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Edward Witten for Americans for Peace Now

The renowned physicist and APN Board Member expresses his respect and admiration for the work of APN and Peace Now in an open letter to supporters.

Dear Friend:

I am often asked why I take time away from string theory to support the cause of peace in the Middle East -- a subject in which I have only an amateur passion.

In fact, for over twenty years, peace in the Middle East has been the one political issue to which I direct some of the energies that I might otherwise focus on the quest to understand black holes, the big bang, and the unification of the laws in nature.

Concern for peace in the Middle East seems to me like a corollary of the interest in Israel that I've felt since living there for a year in the 1960's. Indeed, I can scarcely see a viable future for Israel without Israel finding a way -- difficult though it may be -- to compromise with the Palestinians and resolve its conflict with the surrounding Arab states. To me, this seems like it is easily the central issue facing Israel and the Jewish world.

In the last twenty years, we have lived through highs and lows -- from the success of the first Camp David summit to the disappointment of the second, from the hopes of the Oslo Accords to the tragic wave of violence that torpedoed peace negotiations last fall.

We have lived through moments of vision -- as when Sadat came to Jerusalem -- and we have lived through moments of foolishness, when Palestinians or Israelis, or both, were ill-served by their leaders.

Now is surely a painful moment. In the last year, Israel's outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak courageously put on Israel's agenda the issues that must be addressed in order to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Barak's effort has now failed, largely, in my opinion, because of the shortsightedness of the Palestinian leadership, as well as Barak's own shaky political skills.

Nonetheless, Ehud Barak did something important in his efforts at diplomacy. He punctured myths that some of his predecessors had cultivated and others lacked the courage to challenge. The Israeli public was ready to support the compromises that Barak offered on Jerusalem, borders, and Jewish settlements. When the time is right, the path for a future Israeli leader to raise serious discussion of these issues will not be so difficult as it was for Barak. Indeed, the Israeli public will expect it.

Israel's incoming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been a prominent leader of the Israeli right-wing for about a quarter century. The Israeli right-wing has won many elections, but they have not been able to prevail because they lack a program that makes sense.

The traditional program of the Israeli right, in the days before the Oslo Accords, was to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, aiming to keep the West Bank and Gaza as a permanent part of Israel without making any provision at all for civil or political rights of the Arab inhabitants. In effect, they wanted the land without the people.

Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, the leaders of the Israeli right wing who present themselves as "realists'' have advocated that Israel should allow the formation of a Palestinian state in the tiny, fragmented pockets of land that the Palestinians currently control, and concentrate on incorporating the rest into Israel. Their vision of Israel's future is chillingly like the apartheid conception of South Africa, where whites aimed to promote independent black states in isolated parcels of land. Whatever one thinks of the justice of this approach, it just won't work. It isn't a sound basis for Israel's existence in the 21st century. It doesn't offer any way for the Palestinians to wind down their resentment of Israel and concentrate on normal life, even if they want to.

Will Prime Minister Sharon now try to roll back the clock to the days before the Oslo Accords which he opposed so bitterly? Will he, as he hinted in the campaign, govern as a leader of the "realistic'' right that aims to freeze the present problematic map as a final status? Or, finally, will he after all recognize that a new concept is needed and -- like Menahem Begin after Sadat came to Jerusalem or Richard Nixon when he went to China -- offer the Palestinians the sort of compromises that he has always rejected?

We have no way to know what is in store, but it is reasonable to guess that difficult days lie ahead. Ultimately, since neither side has any sensible alternative, I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will settle their differences along roughly the lines that have been discussed in the last year. Until then, much time may be lost and much blood wasted.

In this tough period, as in so many hard times in the past, the voice of the Shalom Achshav or Peace Now movement in Israel, and of its U.S. counterpart, Americans for Peace Now, is badly needed.

Shalom Achshav's Settlement Watch project continues to provide the most accurate, up-to-date information on the heavy price that Israel pays for maintaining settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, Settlement Watch recently launched new aircraft inspection flights over the occupied territories to document the spurt of settlement expansion that began immediately after Ariel Sharon's victory. It is also increasing the number of field workers who track the settlement movement on the ground.

