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Middle east

Syria and Israel talk... on the Internet

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2010-05-27

Israel and Syria have officially been at war since 1948. But for the first time writers from both countries have been able to communicate, through a website set up to find out what each side perceives as the other’s obstacles to peace.

Syrian and Israeli writers and academics have come together in an unprecedented attempt to examine the seemingly intractable issues between two countries on a constant war footing.

The website, online since May 17, gives something that neither side has ever had: a public forum where the frustrations felt by ordinary citizens in both countries are laid bare.

Israelis and Syrians have never had a real opportunity to discuss the obstacles to achieving a lasting peace freely and publicly.

Damascus forbids face-to-face discussions between its people and Israelis.

“Before we can get to finding a solution to the conflict, people need first to understand why negotiations have thus far always failed,” site founder Camille Otrakji, a Syrian-Canadian blogger, tells FRANCE 24.

Obstacles to peace

Central to the content of the site are two lists of 20 perceived obstacles to peace, one from a Syrian point of view, the other from an Israeli one. Each of these obstacles is in turn subjected to counter-arguments from contributors on the other side.

Every argument is carefully balanced to allow concerns to be outlined.

On the Syrian side, arguments include “what was taken by force can only be regained by force” (referring to the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967 and occupied ever since), and the notion that Syrians believe that “Israel cannot survive without a conflict”.

Another example is the Israeli objection that Damascus openly supports terrorist organisations: the site’s writers argue that a Syria is in a much better position to moderate and control organisations that would be more dangerous to regional stability if left to their own devices.

“We wanted to reflect as faithfully as possible the opinions of both populations,” Camille Otrakji says.

An avalanche of reactions

This is not something that was achieved overnight.

“It all started in 2007 with an article by Otrakji that appeared in Haaretz [Israel’s left-leaning daily newspaper] on the 40 years of the Golan Heights’ occupation,” American Joshua Landis, an expert on the Middle East, tells FRANCE 24.

The Haaretz article produced an avalanche of reactions, and bloggers from both countries began to write down their arguments on Landis’ blog “Syria Comment”.

In September 2009, some of these writers decided there was a need to go further.

“Too many of the comments were unusable, almost violent,” says Otrakji. “We needed to organise better the information.”

So sensitive were the issues that the writers – academics, journalists and bloggers – started sharing their views on a private password-protected Web forum.

After eight months, they put together the two lists of 20 obstacles to peace.

“These exchanges were very productive,” says Otrakji. “For the first time Israelis were explaining to Syrians how to communicate with them, and vice versa.”

Putting it all online was no easy task. “Shining a light on such dark issues is not to everyone’s taste,” explains Joshua Landis.

‘Bad Jews’

According to Landis, the Syrians were wary of how their government would react, while many Israelis worried that they would be seen by their own countrymen as being “bad Jews”.

The ten (all exiled) Syrian contributors and ten Israeli writers remain anonymous. Spokespersons such as Camille Otrakji and Yoav Stern, a former Haaretz journalist, have taken it upon themselves to make the initiative known to a wider audience.

“Obviously we’re going to have problems,” explains Landis, who says that Damascus has frequently tried to shut down his blog.

Otrakji adds: “Worst case scenario, the site will be blocked in Syria. But that still leaves us the rest of the world.”

But how far can a website help resolve the Middle East’s seemingly intractable problems?

“If it can even slightly change the mindset of opinion formers, we will have won,” says Otrakji.

Landis is less optimistic: “Where we stand right now, none of this has a real impact on negotiations between the two countries.”

But that is no reason to stand back and do nothing at all.


Date created : 2010-05-27


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