Listening to the people in search for peace

Jason Alexander makes a point at the official launch of the OneVoice peace initiative last week in Petah Tikva. (AP)One Voice, a new grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, was launched last week with high hopes of ushering in a new era …

Jason Alexander makes a point at the official launch of the OneVoice peace initiative last week in Petah Tikva. (AP)One Voice, a new grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, was launched last week with high hopes of ushering in a new era of global conflict resolution. The premise of the plan is simple: ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are being asked to vote on terms of a future agreement.

OneVoice is a public body that was established to formulate a united public voice that will directly influence the decisions being made by leaders in the Middle East – the voice of ‘the frustrated majority of Israelis and Palestinians that would choose co-existence’ over violence and confrontation.

As of this week, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to cast ballots that allow them to present their positions on the key issues of the conflict. From their answers, a synthesized peace proposal will be crafted and then presented to leaders on both sides.

“What we basically are is a democratic process in which we’re going straight to the people and asking them to express themselves,” Daniel Lubetzky, an American businessman who founded OneVoice and serves as its president, told ISRAEL21c.

An electronic polling system especially developed and contributed to OneVoice by IBM is designed to enable the people of the region to express in a personal and direct manner their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The OneVoice referendum will be available to be filled out via the Internet, via remote control on TVs, via telephone, in newspapers and at special voting booths. The results will then be tabulated by a sophisticated computer system with the goal of to produce a mandate intended to reflect the will of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.

At a gala launching last week at IBM Israel headquarters in Petah Tikva, Lubetzky, the Israeli Arab Mideast director of the organization, Mohammed Darawshe, Jim Wehrle, Senior Vice President of the Muhammad Ali Center, and American actor Jason Alexander joined forces with members of the Israeli Knesset from both the right and left, student leaders and community activists to tout the initiative.

Cheerful, articulate and confident, utterly unlike his Seinfeld counterpart George Costanza, Alexander gave an impassioned speech enthusiastically supporting the project.

“Voices have been lost in the bloodshed,” he said. “But the voices are still there.”

Alexander told a room packed with journalists, politicians representing a spectrum of opinion, and high school and university students that “this initiative makes more sense than anything I’ve ever heard in relation to this conflict.”

He said that Israel and Palestine were “two incredible nations with bright possibilities for a future.” Saying that they could represent a great triumph in democracy and nation-building, he said, “if your countries can heal, you will have paved the way for conflicts across the world.”

Lubetsky called the initiative “an opportunity for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to frame for themselves the only viable solution to the situation, one that is developed based on what they – the unheard, silent majority – think should be the basis for resolution.”

Lubetsky said that he hoped this empowerment would help transform Israelis and Palestinians participating in the referendum “from George Costanza to Jason Alexander: from an apathetic, fatalistic and cynical guy to someone hopeful and active, who believes that a cause like this is so important that he is willing to make a long journey and to give of his time and his heart.”

The Ali Center’s Wehrle told ISRAEL21c that the initiative represented a new era in the field of conflict resolution.

“We’ve never seen an effort like this before, where the leaders are being bypassed and the negotiations are going to be conducted by the people themselves. It could provide the paradigm for all future negotiation processes,” he said.
Ali, himself, is an honorary board member of OneVoice.

Alexander added that “if this succeeds, it will become the light for the rest of the world and become the model to resolve future conflicts.”

Alexander learned about One Voice during a meeting with Lubetzky and OneVoice Middle East coordinator Mohammed Darwashe at the home of Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman, who are supporters of One Voice.

Alexander recounted that he had been moved by an anecdote by Darwashe, whose young son had wanted him to play soccer with him while the news was on. “But it’s the same news as yesterday, it’s always the same news,” his son protested, and then asked, “Has it always been this way? Will it always be this way?”

And Darawshe said that he solemnly promised his son that it wouldn’t always be this way, that he had to offer his son hope for the future.

“I have two sons, and as a father, he touched my heart,” said Alexander, saying that this inspired him to sign on to the project and offer his assistance.

He said the OneVoice initiative was special because it involved direct participation by people, not politicians. “You will build this, declare it, take it to your leaders, and if they don?t follow your will, you will replace them,” he told his Israeli audience. “If I didn’t believe you could do it, I wouldn?t be here.”

At last week’s launch, an Israeli student leader, Sagiv Asualin, said the One Voice program differs from the recent Geneva Accord and other peace initiatives because it comes from the grass roots level. “This allows everyone a voice in the debate,” he said.

Unlike in official elections, where the voting age is 18, the One Voice poll is open to everyone over 15. “People of 15 and even younger are being killed on both sides, but nobody asks their opinion,” Darawshe said.

The idea of giving people direct responsibility for resolving their conflict made particular sense to Alexander, he said, as the veteran of a 25-year marriage that had, at one point, “hit a bump” and caused he and his wife to enter counseling.

He learned then that “you can never correct the past and figure out who was right and who was wrong. That’s not important. You can only learn from the past and decide that you want to work together to build a future.”

Israelis and Palestinians, he said, “are in a troubled marriage. There has been a lot of pain, damage and suffering that will never be forgotten or forgiven and any initiative based on the premise that this will happen will fail. But you are two peoples with an incredible chance for a future. Your only future is peace.”

Later, he told ISRAEL21c that “there is really no other outcome. The only possible outcome is peace. All other alternatives are too horrible to think about.”

OneVoice is backed by over 40 mainstream organizations, from the National Israeli Union of Students to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee. Fifty-two global business, religious and community leaders serve on its boards, ranging from Ambassador Thomas Pickering to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Treasury Stuart Eizenstat; from World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman Sr. to American Arab Institute President James Zogby; from Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks to American Sufi Muslim Association Founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Lubetzky and Darwashe told ISRAEL21c that the organization is planning to bring other business delegations and other celebrities to Israel to help promote the project and have established an ‘Entertainment Council’ including Devito, Perlman, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston to help mobilize actors, writers, producers, directors and others to back it.

Israeli board members include Likud Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Mickey Ratzon, Labor MK and former IDF General Matan Vilnai, Meimad MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, Shinui MK Eti Livny, Likud MK Gilad Erdan, Rabbi David Rosen, Ben Gurion University President Avishay Braverman, and a host of foremost business leaders.

Palestinian board members include Dr. Fathi Arafat, the head of the Red Crescent Society (and brother of President Arafat), business leader Yasser Mahmoud Abbas, the Chief Palestinian Islamic Justice Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, Father Attalah Hanna, and Palestinian Minister for Women Affairs Zehira Kamal.

During Alexander’s three-day visit to Israel last week, he, along with Lubetzky, visited Palestinian student leaders and members of the arts community in Ramallah, and met with Israeli actors and students in Tel Aviv. He said he was impressed by how much Israelis are involved in the workings of their country, something that he says is lacking in the U.S.