Peace Advocates in Egypt Revive Efforts ; after Three Years of Silence, Arab and Israeli Groups Met Again Last Month

Article excerpt

Early last month, William Welles heard that the Israeli ambassador was coming to visit his downtown Cairo art gallery - again. He locked the doors and went to sit in a coffee shop across the street to watch. The last time the Israeli ambassador visited his gallery unannounced in March, Mr. Welles was condemned in the local press.

This time, the ambassador arrived to find a closed gallery.

The incident is one small measure of how politically and socially unacceptable it has become in Egypt to host envoys of the state of Israel. Almost a quarter century after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, sentiments, particularly in the media, still run high against the Jewish state - especially since the beginning of the latest Palestinian intifada in 2000.

Recently, however, Egypt's fledgling peace lobby has begun to rebuild itself after three years of silence. With the unveiling of the Palestinian-Israeli road map for peace, followed by this week's summit in Aqaba, Jordan, some activists see a fresh opportunity for attitudes to change.

A hundred activists, intellectuals, businessmen, and former diplomats from Jordan, Egypt, the occupied territories, and Israel met in Copenhagen, Denmark, last month to revive public dialogue about the Middle East peace process.

Originally founded in 1997, the group first went to Copenhagen in an attempt to set up parallel dialogue outside government peace efforts and show the world and people of the region that there are Arabs and Israelis ready to talk peace. The group's chapters strive in their respective countries to present pro-peace points of view to combat the knee-jerk, angry rhetoric that often dominates public discussions. Through conferences, seminars, and opinion pieces in newspapers they promote the idea that a real peace will be possible one day.

"Just the fact that 100 Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians are getting together to resume contact and declare publicly that we've had enough of the violence is important," says Israeli peace activist and conference attendee Gershon Baskin. "Peacemaking is too important to be left in the hands of politicians." Baskin founded the only joint Israeli-Palestinian public-policy think tank back in 1988 and has long been working on coming up with practical solutions to the conflict.

The delegates used the US-backed road map as a basis for their discussions and talked about how peace could properly be implemented.

"I think this [the road map] is possibly the last chance for peace in the Middle East," says Hisham Kassem, a member of the Egyptian delegation and the publisher of the Cairo Times weekly news magazine. Waiting another year for another peace plan, says Kassem, will be too late at the current pace of settlement building. …