Article By Ehud Tokatly

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The current atmosphere in the Middle East seems almost desperate. Beyond the bloodshed and anguish, many feel that greater powers are playing with our lives, against our best interests and wishes. In Israel, there seems to be a feeling that democratic norms are compromised by the government.

The danger is not only to democracy, but also to the very chance for peace.

Real peace is made between nations, both their leaders and their societies. When leaders sign agreements that are unacceptable to their public, the papers they draft stand little chance of becoming a reality. We all know that peace should be reached through "peace talks". But there are several types of such talks.

1) Political agreements are usually reached through diplomatic negotiations. The basic nature of the negotiating process is confrontational, where each party tries to secure its own interests. This process often creates suspicions and bitterness, instead of producing reconciliation and acceptance. The best result that can be achieved through negotiations is a compromise, which means that both sides are expected to make concessions. The confrontational nature of the negotiations is often projected on the public and makes people feel that their interests have been surrendered to the enemy, not sacrificed for the sake of true peace. A negative public mood can turn the compromise into the cause of the next round of hostilities.

2) Reconciliation and mutual acceptance are the primary goals of dialogue meetings, held at grassroots level. However, these initiatives often involve ordinary citizens who have little influence in their societies, particularly when they come from less democratic cultures. This fact often damages the dialogue itself, when frustrated participants demand of each other quick results: 'First stop terror!' 'First end the occupation!' But even when the meetings are successful, the humble impact they often have on public opinion and the political reality tends to drive many activists to despair.

So it seems that each type of talks is ineffective without the other. Negotiations cannot build trust that is vital for the acceptance of compromise, and dialogues cannot achieve any tangible results that are crucial for alleviating the enmity.

I would like to propose an additional option: Design Assemblies.

The idea is to gather people of all walks of life and present them with the challenge of designing a better socio-political reality. Their task would not be to protect the interests of their own side, nor to learn to respect the needs and feelings of the opposite side, but to approach the entire picture from a designer's perspective, taking into account as many factors as possible and seeking the best solutions for the problems. Although it may be seen as a theoretical exercise, the actual results may prove more effective, maybe even quicker to achieve.

An important condition for the efficiency of the proposed design assemblies is the official support and active participation of influential scholars, experts and political leaders, alongside ordinary citizens. The experts, scholars and politicians should not lead the discussions but supply information and listen to the public. The politicians should try to observe the proceedings and encourage new ideas. Their presence is important for the participants' feeling that the people in power are listening to their ideas and may put them to practice.

If taken seriously, such assemblies may achieve many positive results. Many people who write letters to the newspapers, talk on radio shows, or participate in Internet forums, suggest the most brilliant ideas in many areas. One sometimes feels that both political and academic establishments seem to have lost touch with simple human realities and basic common sense. This is especially evident in the reality of the Middle East, where almost all politicians and analysts have been repeating the same suggestions for half a century. The fact that hardly any of these ideas has ever produced positive results seems to be of no interest to them. Ordinary people, on the other hand, seem to be less confined by ideological dictates or academic methodologies and thus produce original ideas that often make perfect sense.

The proposed method can also enhance a more constructive psychological mode. The shift from directing demands at the rival to a sense of responsibility for all aspects of the conflict, may prove more effective in achieving positive results that would be more readily acceptable to both sides. Even if no major intellectual breakthrough is achieved, the process itself would involve the people in a dynamics of peace.

Moreover, the suggested model is highly likely to improve the democratic qualities of all societies involved. The design assemblies may offer a unique opportunity for reinforcing the contacts between the people and their representatives.

The design assemblies would naturally be most effective if they could include participants from both rival societies, but even if they are held separately by each side, most of the above goals could still be achieved. If wisely combined with diplomatic negotiations and dialogue meetings, the people's design assemblies may contribute to speeding up the process as required by the severity of the crisis.

Ehud Tokatly, 2/December/2004

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