It is called the Creative Forum, designed to promote person-to-person public diplomacy (like the thing that Karen Hughes is utterly failing to do with the Islamic world, despite the help she had from her trusty deputy, Dina Mloukhia Powell). The idea is to encourage Syrians and Israelis to discuss directly the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 6-Day War, along with the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula.
Accordingly, Otrakji proposed the following question:
"If you could write a one page letter to an Israeli citizen who does not believe his country should give back the Golan Heights to Syria, what would you tell him/her?"He nominated myself, as well as another American very familiar with the region - Bridget Palmer, to moderate the discussion. I gladly accepted, as I have always believed that geo-political issues could be solved with more first-hand information and less propaganda.
My own experience validates that belief. I will never forget leaving London and having and one of my dear Israeli friends, who later hosted me in Tel Aviv that summer, write me that until he met me, the only image he had of Syrian people was an army propaganda video that showed 12-year-old Syrian girls sent to military camps and trained to kill snakes with their teeth. (continued...)
As for Creative Forum, the opinions expressed thus far by various Syrians have been diverse and thought-provoking, and already the site is attracting interest from Israelis curious to learn more about what it will take to make peace with their northern neighbors.
In fact, I am delighted to report that today, Haaretz, Israel's third largest newspaper, had an article about these online efforts to communicate, written by Yoav Stern. For now, it is only available in Hebrew, with the clever title "Shalom 2.0". Stern communicates to the Israeli public the essence of Creative Forum by quoting the final line from Otrakji's letter:
"'painful concessions' will be quickly forgotten the first time you have lunch in Damascus."Of course I wrote for the site as well (my piece was also published on the Arab American Institute's commemoration of the 6 Day War), from a peace-oriented American perspective, since I am not a citizen of the Syrian Arab Republic. My essay on the Golan Heights reads as follows:
Often times, colleagues will invite me, as an American citizen of Syrian origin, to expatiate my views of the Middle East Peace Process, particularly as it pertains to land disputes between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic. Of course I reply that nothing could bring me greater pleasure than to bear witness to a resolution of that conflict on the basis of land for peace, and that I consider the role of the United States to be that of a facilitator, which steers those negotiations in good faith.
I have never felt it appropriate, however, for the United States to tell leaders of either Israel or the Syrian Arab Republic how to run their countries. That is the sort of arrogance that gives my country its unfortunate ill repute in such circles. We can guide the process and we can responsibly exert our influence to affect a positive outcome, but America cannot and should not bark orders to other sovereign nations.
Thus, the terms of the final arrangement are not for me, or even my President, to decide or mandate. Peace must evolve organically, through a comprehensive negotiation between the conflicting parties that respects each other's sovereignty, security, and – most of all – dignity.
I suppose my position appears one crafted with the meticulous care of an aspiring diplomat, bereft of passionate judgment. Nevertheless, seemingly for the pleasure of Cruel Fate, I have been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an inextricable attachment to all matters Levantine.
Few have had the opportunity, as have I, to view the Golan Heights, captured by Israel on June 4, 1967, from both sides of the armistice line of 1974. Like a handful of adventurous visitors to the Syrian Arab Republic, I sought permission from its government to journey to the deserted Quneitra, where, like Pope John Paul II, I observed the ruins of homes, a hospital and even a church desecrated by the departing Israeli forces.
Similarly, like many a tourist to Israel, I have accompanied friends from Tel Aviv – secular liberals who care nothing for the religious overtones of that southerly seized territory – the biblical Judea and Samaria – on excursions to "the most beautiful part of the country", as they refer to the land captured from the Syrian Arab Republic by the Israeli Defense Force during the 6-day war of 40 years ago. There as well, I recall seeing demolished mosques and homes – "these places were destroyed to avoid a refugee problem," a friend glibly told me.
The wide gulf between these 2 experiences demonstrates the differing attitudes toward a quest for national normalcy. Judging by their carefree picnics, camping trips, and ski excursions to the Golan Heights, Israelis seem to have achieved it – at least until the next Katuysha rocket rains down – while their northern neighbors poetically mourn its unattainability with their every breath.
But the greater truth has been obfuscated by minutiae: national normalcy derives from regional normalcy. Until citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic have restored their collective national sense of dignity, so bound to the reintegration of the Golan Heights, they will remain restive. History has shown us that, sooner or later, like it or not, that discomfort will adversely impact their Israeli neighbors. Hence the formula: land for peace.
Perhaps it will take several more decades of mistrust, enmity, and even bloodshed on both sides for this realization to take root. Or perhaps the region will emerge from its leadership crisis with a mandate from all its people to make lasting peace. Whichever the case, this American will be the first to cheer when Syrian children wade in Lake Tiberias, and Israeli parents once again say "may they never go to the army" upon the birth of their sons.
George Ajjan is a Republican Party activist and a member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy council.