History teaches that during a conflict, those who would rather talk it through than fight it out are rare. And yet these types of leaders often emerge when history needs them most. The mantra is simple: you can’t fight fire with fire. You can’t end war with war. There must be another solution, one that can lead to be a permanent resolution on both sides — a lasting peace.

In a conflict as deeply entrenched as the one that consumes the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, such an idea runs in stark contrast to the daily violence confronted by those who live in the Middle East. But it is possible, many people believe, to bring an end to the conflict through peaceful dialogue rather than the angry clatter of gunfire.

The Peoples’ Voice (PV) is “a new, broad-based civil initiative whose founders recognize that a way exists to bridge the intolerable impasse between Israelis and Palestinians.” It seeks to use popular influence, not military and guerrilla violence, to bring about an end to the conflict in the Middle East. The Peoples’ Voice translates into HaMifkad HaLeumi in Hebrew, which means “The National Census.”

The premise is simple: read a one-page document and if you agree with the clearly defined Statement of Principles (see below), sign the petition to usher in the PV peace plan.

The initiative was founded in the spring of 2002 and as of May, 2004, 181,360 Israelis and 140,000 Palestinians have signed on to the statement of principles, a number which the PV founders hope to see grow until it reaches a majority consensus. Professor Sari Nusseibeh, one of the co-founders, said especially of the Palestinian numbers, “this unprecedented number is unique — no other resolution, nothing that has ever been done before, has gotten so many signatures.”

The co-founders of The Peoples’ Voice — Nusseibeh, who leads the Palestinian side, and (ret. Admiral) Ami Ayalon who leads the Israeli side, spoke on May 19, 2004, at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.

Negotiating with the past

Nusseibeh outlined what he regarded as the two main flaws in the current peace process. The first major flaw he outlined was within the negotiation of the Oslo Accord. Because negotiators only focused on the interim arrangements and shied away from tackling the difficult issues (settlers, refugees, borders), they have become the major roadblocks for peace today and a source of mistrust on both sides.

Nusseibeh mused that the rationale behind the purposeful avoidance was to set a foundation where both sides could at least enter a dialogue based on a few vague, but common points.

He noted that the second major flaw was the negotiators’ failure to include the public. Nusseibeh commented that the peace plan, “was primarily thought of as agreed-upon from the top down âe¦ the ordinary people were kept in the dark as to the nature of the peace process, so at the end of the interim period, there was distrust with each other and each other’s intentions.”

The PV initiative is a remodeled attempt to negotiate a peace plan to directly deal with what Nusseibeh considered these two major flaws. Their statement of principle includes the difficult topics not covered in the Oslo Accord and focuses on popular, direct-participation means to influence the governments to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.

The price of peace

While trying to remain upbeat and hopeful during the conference, both speakers expressed the view that in order for peace to be achieved in the region, both sides would be expected to accept certain concessions and abandon their dreams of a perfect outcome on their terms. Ami Ayalon admitted this would be a difficult process.

“The violence we see day after day, it is because, in a way, we are awakening from our dreams. We Israelis used to believe that the state of Israel would be all over the land of Israel. This was our dream, and for the Palestinians, it was the same — a dream of land ownership). The Palestinians are awakening as well, from the late 1980s and this beautiful dream. It is a process that is very hard for us and that is why you see the violence you see today.”

The right of return?

On the subject of the social cost of the PV peace plan, the main obstacle debated during the conference and in the discussions afterwards, was the issue of the Palestinian Right of Return. In its statement, the PV outlines how it intends to resolve the issues of refugees: “Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to the territories of the Palestinian state only and Jews to the territories of Israel.” This all but shuts the door on displaced Palestinians from returning home. This unsettled the crowd somewhat as a price that would be too much to bear.

In touching upon the issue further during question period, Nusseibeh passionately explained that one has to weigh the right of return with the right to live in freedom and dignity. To get the second, he said, you’d have to give up the right to the first.

“We cannot bring them (the displaced Palestinians) back from the houses from which they came, but we can provide them with new houses,” he said.

The power of the people and of the pen

The success of the PV is intimately linked to its potential for widespread acceptance within mainstream Israel and Palestinian society. Unlike the Oslo Accord, Ayalon stressed that their statement is easier to read — one page versus 50-plus pages — and easier to discuss as the language is transparent and all the difficult issues are laid out.

People can then place their signatures of consent behind the PV in the hope that the ever-growing number of ordinary individuals who also agree will influence both governments to take action. This will lead to what Nusseibeh said would “create a path that will leave me to my own freedom, my own independence.”

To begin that path towards peace, Ayalon stressed the importance of popular support. “The leadership can’t take us there, so we have to build support on both sides that we are ready to pay this painful price.”

The power of democracy

Ayalon reinforced the view that democracy is the cornerstone of Israeli society while also noting that he felt it essential that Israelis use their democratic power to bring about an end to the conflict. Summing up this point bluntly, he noted that above all, ordinary people should be included in the peace process and through the sheer number of signatures the PV hopes to collect, “the leadership will have to go in the direction we wish them to go.”

Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon are forging a plan that could radically shift the trajectory of violence in the Middle East, as the PV represents an alternate way to resolve the conflict through peaceful, democratic means. Words not Bullets. Pens not Swords.

Statement of Principles

(Signed by Ami Ayalon & Sari Nusseibeh on July 27, 2002)

  • Two states for two peoples: Both sides will declare that Palestine is the only state of the Palestinian people and Israel is the only state of the Jewish people.
  • Borders: Permanent borders between the two states will be agreed upon on the basis of the June 4, 1967 lines, UN resolutions, and the Arab peace initiative (known as the Saudi initiative).

    Border modifications will be based on an equitable and agreed-upon territorial exchange in accordance with the vital needs of both sides, including security, territorial contiguity, and demographic considerations.

    The Palestinian State will have a connection between its two geographic areas, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    After establishment of the agreed borders, no settlers will remain in the Palestinian State.

  • Jerusalem: Jerusalem will be an open city, the capital of two states. Freedom of religion and full access to holy sites will be guaranteed to all.

    Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem will come under Palestinian sovereignty, Jewish neighbourhoods under Israeli sovereignty.

    Neither side will exercise sovereignty over the holy places. The State of Palestine will be designated Guardian of al-Haram al-Sharif for the benefit of Muslims. Israel will be the Guardian of the Western Wall for the benefit of the Jewish people. The status quo on Christian holy site will be maintained. No excavation will take place in or underneath the holy sites without mutual consent.

  • Right of return: Recognizing the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian refugees, the international community, Israel, and the Palestinian State will initiate and contribute to an international fund to compensate them.

    Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only to the State of Israel.

    The international community will offer to compensate toward bettering the lot of those refugees willing to remain in their present country of residence, or who wish to immigrate to third-party countries.

  • The Palestinian State will be demilitarized and the international community will guarantee its security and independence.
  • End of conflict: Upon the full implementation of these principles, all claims on both sides and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end.

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...