While the Middle East peace process hovers on the brink of collapse, two prominent regional figures, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, are speaking hopefully of an end to hostilities. In many quarters, such talk might be described as a flight of fancy. But these two former implacable foes are gathering grassroots support for a simple plan that they believe can lead to peace. The plan is getting a close look from some senior foreign policy experts.
They are unlikely partners. In fact, there was a time when they would not even be interviewed together.
Ami Ayalon is a former director of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, and also a former chief of the Israeli navy. Sari Nusseibeh is president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem and a former commissioner for Jerusalem affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But they have joined together to found a movement called "People's Voice". During a joint appearance at New York's private Council on Foreign Relations, the two men said both Israelis and Palestinians must be persuaded to back away from extreme positions.
They hope that by demonstrating overwhelming public support for moderation and against extremists opposed to coexistence, they can force Israeli and Palestinian leaders to negotiate peace.
Mr. Nusseibeh said it is essential that Israel give up its decision in principle to expel Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. The former PLO official said contrary to views expressed by Israel and the United States, Mr. Arafat is the only Palestinian leader who can bring about a peace settlement. "I believe, personally, that Mr. Arafat is committed to peace and that the people around him are too, committed to peace. The problem is, though, that there's no common agreement or definition of what peace is. The kind of peace he's committed to is definitely not the kind of peace that, for instance, the government of Israel is committed to," he said.
Mr. Ayalon was Israel's intelligence chief, until just before the current Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, broke out in 2000. He said he does not believe Mr. Arafat planned or instigated the violence, which erupted soon after Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who was then opposition leader, visited the Temple Mount, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews. "The way I understand the Intifada, it was not planned by anybody," he said. "The energy was there. The frustration of the Palestinian street, after years of expectations from the peace process, was there. And what was needed in order to ignite it was the Sharon visit to the mountain."
Mr. Ayalon said that, in his view, Mr. Arafat had no choice but to adopt the Intifada and lead it. Otherwise, he would have lost his position as leader of the Palestinian people.
The former Israeli intelligence chief said, over the past three years, the two sides have lost confidence in each other. Both now believe the other understands only violence. So, he and his Palestinian partner have started a signature campaign in support of a one-page statement of principles mandating moderation and painful concessions by both sides.
The statement contains nothing new. It is mostly a rehash of ideas already contained in the international 'road map' and other well-known peace proposals. But he said only a plain-spoken statement of public support for a clearly-defined vision of the future will allow leaders on both sides to prevail over the extremists in their camps. "No Palestinian leader will fight the infrastructure of Hamas, unless [it is] within the context of a final agreement between us, when he knows exactly what he will get; and it is the same for us. No Israeli leader will bring settlers home, unless [it is] within the context that we know exactly where it will be bringing us. It is too painful to pay it, without knowing what will happen later," he said.
Mr. Ayalon says he has already collected 50,000 Israeli signatures during the two-month signature campaign. Professor Nusseibeh has collected 30-thousand Palestinian signatures. He hopes to pass the 100,000 figure by the end of the year.
The pair's current visit to the United States is aimed at generating international support for their plan. They hope that their stature in their respective communities, and the hundreds-of-thousands of moderates' signatures they hope to get, will give them the standing to go to the leaders of the two sides and demand an end to the cycle of violence that many fear is spinning out of control in the Middle East.