Friday, March 30, 2012

Can Citizen Diplomacy Save Israel and Iran from War?

By Sally Mouakkad

Photo Credit: IBI Times as obtained from www.IsraelLovesIran.com

Could grassroots efforts for quelling the drums of war, from the citizens of Israel and Iran, lay down the foundation for tolerance between their countries? Or have Israeli-Iranian relations been too long plagued with tensions, uncertainty, and the lack of trust for citizen diplomacy to actually make any difference?


Whether in class or in conversations between colleagues, most of the time, when the topic of Israeli-Iranian relations (or the lack thereof) comes up, emotions are easy to flare. This is without a doubt understandable, as an escalation in the tension in relations between the two countries has time and again led to talks of war. And not just any kind of war, but even the possibility of a nuclear war. Whether affected by a potential war between Israel and Iran as an Iranian, Israeli, American or even just a global citizen, military strikes or engaging in a full war against Iran for its involvement with nuclear material and nuclear weapons, which it may or may not already possess (depending on who you hear it from), is not the first choice of action for most people, although it is looking to be a serious choice for Israel. Naturally, each nation would want to place its own interests and security at the forefront of its policy and actions and would want to protect them if they are facing a threat. Sometimes though, the policies or actions that a country might be most interested in pursuing and what its citizens (or a portion of its citizens) might be interested in their country pursuing might not always be in line with each other. This is where citizen activism and citizen diplomacy can come into play.

According to the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy:



“Citizen Diplomacy is the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations 'one handshake at a time.' Citizen diplomats can be students, teachers, athletes, artists, business people, humanitarians, adventurers, or tourists. They are motivated by a responsibility to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue.”


The power of citizen diplomacy, which is also referred to as Track II Diplomacy, is not to be underestimated. Extraordinary measures can be reached when ordinary citizens are able to organize at a grassroots level to participate in integral and meaningful dialogue in a respectful manner to benefit their communities, societies, countries, and the world around them. For example, in Muscat, Oman last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton stated that as citizens, women could play a major role in “convincing Mideast leaders to agree to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal.” She cited the Northern Ireland conflict and how women contributed to the resolution reached, stating that together women can “press government and leaders to make the necessary decisions that will lead to sustainable peace."1

Citizen diplomacy can be just as important as traditional diplomacy (bilateral or multilateral relations). When informed citizens come together to tackle any issue they are facing, they can make just as big of a difference as when countries come together to discuss an issue they might not see eye-to-eye on, or to strengthen their relations and ties on issues they do agree on. While bureaucracy can slow down political and diplomatic processes pursued by governments (for better or worse), citizens may not be as impacted by bureaucracy or faced with pressure from factions or political factors. It is undoubtedly more difficult for citizen diplomacy to make a difference when some kind of action, like the creation or signing of a treaty or ceasefire, is needed and if the government’s staunch stance on the issue is not necessarily agreeable with that of the citizens.

Just because something is difficult does not mean that it is not worth achieving or that it is not important to achieve. Disagreeing with the talks of war with Iran, Israeli citizen Ronny Edry decided to start a campaign called “Israel Loves Iran.” This initiative is a really simple one but sometimes it is a small, simple, and approachable idea that is able to better spread like wildfire globally across the Internet, this time with a message of peace. Edry created a simple poster and YouTube video as a message to Iranians that Israelis like him do not agree with their leaders who are calling for war against Iran.2 He mentions that he hasn’t met any Iranians really, just one in a museum in Paris once.


The posters of which thousands (not all Israelis and Iranians) have already replicated with their own photos state: “Iranians We Love You. We do not want to bomb your country.” Although there is no way to measure the true reach of this initiative in Iran versus just its reach of ex-pats, the campaign has reached Iranians and they have been replying with their own messages of peace towards Israelis. Iranian supporters have been responding with messages like: “We Love You Israeli People. The Iranian people do not want any war with any country.”

This campaign has been met with support and controversy all in the same. Can citizens with messages of peace towards one another really make a difference in being able to stop political tensions between Israel and Iran from reaching a boiling point? This campaign, which connects Iranians and Israelis with one another through citizen diplomacy, creating a personal context to a possible war, could potentially give citizens the motivation and inspiration to lobby their leaders against a war. But what happens if the leaders on either side act irrationally, having their actions match their words? Will citizen diplomacy work then? Even if this effort cannot stop the governments of Iran and Israel from acting aggressively against one another, whether offensively or defensively, citizen efforts for diplomatic solutions are still well worth the effort.

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