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Tuesday, 29 July 2003

A voice for optimism reborn on Israeli-Palestinian radio

Cease-fire inspires restoration of broadcasts for peace

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Ten years after the maverick Voice of Peace radio station ceased broadcasting from a floating studio "somewhere in the Mediterranean" off the Israeli coastline, a new namesake jointly run by Israelis and Palestinians is gearing up to air its first programs in November.

Much has happened in the intervening decade, during which Israelis and Palestinians soared to new heights of hope for reconciliation through the Oslo peace process only to plunge into an abyss of hatred and war. The peace camp --

particularly in Israel -- has been all but silenced by the violence of the past 33 months.

But with a brittle hudna, or cease-fire, apparently holding and signs of growing cooperation between the governments of Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, people on both sides are daring to believe that they might just be exiting the three-year nightmare.

The resurrection of the Voice of Peace is a powerful public expression of the faith still held by the people who pioneered the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a decade ago that dialogue and mutual generosity can bring about an end to the bloodshed.

The radio station was operated from 1973 to 1993 by Israeli activist Abie Nathan on a vessel known as the Peace Ship. Saddled with a $300,000 debt due to operating costs and declining advertising revenues, Nathan closed down the station in 1993. He had hoped to attract investment to turn the ship into a floating peace museum, but when that did not work out he scuttled it. The Peace Ship lies today at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

But the Voice of Peace is back for a rerun, with an annual budget of nearly half a million dollars, 80 percent financed by the European Union. It is a joint project by Givat Haviva, an Israeli center for Jewish-Arab dialogue, and the Palestinian weekly newspaper the Jerusalem Times.

The station will mainly broadcast music, with three hours of original programming in Arabic, Hebrew and English. It will be managed and run by a joint Israeli-Palestinian staff.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister who was the prime mover of the Oslo Accords, said in an interview that he is optimistic about the chances for peace.

"There is a wind for peace, and it will be very hard for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to escape the wind," Peres said. "They turn their sails, hoping there will be a mild wind, but it will pick up in strength, and it will be very hard for both sides to stop it."

Peres said joint initiatives like the radio station could have a powerful impact in changing perceptions on both sides. The indefatigable politician's Peres Center for Peace has just reached agreement with the Israeli and Palestinian ministries of education to include 15 lectures on peace in next year's high school curriculum.

Peres said the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq on the Middle East had boosted the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The United States, in spite of all the criticism, has gained strength and prestige in the Middle East," he said. "Today, they are the only power in town.

"They are doing a double job -- fighting terror and eliminating the reasons for terror. They want the Palestinians to do their utmost in order to stop terror, and they want the Israelis to do what they can in order to eliminate the reasons for terror."

Hanna Siniora, the Palestinian publisher of the Jerusalem Times and a former PLO representative in Jerusalem, was one of the earliest advocates of dialogue with Israelis. Even the Palestinian extremists who firebombed his car to protest his early peace moves failed to dissuade him.

Siniora said the Voice of Peace would build confidence and hope and "reflect the silent majority in both camps who want to see peace and a political settlement."

"All the polls that have been taken both in Israel and in Palestine have shown that at least 65 percent of the population of both countries actually want peace and want a settlement based on a two-state solution," Siniora said.

"Today we have a new window of opportunity," he said. "We are in a period of a cease-fire and a peace process that up till now, despite the difficulties,

is moving forward."

Gershon Baskin, another veteran of the Middle East peace dialogue, was reached in Antalya, Turkey, where he was hosting a conference of 40 Israeli and Palestinian school principals. Two weeks ago, the co-founder of the Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Co-operation had convened a similar gathering of 100 teachers from both sides.

Baskin said there was no alternative to dialogue.

"I'm always optimistic," he said. "I don't think that one can engage in the kind of work we're doing, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, without having an overall optimism.

"My optimism may be seeded with a kind of apocalyptic kind of fear that if we miss the opportunity for peace we are by our own hands committing suicide as a nation. I think both peoples are."

Baskin added, "I talk to Israelis and Palestinians every day, both common folk and leaders, who are tired of the deadlock, tired of the violence, tired of living without hope. People suffered tremendously over the past 32 months and I think people honestly want to move forward."

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