The efforts of the Settlement Watch team have taken on greater urgency with a new Sharon government. While settlement building began under the Labor government of the early 1970's, Ariel Sharon started establishing isolated settlements in areas of dense Palestinian population in the early 1980's. Between 1988-1992, Housing Minister Sharon oversaw an unprecedented construction boom in the settlements. As Netanyahu's Infrastructure Minister, Sharon urged settlers to "seize the hilltops" following the Wye River Agreement in 1998. Subsequently, the settlers established 42 outposts and drastically changed the map of the occupied territories.

It is not surprising, then, that Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the Settlers Council, noted after Sharon's election that "there were a lot of plans frozen by Prime Minister Barak that will hopefully be defrosted."

The situation on the ground is already extremely difficult. Any new construction in settlements is a prescription of more violence. Shalom Achshav's role remains to alert Israelis about such activities and to increase public pressure against settlement construction.

Further, Shalom Achshav's Youth Dialogue Program is still the cornerstone of the organization's efforts to build lasting bridges between the new generation of Israelis and Palestinians. Youth Dialogue brings together different age groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth to have frank discussions about their views, share differences and similarities, create greater understanding and respect for their perspectives, and work on activities together.

The current violence has made travel between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza difficult, if not impossible, for the young people who participate in the Youth Dialogue Program. But even under these trying circumstances, the youth are providing inspiration for everyone who works with them.

Youth Dialogue has been so effective in shaping pro-peace, pro-coexistence attitudes among the young people that they still keep in contact with each other however they can. If not face-to-face, then through telephone calls and emails. Shalom Achshav is certain that when the current cycle of violence fades away-and it will-the Youth Dialogue program will emerge as an important force for moving forward again toward a better future.

Finally, Shalom Achshav is doing more than simply maintaining its established projects.

It recently embarked on a new path to encourage reconciliation between Israeli Arabs and Jews, urging both communities to recognize their mutual interests in working together as Israeli citizens, creating opportunities to explore the reasons behind the recent conflicts inside the Green Line, and joining hands to find ways to address problems that Israeli Arabs have faced for years, such as discrimination and inadequate economic assistance.

Shalom Achshav-working alone and through the umbrella Peace Coalition organization-put together peace tents throughout Israel that served as places for Israeli Arabs and Jews to meet, to discuss, to share concerns, and to enjoy social events. It helped organize a major rally in Haifa that was sponsored by 20 Israeli Jewish and 20 Israeli Arab groups in the spirit of reconciliation. And it put together condolence calls from groups of prominent Israeli authors and academics to Israeli Arab families who lost loved ones in the recent rioting.

In the United States, Americans for Peace Now (APN) continues to be the preeminent voice of pro-peace Jews. As someone who has been on the APN Board of the Directors for the last nine years, I can testify to the fact that the organization has grown into a highly efficient and effective force for peace in Washington's corridors of power and in the American Jewish community.

Americans for Peace Now has become one of the most well respected and sought after sources of information and analysis on what is taking place in the Middle East. Its staff works tirelessly to provide guidance to decision-makers in Congress and the Administration with balanced, fair interpretations of what is often a chaotic and confusing situation in the Middle East.

For the same reasons, major U.S. television networks and newspapers often seek out Americans for Peace Now because it is a well-known and reliable source for pro-peace perspectives.

And APN's Action Network is still the best way for pro-peace grassroots activists to stay informed about developments in the Middle East and Washington and to get guidance on how best to make their opinions known with policy-makers.

For all of these reasons, Shalom Achshav and Americans for Peace Now are more vital today than they have ever been before.

So please take a moment to make a generous contribution to Americans for Peace Now. Approximately 40% of all the dollars that APN raises in the U.S. is sent directly to Shalom Achshav in Israel to assist with its vital work. Further, your donation to APN will allow us to continue the incredible efforts that are being made on behalf of Middle East peace in Washington, D.C. and across the nation.

Join me in helping Israel and her Arab neighbors secure a better future for themselves.

Join me in supporting Americans for Peace Now.


Edward Witten

Edward Witten, professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is considered by many to be the premier theoretical physicist of our time. He is renowned for his many contributions to particle physics and string theory, and is the first and only physicist to be awarded the Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Professor Witten is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has received Honorary Doctorates from Brandeis University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Columbia University. He has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Award for Physical and Mathematical Sciences of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation, and the Fields Medal of the International Union of Mathematicians. He is on the Board of Directors of Americans for Peace Now.