Computer-generated actors, Syrians and Israelis, are coming together in unlikely times of warmongering. They are reopening a dim flashlight of discussions, yet this time on the virtual world of endless possibilities where the invisible hand of censorship cannot reach. They do not need a passport to move around in disguise for secret talks and they believe their story is worth telling.
On the front page of the website, OneMideast.org, you find the Grand Mosque of Damascus, the Carmelite Monastery in Haifa, the Aleppo Synagogue, and the Minaret in the Old City of Jaffa in a choreography of religious and touristic photos reflecting an ideal yet sober initiative launched by ten Syrian expats unrestricted by the official tone in Damascus along with ten Israelis who feels at exile in their own country.
The bipartisan group defines itself as an "online discussion arena intended for raising and debating ideas central to the Arab Israeli peace process" and affirms in a press release that the initiative is "seeking to propose solutions to break the impasse of the stalled peace process" and its role is "facilitating dialogue that would otherwise be impossible through traditional means of communication".
The website unfolds in two parts, Israeli objections to peace with Syria and Syrian objections to peace with Israel, reflecting the popular mood on both sides in a communication exercise that offers a new approach to this conflict instead of the mundane common ground setting at traditional peace conferences. The group has a separate undisclosed online forum for simulation of tactics and ideas to come up with counterarguments that are more complex and touch the core of the conflict.
The demography of the group on the Syrian side are expats from the United States and Canada, who left Syrian at an early age or not even born there, believe in secularism and pluralism, have their own approach to the conflict with Israel and does not bear the ideological burden of the last century. This group's political and social thinking evolved in the West where they interacted with Jewish friends, and they ultimately see peace an avenue to consolidate the idea of the Syrian home and unleash its potentials.
On the Israeli side, there are names like the director of business and economics department at the Peres Center for Peace Yoav Stern along with a group of academics, journalists and former diplomats who have been lobbying Syrians for online peace talks since years.
This online interaction started in June 2007 when Syrian Canadian blogger Camille Otrakji launched an initiative to keep the memory of the Golan Heights in the 40th anniversary of its occupation by Israeli troops, which was covered by Haaretz and prompted a traffic of over 5,000 Israelis on "Creative Syria". Since then, Israeli intellectuals and figures have been attempting to approach Otrakji by email but he replied back by referring them to another site, Syria Comment, run by Joshua Landis. This ended up having a space for Syrians and Israelis to comment, resulting in what could be an indirect public dialogue.
Otraki admits that Syrians expats activity on Syria Comment "pushed the envelope a little" by allowing Israelis to participate on a website widely read by the Syrian government. "I do not know, but I imagine some people in Syria might have been initially uncomfortable with the daily discussions on Syria Comment, but I assume that with time it became clear that there is nothing to worry about".
Otrakji mentions how he was approached over seven times to meet with Israeli figures saying that "I always avoided being is a situation where I would meet Israelis face to face because, although I am a Canadian citizen, it is still considered a controversial thing for a Syrian expat to meet with Israelis". "On the other hand, I never heard anywhere that communicating online was frowned upon... it seemed to be the right communication channel for regular people from two enemy states like Syria and Israel", he added. Otrakji notes that Syria Comment was never banned in Syria despite "all the daring discussions going on for years. There was no special value in meeting face to face with Israelis that justified risking our blog's acceptance in Syria".
The idea for OneMideast.org started in September 2009 with suggesting name of experts on both sides of the aisle to structure the debate on Syria Comment. This ongoing dialogue is run by a group email sent regularly to individual members and all decisions are taken in consultation and roll voting. Later in the project, the door will be open for researchers and journalists to pitch their suggestions and comments to be reviewed and probably posted if it adds value to the debate.
Otrakji talks about attempts to disturb President Barack Obama's decision to engage with Syria and that many sides are invested in throwing accusations on Damascus saying "Syrian officials and diplomats try to respond to the endless accusations but their effectiveness is sometimes limited merely because they represent the official position and not their own, independent, opinions". "I personally hope to be able to convince a number of American Representatives, Think tankers, and journalists covering the Middle East to read our arguments. We also hope a similar acceptance by regular Israelis although the situation these days is not very conducive to constructive communication", he added.
If the Syrian expats' intention is to change Washington views of Damascus, the Israeli group seeks to focus on Israeli public opinion to reinvigorate the peace camp, and the irony here is that the Israeli side of the project could undergo more pressure than the Syrian side, now the story is out, because of the changing dynamic in Israeli politics.
Otrakji says that the experience of the Syrian American businessman Ibrahim Sleiman, who once held secret talks with the former senior diplomat at the Israeli foreign ministry Alon Liel, was on his mind when he embarked on this project adding that the Syrian American businessman "made a mistake. No one, but Syrian officials, should negotiate border or water issues on behalf of Syria". "Some of our team members also were asked in the past if we would be interested in type of peace conferences, but we simply could not see why would we, regular Syrian expats, add any value to diplomatic efforts taking place through the many intermediaries from the United States, Turkey, Europe and elsewhere", he added.
On how the Syrian government would react to this project, Otrakji replied that "we hope that the reaction to this project in Damascus will vary between the neutral and the positive. This project is nothing more than a structured communication exercise that has a limited term. We are not going to negotiate, we are not going to lobby". He affirmed that there is "no serious step" after releasing this website but a more academic one where those arguments and counterarguments will be later tested in university settings in Montreal to see how effective they are.
Joshua Landis, who participates in the project on the Israeli side, argued that Creative Syria and Syria Comment are trying "to express the Syrian reality and the Syrian point of view which are never freely expressed outside Syrian official newspapers". He affirms that "this project has nothing to do with the Syrian government and therefore no one has take responsibility of it". While the Lebanese American blogger Elias Mhanna, who runs Qifa Nabki website, represents his own Lebanese point of view in this complex online discussion. Mhanna talks about a personal rapport that was established over the years between members of the group "even if we never met, there are good intentions between us, we all want a reasonable peace deal".
The main two key points in this groundbreaking project is that those Syrian expats enjoy somehow the trust of the Syrian leadership and this dialogue is not anymore about comments and indirect exchange of ideas, there have been direct communications by email for over a year at least. Both Syrian and Israeli governments could benefit from this project in this ambiguous and tensed period in the Middle East, but the horizon for this initiative is limited before it is even unveiled, its potential to forge a breakthrough is linked to objective factors beyond this communication exercise.