There are crazier ideas.
As we’ve seen over the past few years, normalization agreements usually start and end with support from state leaders. It has little, if anything, to do with public opinion. However, “warm peace” prevails and prospers only if the “streets” of the Middle East support, or at least remain curious, about normalization and regional integration agendas. The Abraham Accords is still fresh, and it is vividly clear that there is tremendous work to be done in gaining “street” support. Across all Abraham Accord countries, with the exception of Israel, state citizens are less than enthusiastic about the Accords (not a single one has >25% positive view of the normalization agreements).
To achieve what feels like the impossible, what if we flipped the script, and strived for “street” support first. In the digital age, there are far fewer barriers of entry when it comes to learning and interacting with folks you may never see in-person. “Street” normalization does not need governmental buy-in and can be led by the citizenry of adversarial states. The “street” in both Israel and Iran, at this current moment, will in large part agree that their respective decision-makers are callous, corrupt, and childish. Which begs the question, why wait for them to solve a multi-decade-long pissing contest?
There is striking similitude between the people of Iran and those of Israel. In a neighborhood of majority Sunni Muslims, both peoples represent unique, and culturally distinct, majority non-Arab enclaves in the region. Holidays and cultural customs, whether they be celestial conflagrations or curious cleaning conventions, carried out on the “street” are indistinguishable. Feeling and living through pain as a result of religious fundamentalism is as commonplace as the shared love of football. Outlandish defense budgets, which if redirected to the “street,” could solve a plethora of “human security-related” issues, consume and paralyze respective decision-makers, breeding mutual contempt and frustration. Home to tastemakers and authoritative artists, the often-hostile Middle Eastern boulevards consistently birth cultural kingpins across the spectrum.
Most importantly, for those 18 and above, over 70% of both populations are on social media. Forums for digital cultural exchange and people-to-people interaction are in abundance. This reality presents tremendous opportunity for the people of both countries to connect, collaborate, and coordinate change-making movements. Encrypted online communities can serve as platforms for disgruntled and exhausted citizens to share ideas, build relationships, and help each other. Whether it be a Telegram channel where Iranian and Israeli graphic designers can meet, share, and create protest paraphernalia together, or a Reddit community where folks can conversate on topics of common cuisine, the people have the power and the tools to take charge, get to “know the other,” and change “street” sentiment. There have been signs that this is possible, through meaningful but short-lived “Israel loves Iran” and “Iran loves Israel” campaigns, but the time and the climate in the neighborhood are now more ripe than ever for these sorts of people-to-people movements to take shape, grow momentum, and challenge the current G2G discourse.
For those listening, here are some ideas:
- Join and create online communities that prioritize understanding others, exploring shared histories, and fostering positive interactions.
- Offer services via encrypted online communities (e.g., web design, graphic design etc.) that cater to the needs of others, promoting mutual support and cooperation.
- Establish encrypted informal news digests to share relevant information within trusted networks.
- Engage with and befriend each other in the comments sections of hate-filled social media posts, aiming to promote empathy and constructive dialogue.
- Co-create social media content that aims to break through the other sides algorithms and foster cross-pollination of ideas.
- Collaboratively crowdfund for various humanitarian campaigns using digital currencies.
- Collaborate on music production using pseudonyms, allowing for diverse and collective creative expression.
- Create gaming servers where people can come together, play, and build relationships.
- Connect community leaders who share common goals and interests, facilitating collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- Utilize relevant diasporas to leverage their strengths and resources towards achieving common objectives.
Israel and Iran are as close to war as can be, and the people of both nations are fed up with interstate conflict and government incompetence. By creating meaningful people-to-people connections, the ‘street’ can lead both nations into a more prosperous and less violent future.