered a generous offer and they rejected it in favor of violence and that there is thus no Palestinian partner for peace. To what extent, Mr. Ayalon, are you going to try and disabuse the American public, including American Jews, right wing Christian Zionist supporters of Israel, and our Congress, that there is, in fact, a Palestinian partner for peace and that you have a sound Israeli-Palestinian plan for peace?

Ami Ayalon: Well, this is why we are in the United States. It's a long story, what happened exactly in Camp David, as you know, and there are many versions. The simple answer is, probably it was too early. Probably not enough people died, but today I don't have to prove that there is a Palestinian partner. He is sitting right here, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are saying there is a partner. Tens of thousands have signed our petition, so I don't need any proof that there is a Palestinian partner. We want the American administration to go beyond its existing strategy and define clearly the end game to the road map; otherwise it will not work. In Israel there are thousands of people who support this kind of strategy.

Question: First of all congratulations. You are a breath of fresh air in our grim situation. Yours was the first such initiative that had the courage to address without the usual ambiguity the basic issues which we have avoided for so long. Your document is very balanced, but the situation is very unbalanced, since Israel is much stronger and has much more power to take the initiative.

Equality and autonomy for the Palestinians in Israel is part of the future for a democratic Jewish Israel. How do we resolve the Jewish-Arab conflict inside Israel? On the right of return, some Palestinians say the right of return is more important than a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. What dramatic initiative should Israel take to persuade Palestinians that they will have a viable state and can let go of the right of return? Is it the removal of settlements?

Ami Ayalon: I think there is a certain balance in the situation. Of course, Palestinians are much more humiliated, but Israelis are much more afraid. As for Israeli-Arabs, we have to open a larger discussion about the meaning of Israel as a democracy and a safe home for the Jewish people and the position of 20% of the Israelis are Arabs. I think this debate will not be opened and dealt with until a state for the Palestinian people is created. Until this happens and Israelis feel their country has a future in which the Jewish people will be safe, they will not resolve the question of the Israeli Arabs. I tell Israeli Palestinians that this is an Israeli issue. The Israeli-Palestinians can be a bridge to our Palestinian neighbors, the Palestinian state, or an obstacle, but they must be part of the discussion.

As for the right of return, I do believe that reality is very dynamic, and that time is important for Israelis. The HAMAS Covenant published in 1988 preaches that it is the duty of every Muslim, to fight against Zionism, however long it takes, so HAMAS is willing to wait. Time is important for HAMAS only if the Palestinian Authority is fighting them, as it did during the late 1990's. Unless they face this, they can postpone the struggle with the Jews. The HAMAS leader Sheikh Yassin has said this. In his view, HAMAS can wait for 40 years to defeat Israel.

But I can't wait. My generation must solve this problem and create a new reality in which we can live before it is too late. If we wait for dreams like the right of return to come true, future generations will be burdened with continued conflict. We must separate dreams from the need for a pragmatic solution now and a viable political plan. This is what we're trying to do.

Sari Nusseibeh: You are quite right. Of course, these are the essential issues one has to grapple with now. There is a major debate among the ranks of Fatah concerning Palestinian goals, and what methods to use. There is one strong school of thought within Fatah, which is very much home grown, that says we are a national liberation movement, that upper most on our agenda is the achievement of a state, and that we realize that a price has to be paid because you can't have everything and have to make choices. One choice we have to make is to win our freedom and to stop the suffering of our people. There is a strong voice in Fatah that supports a policy that would accept these choices.

Question: I'm very interested in your vision of a demilitarized state with international guarantees. How do your respective communities would view this? Will the U.S. and the EU help?

Sari Nusseibeh: Some people view demilitarization simply as a condition imposed by the Israelis. Of course, the Israelis want the Palestinian state to demilitarized. But from my own perspective, it is my condition for having a state. I don't want a militarized state, whatever Israel wants. If you create a military establishment either to defend yourself against Israel in the future, or to smack Israel on the head in the future, then you are dreaming. And you are wasting money. I would much rather put this money into development, in education. We can be stronger, by being totally unarmed. And we can even be stronger than Israel with its nuclear power. Now, as for as the international guarantees are concerned, I hope that the international community, meaning the United States, will always be there to secure the peace that's needed and to help raise the necessary money.

Question: I believe that we can speak of democracy, and we can speak of the will of the people, yet extremists are able to defy this through violence. How do you remove this obstacle? How can you transform the burning emotions on both sides and restore hope so that the peace process can resume and eliminate the extremists in the process?

Ami Ayalon: We need a different approach that what we Israelis are now doing. Although some Israelis, including people on the left, have criticized by views, I'll repeat what I have said. The Israeli political left made a huge mistake during the last 30 years by not stopping the settlements. All our governments, including those led by Peres and Rabin, encouraged settlement, financed settlements, and gave settlers and the public the impression they were that they were pioneers. When my parents came to Palestine in the 1930's they went to a remote kibbutz on the Eastern side of the Jordan River near the Syrian border, just to make sure that the border of Israel would eventually be there. I was born there. They were practicing Zionism. They didn't wait for decisions of diplomats in Turkey, Britain or anywhere. It was up to us to create settlements that would be ours.

But in recent years the Israeli left has created a new the dictionary in which the settlers are now defined, not as Zionist pioneers, but as the enemies of peace and a cancer in our society. Unless we change this dictionary and create a new culture of debate, we will not be able to create a consensus that will enable us to bring the settlers back to Israel. This is why only the Israeli center can make peace and evacuate the settlements. We have to feel the pain of the settlers if we expect them to pay the price for peace. They will have to leave their houses and come back into the state of Israel. We can do this if we create a new dictionary for this debate. Otherwise, the settlers will oppose this violently, and it will be impossible for us to do it. This is why it is so important to recruit the Israeli center, and not just the Israeli left, to go forward.

Text of The Peoples' Voice