by Shimrit Meir-Gilboa
Special to WJW
About 15 minutes before they were supposed to meet on Tuesday, the prime minister of Israel was informed that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was not coming. Fayyad, despite great pressure, preferred not to be the one photographed shaking hands with Netanyahu - especially not on a day when 1,600 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike.
And this is the most moderate Palestinian leader.
This, in a nutshell, is the face of the public interaction between Israelis and Palestinian nowadays. If you want to have even the slightest chance as a political candidate, you'd better stay away from anything Israeli. Sad, discouraging but reversible.
A year ago, we started an experiment - direct interaction between Israelis and their neighbors.
The short post-Oslo period, when there were countless initiatives that encouraged face-to-face meetings between Israelis and Arabs - especially, but only, Palestinians - is clearly over. But back then journalists, artists, politicians and young, promising leaders were all the target audience of various programs and seminars, aimed to either get to know the "other" or design the new Middle East.
Well, the new Middle East is apparently shaping itself - not quite the way that some of us envisioned back in the 90s, but rather in a way that presents many challenges to Israel, with political Islam emerging as the most influential power of the new era. However, I would like to argue that with every challenge comes an opportunity, an opportunity that must be seized by Israelis and people that care about Israel.
Let's look at the example of Egypt - in the 30 years since the peace treaty was signed, the former Egyptian regime, glorified by many in Israel, blocked almost any form of cultural normalization between the two countries. Moreover, demonizing Israel was the easiest distraction from the real problems in Egyptian society and its political system (Mein Kampf, for example, has been a best-seller in Egypt for years).
More than a year after the beginning of the Arab spring, or "spring" - depending on where you are in the world - one can say with a great deal of confidence that the discourse in the Arab World is changing dramatically, every day. To sum it up in one sentence, it is not all about Israel anymore. Actually, it is not about Israel at all. It is about oppression, democracy, the role of Islam in society, the economy, corruption and a better future. A news bulletin on Al-Jazeera, for instance, that used to have Israel and conflict as the first, second and third items, is now, finally, leading with what's wrong in the viewers' back yard - the ongoing massacre in Syria, presidential elections in Egypt and the new life under an Islamic party in Tunisia.
And so, almost exactly a year ago, we at The Israel Project Arabic Program, identified an opening: having worked closely with the Arabic media and followed the social media trends, we felt it was time to take the initiative - Israelis should start talking directly to Arabs, over the heads of Al-Jazeera's editors in Doha or Al-Quds reporters in Ramallah. We wanted the Israeli narrative to be, at last, unfiltered and clear. We wanted to tell the real story of Israel - the only society in the Middle East where Arabs actually enjoy freedom of speech, where women have equal rights, where Jews, Muslims and Christians can practice their faith and on a more mundane level - where young Arabs can easily become the starts of Israeli reality shows.
This is the story told by Israel Uncensored, a Facebook page, followed by a website, both in Arabic, created in Jerusalem by a team of Arabs and Jews, that has become a fascinating phenomenon on the web, with more than 420,000 "likes" and a monthly reach of about 8 million people, all from Arab countries. Our subscribers can find countless original or translated stories about Israel - from sports to politics, culture to business. We try very hard to find and expose Israeli-Arab role models, men and women who can inspire people in the Arab world.
We found that despite an obsessive curiosity about the issue, Arabs know very little about Israel and the conflict. We are not here to educate, patronize or lecture but rather to show reality's many faces, tell our story and engage in conversation, or chat, for that matter.
The story of Israel Uncensored shows that there's room for talking. That we can no longer rely on the not too hot-not too cold peace designed to keep dictators in their places. In the democratization process that the region is going through, Israel should talk directly to the potential voters. Eventually, they will listen.
Shimrit Meir-Gilboa is director of the Arab Media Program for The Israel Project.