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Dear Salameh,

Reading the statistics of the latest "Peace Index" composed by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Studies, which were published in Haaretz in early April, I thought about the last round of our correspondence. I was glad to find that this important survey confirmed my encouraging words to you following your latest letter, which had been pervaded by pessimism, on the verge of despair. The survey, conducted the day after the Arab League's summit in Riyadh, shows that among those Israelis who heard of the Arab initiative, a clear majority (52.5 percent) supports initiating negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace plan, with 41 percent opposing such a step. As you know, the Arab peace plan is based on an Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

When you read these numbers, dear Salameh, you will do well to remember that most Israelis were either born into the reality of occupation, or came to it. For forty years they have been taught that Jerusalem is a united city that will never be divided. There is even a basic law that requires a special majority of 61 members of parliament to transfer even one Palestinian neighborhood in the eastern part of the city to any foreign entity. For these Israelis, there is no difference between Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel, both on the other side of the Green Line (the 1967 border), and Mevasseret Zion or Kfar Sava, which are located in Israel proper. The Greater Israel vision has been shared by a great part of the public for many years, and appeared as the almost official ideology of most parties until the seventies.

In a survey conducted in February 1968, 91 percent of Israeli Jews thought no territory should be returned at all, or that only a small part of the West Bank should be returned. Eighty-five percent felt this way about Gaza, 93 percent thought so about the Golan Heights and 57 percent about Sinai. Most of those opposed to territorial concessions based their position on the belief in the Jews' exclusive right to this land. Further justifications were "preventing the creation of a Palestinian state" and "maintaining strategic depth for military operations." A minority claimed that the territories should be kept for the purpose of future negotiations.

The renowned Israeli researcher, Professor Asher Arian, found that these numbers remained more or less steady until the 1973 war. The trauma Israel experienced in this war brought about a change of direction, toward greater support for the principle of land for peace. This change gave prime minister Menachem Begin public support for a withdrawal from all of Sinai, in return for peace with Egypt. It provided his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, with initial support for the 1991 peace conference convened in Madrid. Two years later, Yitzhak Rabin enjoyed wide support as he decided to sign the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. The new Kadima party won the 2006 election primarily because of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, led by its founder Ariel Sharon. This is the same stretch of land which 85 percent of Israelis would not have returned to Arab hands 39 years ago.

So far, dear Salameh, this has been the good news. The bad news is that, like Barak's government in 2000, the Israeli government of 2007 has no mandate for reaching an agreement on the basis of the Arab initiative. An overwhelming majority all across the political spectrum - 72 percent of the Jewish public - believes that given the position of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, it cannot enter any negotiations for any kind of comprehensive peace settlement. Formally - that is, in terms of its parliamentary power base - this is one of the strongest governments Israel ever had. But if elections were held today, a great many of its ministers would find themselves, if they are lucky, on the Knesset's back benches.

Given this political situation, what can be done to translate public support for the Arab peace initiative into a parliamentary majority? The only way, I think, is to create a popular peace movement which will sweep not only Israel, but all of this tormented region. A few months ago, King Abdullah of Jordan warned us against the "Shi'ite Crescent" - ranging from Iran to Lebanon - that would engulf the Middle East's pragmatic forces. Why shouldn't people like us, dear Salameh, call for the creation of a "Peace Crescent" - a regional alliance, a European Union of sorts, which would guarantee the safety and welfare of peace-loving Arabs and Jews? We, my friend, must outdo the fanatics.

And finally, dear Salameh, upon the completion of our correspondence, allow me to thank you for the frankness, the intellectual integrity and the courage you evinced in each of your letters. I hope that other Israeli and Arab media will follow in the footsteps of Haaretz and Al Quds and open their gates to journalists and thinkers in an attempt to clarify the disputes and find solutions.

* Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for Haaretz

Dear Akiva,

Let me at first express my sincere admiration for your determination to remain hopeful and optimistic, despite everything. I admit, as you rightly pointed out, that my last letter was "pervaded by pessimism, verging on despair." Perhaps it would have been even easier for me today to prove to you that my pessimism was well-placed, by pointing out the latest round of bloody infighting on the Palestinian side, between Fatah and Hamas, rendering the Palestinians less capable than ever of taking steps toward making peace with their Israeli neighbors. But I've decided to put my pessimism aside and try to see a silver lining in this cloud hanging over the entire Middle East.

For a start, it looks as though regional and international players are more interested in reviving some kind of a peace process, despite the local Palestinian and Israeli protagonists, who are paralyzed by their respective internal political logjams. True, both peoples ultimately want a peaceful coexistence that is based on some kind of perceived fairness and justice, but the leaderships on both sides are divided, paralyzed and not yet ready. But the American administration and its European allies don't seem to be willing to give up. Arab players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have re-launched their drive for a comprehensive peace based on the latest Arab summit's endorsement of the peace initiative originally proposed by Saudi Arabia. Granted, there are also regional saboteurs lurking around the corner, trying to undermine the process.

Take the recent exchange over the Arab peace initiative that took place at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. While Saudi Arabia and Jordan defended the initiative, the Iranians predicted its failure. All of a sudden, the Persians feel that they are entitled to be the guardians of Arab aspirations in Palestine, as well as in Iraq. Here is what Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said of the peace plan that calls for normalized ties between Israel and the Arab world, in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War, including East Jerusalem, and a withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights and some territories in southern Lebanon:

"Despite the good [intentions] on the part of some countries and some parties to protect the rights of Palestinians, we do believe that either due to the plans or due to the other side's approach, all those plans will fail," he said at the conference, as quoted by Haaretz. "If we talk based on realities, I do not see any chance," Mottaki added.

As if prospects for peace need more saboteurs than we already have on the Palestinian and Israeli sides, we now have the Iranians trying to outdo the local rejectionists in their opposition to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. It seems as though Tehran can only thrive on conflict in the region in order to push forward its own agenda aimed at dominating the Arab region. Luckily, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in allowing the regional discourse to be taken over by the radicals, now led by Iran and its allies, including Syria and Hezbollah. But since all politics is ultimately local, the question remains: What can be done in the Israeli and Palestinian camps to move toward a reasonable end to this torment that has plagued so many generations?

I must admit disappointment at the failure of leaders on both sides to take bold steps to shake up the political dynamic. I've been hoping that the leaders of Jordan and Egypt would be less intimidated by the radicals and more willing to go the extra mile for peace by building on the Saudi initiative in a more visible and effective way. I was hoping for Israeli leaders to show willingness to accept the principle of ending the occupation of Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in accordance with the vision of the U.S. President. We need for these leaders to show that they are capable of leading their people rather than remaining hostages of a bitter and desperate public opinion that sees any logical concession as an unacceptable compromise. You and I, my friend, can keep the torch lit, but we need our leaders to show some boldness, a vision that is courageous enough to change the course of history for the better. We must keep the pressure on these leaders to find creative ways to reclaim the initiative from the radicals and the rejectionists. It is their responsibility to lead and it is their place in history they need to think about. Had the peacemakers been half as bold as the saboteurs and nihilists, we would be in a much better place today. Peace needs to have its militant advocates, much as the warmongers have theirs.

As I write these words, dear Akiva, I am saddened that this may be our last exchange. I may not have been the most enthusiastic peace advocate of late, but you have revived my hopes, for which I am grateful. Carry on, my friend. It is people like you who keep people like me hopeful.

Warm Wishes,

Salameh

* Salameh Nematt is a political analyst writing for Al Hayat International Arab newspaper.

This exchange, commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), has been appearing in the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz simultaneously.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 24 May 2007, www.commongroundnews.org, Copyright permission is granted for publication.