One of the many outfits stirring the Arab-Israeli cauldron is ‘One Voice’. The organisation defines itself as
an international grassroots movement that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution.
The basic idea behind ‘One Voice’ is that leaders cannot be trusted to make peace on their own. It is ‘ordinary’ people who, in their desire for peace, may prod the leaders into taking the necessary steps. In its own words, the organisation is predicated
on the notion that everyday people have a crucial role to play in creating the political conditions necessary to propel their leaders toward ending the conflict and the occupation.
Sounds enticing. But what’s the reality?
Browsing through the ‘News & Events’ section of the website, one finds ‘One Voice Israel’ (OVI) militating against the positions of the Israeli government. For instance
Since June, OneVoice’s Israeli activists have been mobilizing in a different major city each week by wearing heavy winter coats symbolizing the need to freeze the settlement policy and unfreeze peace talks. They’ve held protests outside the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem and annual education conference in Tel Aviv, grabbing local and national news headlines.
‘One Voice Palestine’, on the other hand
is energizing the centrist Palestinian mainstream to take their future into their own hands and support the Palestinian negotiators. […] The PLO’s Chief Negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, addressed the activists […]
Err… I beg your pardon? “support the Palestinian negotiators”?? I thought the role of the organisation was to “propel” the leadership forward, not “support” them? I thought it wasn’t about PLO’s Chief Negotiator addressing the activists, but about the activists demanding that the Chief Negotiator makes concessions and takes risks in order to progress towards peace? I.e., exactly what ‘One Voice Israel’ activists are doing vis-à-vis their own leadership?
Well, if you think that’s what’s happening, you are equipped with a logical mind. You are also dead wrong. See, there is no symmetry here: ‘One Voice Israel’ is an opposition movement; it sees its role, per the international organisation’s charter, as prodding and pushing Israel’s leadership to advance towards the two state solution faster and further than it would otherwise be inclined to. Not so ‘One Voice Palestine’; it is in effect part of the PLO/Palestinian Authority establishment: its activists see their role as “supporting” that establishment. As for the international leadership of the organisation, if they even realise this dichotomy, they do zilch about it.
None of this comes as a surprise to me. Some time ago, I participated in a ‘One Voice’ event, organised as part of a ‘Peace Festival’ in one of Britain’s major cities. One of the major components of the ‘Peace Festival’ had been a ‘festival of hatred’ orchestrated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Dozens of PSC activists were bussed into the city; they waved flags, distributed pamphlets, chanted slogans. In the evening, a very subdued ‘One Voice’ event took place in a forlorn City Council building, in front of a grand audience of… four (one was a Council representative and had to be there).
The event included Skype interviews with an Israeli and a Palestinian ‘One Voice’ activist. Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, the ‘One Voice Israel’ campaigner delivered a clear and well-articulated message. He unequivocally voiced his opposition to Israeli government’s building in West Bank settlements. He talked about the reality on the ground, opining that Jerusalem was, in practice, divided. Then was the turn of the Palestinian activist, another smart, articulated young man. He focused, however, on what ‘the occupation’ was doing to the Palestinians – presenting the latter as innocent, almost angelic victims. Including claiming that he ‘could be shot at any time’, with no reason at all, at Israeli checkpoints. Having manned such checkpoints myself, I knew this to be a shameless lie. However, I held my piece. The purpose was not, after all, to find out who’s right, but to make peace. Towards that end, I asked him whether, given a satisfactory territorial partition and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, the Palestinians would renounce the demand to ‘return’ millions of refugees to Israel. His answer came immediately, as if rehearsed: it was not his role, he said, to voice positions on such issues; this was a matter that needed to be decided by the leadership. I glanced at the event organiser, a senior ‘One Voice UK’ activist. Wasn’t ‘One Voice’ about challenging and ‘propelling’ the leadership? Wasn’t that the core concept of the organisation, its ‘unique proposition’? But she seemed unperturbed – all was perfectly normal as far as she was concerned.
When the event ended, I raised the issue with her. She explained that it ‘wasn’t possible’ to question the ‘right of return’ among Palestinians, because such questioning would run against the ‘Arab culture of honour and shame’. She understood how crucial the issue was to the very idea of ‘two states solution’ that ‘One Voice’ vowed to support. Yet one had to dance around the issue, she seemed to suggest, and treat it as a cultural taboo. Hopefully, the Palestinians would eventually concede the point, without ever talking about it. Having thus laid my concern to rest, she turned to the ‘real issue’ – her suggestion that the Israeli government should recognise ‘Palestine’ and quit opposing its membership at the UN. I looked at her in disbelief: it never occurred to this British lady that, in even contemplating the idea of a Palestinian Arab state including the West Bank, in even admitting that ‘Palestinians’ exist, in even debating a possible division of Jerusalem, Jews had to overcome their own cultural taboos. It never occurred to her that, in return to the huge concession she demanded from Israel, the Palestinian side might be expected to respond with anything, let alone an equally significant step. In her mind, Israelis were ‘the responsible adults’; Palestinians were children: one had to humour their idiosyncrasies and tantrums, and one certainly could not place equal demands on them. The onus was on Israel – Arabs could not be expected to behave with equal responsibility. A new version of the ‘white man’s burden’!
The idea of grassroots organisations putting pressure on the leaders to make peace may have merit – provided such organisations operate on both sides of the divide. Israelis have dozens of such organisations – including Peace Now and ‘One Voice’. Israeli peaceniks typically demand that their government stops expanding settlements, dismantles the occupation and agrees to ‘an independent and viable Palestinian state’. But you won’t hear Palestinian peaceniks demanding that their leadership recognises the Jewish State, or concedes the ‘right of return’. No; they (including Fatah youth movement activists, who double as ‘One Voice’ campaigners) demand that… the Israeli government stops expanding settlements, dismantles the occupation and agrees to ‘an independent and viable Palestinian state’. As for ‘international peaceniks, they don’t really expect much from Palestinians — after all, they operate under the ‘Arab code of honour and shame’. So they… demand that the Israeli government stops expanding settlements, dismantles the occupation and agrees to ‘an independent and viable Palestinian state’.
Which makes a mockery of the very notion on which organisations like ‘One Voice’ base their ‘unique propositions’. And renders these organisations not just irrelevant, but actually detrimental to the cause of peace.