The path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians looks as cloudy as ever. It may be time to take peace out of the hands of the politicians and place it in the hands of those who have the most to lose -- you and me. Following President Obama's visit to the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations may be revived. While we, Jewish and Arab Americans, as well as average Israelis and Palestinians, wish that the president and the governments in the region succeed, we can't wait any longer. For 20 years we sat on the sidelines watching and listening to those negotiations, from with the Camp David and Oslo Accords to the Taba Summit, the Road Map and more recently the Annapolis Conference. We heard accusations, condemnations, charges and counter-charges that one side or the other is not serious about peace.
According to a public opinion poll of Jewish- and Arab-Americans' attitudes toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, roughly 87 percent of Jewish-Americans and 94 percent of Arab-Americans surveyed agreed that Israelis and Palestinians alike have the right to live in secure and independent states side-by-side. The poll was jointly conducted by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI). In spite of this unanimous agreement between Arab- and Jewish-Americans on the path toward a just and lasting peace, there is little cooperation between the organizations charged with representing their respective communities. These organizations generally echo the positions taken by the governments in the region.
Likewise Fafo, a Norway-based international research foundation, found that 73 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support a peace agreement with Israel and an end to violence. And Frida Ghitis, an editorial contributor to the Miami Herald, wrote on January 4 that among Israel's "population at large, more than two-thirds of Israelis said they would support" a peace agreement to which Israel withdraws to the 1967 lines keeping some settlement blocks in exchange of equal sizes of territory to create a demilitarized Palestinian state. The polls show that even among the right-wing Israelis and the fierce nationalists, over 53 percent support such a peace agreement.
I spent over twenty years managing U.S. energy cooperation in the Middle East. We initiated a number of multilateral projects involving Israel and at least one other Arab country as a way to enhance peace in the region. Sadly, many of these initiatives became vulnerable to changes in governments and funding availability. I became convinced that the way to build peace and cooperation between Arabs and Jews and between Israelis and Palestinians is from the bottom-up rather than wait for the top-down solutions. When political structures are shaky and sometimes fail, it's the grassroots that take hold. Considering our influence in this conflict, it's imperative that Jewish- and Arab-Americans take the initiative to build the foundation for peace.
Our common goal should be to promote and finance collaboration between Jewish and Arab artists, writers, actors and entrepreneurs. Imagine a song written by Jewish and Arab composers that is as inspirational as "Hava Nagila" for the Jews and as captivating as one of "Umm Kulsum" songs for the Arabs. Or a screenplay jointly created by Arab and Jewish writers that promotes hope rather than fear and motivates interfaith understanding among Jews, Muslims and Christians. We should also aim at creating small businesses that can be transplanted into Israel and the Palestinian territory and allow average Israelis and Palestinians to work together and concentrate on helping their families and neighborhoods.
The Arab-Jewish Truck to Peace is building a kosher and halal food truck that will be launched in Washington, D.C., and hopefully duplicated in other cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and ultimately in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Those trucks would serve kosher food from one window and halal treats from another, and will focus on the similarities between the Muslim and Jewish cultures rather than the differences.
There are those who stir division and spread false information about deep-rooted hatred between Arabs and Jews that is centuries old. The truth is that the current animosities are only decades old and they are not based on race, culture or religion. Like most conflicts throughout history, it's another fight about real estate. It is easier to share land than fight over it. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, can learn to live on terms of equality and mutual respect while conserving their distinct cultural heritage, religion, language and sense of identity.
Let's act today and join hands and push this grassroots movement forward.