From the dark depths of the Cold War at the end of the 1950s and well into the early ‘60s, when the world witnessed the Cuban missile crisis and the possibility of nuclear war, responsible people from civil society in both the United States and Soviet Union decided to open a dialogue. Led by physicists and other scientists and intellectuals, discreet, closedroom talks took place in third countries. Many of the participants had the ears of decision makers in their respective countries.
Those talks paved the way for formal direct negotiations between archenemies and led to the signing of arms control and disarmament treaties. Nonetheless, some people in the establishments and societies of each side perceived even talking with the enemy as treason. Eventually, both governments formally supported and even adopted the process and the government of Finland took a direct role in advancing agreements through what became the Helsinki Process.
Similar informal and unofficial meetings took place for years before the formal and official representatives of the government of Israel and the PLO met and began a peace process. I myself initiated and participated in hundreds of meetings with Palestinians and other Arabs long before any formal discussions took place. I have also met Iranians from civil society, the Iranian government and even the Iranian military at conferences that I participated in over the past decades in Europe, Turkey and even Bahrain. I have tried to initiate a process of direct dialogue between Israelis and Iranians, so far without success. The problem has been mostly potential Iranian participants’ fear of their own government. Until now, Turkey seemed the ideal place for Israelis and Iranians to meet as it is the only country in the world that has no visa requirement for either.
In the past several years, and especially the past several months, the public rhetoric of the governments of Israel and Iran has reached levels which are simply dangerous and could spark an unwanted and unwarranted war.
It seems that the rhetoric has also had a direct impact on civil society and public opinion in both countries. Recently the proxy wars being fought by Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased tensions in the region leading to other states in the region taking sides and declaring their allegiances. Israel is of course on the Saudi side against Iran. The Palestinians are in a more difficult position. While officially they support their Sunni brothers in Saudi Arabia, Hamas has long held allegiances to Iran. The Russian backing of Iran in the war in Syria has also complicated the regional balance and this has led to direct confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria.
Despite all this, I have always believed that a majority of Iranians do not support the extreme anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric of their regime. It has been believed by Iran experts and analysts, and supported by what I have heard directly from the Iranians, that a majority of Iranians would like to break free from the conservative Islamic regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The extreme anti-Iran rhetoric coming from the government of Israel does not help to support moderation in Iran, neither does the anti-Israel rhetoric coming out of Iran. The rhetoric of both sides reinforces fear and hatred in both societies against the other which provides the grounds on which governments wishing to wage war justify their crusades.
Israel will not destroy Iran and Iran will not destroy Israel, and in a sane world both sides would understand that there is no real basis for conflict. Yet the potential for significant damage on both sides is extremely high. In the past Iran and Israel had a very positive relationship, expressed by three flights every week between Tel Aviv and Tehran by El Al, and Israelis even built the Tehran international airport, among other investments, including the purchasing and shipping of Iranian oil to Israel. The Iranians that I have met at conferences in the past year were very open about the possible benefits for both Israel and Iran from diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Change comes from people working on fostering it. There must be a channel for secret, closed-room dialogue between Israelis and Iranians. I know that there are Iranian citizens not from the Iranian military or intelligence services that follow Israel’s media. I am hoping that this column will be read by more people in Iran. I have been told by some Iranians that they read my column. If there are Iranian citizens in Iran who do read this, I hope that I have sparked some interest in opening a dialogue.
I hope that they contact me – I am easy enough to locate on social media – I call on you to take the step and reach out. I have decades of experiences in opening up back channels. We citizens of Israel and you citizens of Iran need to look forward and understand that war between our two countries would be devastating and extremely costly in human lives. We need to prevent our leaders from walking down that path. We, the citizens of Iran and Israel, must take the initiative to talk, to meet, to reason and to influence. That is the challenge facing Israeli and Iranian civil society.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (www.ipcri.org). His new book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.