If there was even a small chance of success in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, they would have to be based on three fundamental tenets. First, they must come to an agreement on the critical issue of borders, delink it from other difficult conflicting issues (e.g. Jerusalem and the refugees), and remain committed to it, rather than aiming for achieving a comprehensive peace which is not attainable at this juncture. Second, the US should remain resilient, advance ideas of its own, and use its leverage on both sides to keep them on track. Finally, trust must be cultivated between Israelis and Palestinians through people-to-people interactions, which is the subject of this article.
Repeated polls suggest that a clear majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace. Now that formal negotiations have started, they must no longer remain complacent. It is up to them to initiate people-to-people interactions that must occur concurrently with the peace talks.
This is the only way to build trust between the two sides and allow them, over time, to see each other in a starkly different and positive light, instead of the prevailing sense of empowerment the Israelis enjoy and defeatism from which the Palestinians suffer.
The following points are not revolutionary ideas. Some of these measures have been taken in the past and are still being pursued today, albeit on a smaller scale. However, they have not been employed in a cohesive, purposeful and consistent manner to instill a different set of values that would nurture trust.
First, mutual visitation: The public must demand that their respective authorities allow them to visit each other with ease. Concerns over security can certainly be mitigated; Israel is in a perfect position to institute background security checks in advance and prevent the infiltration of Islamic radicals and weapons.
Security at the border crossing can be made along the lines of security procedures in airports that are both quick and thorough. It is hard to exaggerate the value of such mutual visits when ordinary people meet, share experiences and get a real sense of each other’s humanity.
Second, female activism: Israeli and Palestinian women, who are doubly affected by the unending conflict, should use their formidable power to demand an end to the conflict.
They can insist that their respective governments facilitate the gathering of Israeli and Palestinian women, allowing them to share both the pain and agony of the past and the prospects for a better future.
Women have far greater sway than men if they join hands, go out in force and remain consistent with the message to cease all forms of violence and gradually bring the occupation to an end. The role of women in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland and throughout the wars in the Balkans offer a vivid picture of how women can impact the course of events.
Third, joint sporting events: Israeli and Palestinian football, basketball, and other sports teams can meet alternately in Israel and Palestine to train, compete, and develop camaraderie.
The Palestinians will realize that not every Israeli carries a gun and is ready to shoot at Palestinians, and the Israelis will also see the human face of the Palestinians and stop equating Palestinian youth to terrorists.
Fourth, student interaction: It is time for Palestinian students (primary and secondary schools and universities) to mingle with their counterparts and for the Israeli students to look into the eyes of their peers and talk about their aspirations and hopes for the future, free of daily trepidations and fear.
No Israeli or Palestinian child should continue to be fed with poisonous ideas and denial of the other. On the contrary, students should be encouraged to use the latest social technology to communicate with each other, share stories and experiences, and play games.
The future of the Israelis and Palestinians rests in the hands of these youth. What they learn today will either come back to haunt their societies or usher in a future of peace and promise.
Fifth, art exhibitions: There are scores of Israeli and Palestinian artists who have never met or delved into each other’s mindset to see how their works reflect their lives.
Joint exhibitions should take place both in Israel and Palestine, touring several cities to allow people young and old to see and feel what the other is trying to express. These cultural exchanges can expand to include music festivals, theater performances, and other forms of art.
Sixth, public discourse: Universities, think tanks and other learning institutions should encourage Israelis and Palestinians to participate in roundtable discussions on the inevitability of coexistence and how both sides can remove the barriers to make it desirable.
The academic community can play a pivotal role in changing public perception. Such small enclaves can be videotaped and disseminated through online media to hundreds of thousands of people instantly. The words “the inevitability of coexistence” must become a household phrase for all to embrace.
Seventh, forums to discuss conflicting issues: Joint forums should be established, consisting of qualified individuals with varied academic and personal experiences who enjoy respect in their field, are independent thinkers, holding no formal position in their respective governments and have thorough knowledge of the conflicting issues.
For example, in addressing the future of Jerusalem, the participants should especially include religious scholars, imams, rabbis and priests representing the three major monotheistic religions, and historians.
Even though Jerusalem may well become the capital of two states, debating other possibilities is critical if for no other reason but to demonstrate why other options may or may not work.
Eighth, changing public discourse: Israeli and Palestinian officials also have a very important role to play by changing their narrative about the conflicting issues. Now that the negotiations have resumed, it is incumbent on both sides to maintain a positive and optimistic public posture.
Regardless of whether these negotiations succeed or fail, Israelis and Palestinians will sooner or later face each other at the negotiating table. The less acrimonious atmosphere they create now, the easier it will be to meet again and continue with the building blocks for durable peace.
Ninth, the role of the media: Israeli and Palestinian media should begin to report on positive developments between the two sides to inform the people that the bilateral relations are not all sad and gloomy. For example, they can discuss ongoing trade, security and health care cooperation, Palestinians studying in Israeli universities, etc.
In this sense, the role of the media becomes critical to disseminate information about the need for public-to-public interaction. The media should publicize these events as they occur and columnists and commentators should encourage more such activities.
The media can play a pivotal role in shaping bilateral Israeli-Palestinians relations, emphasizing the fact that there are two peoples living side-by-side for eternity and that cooperation between the two is imperative to their welfare and future well-being.
The aspiration of Israelis and Palestinians for peace is real and realizable. Their leaders have been deaf and failed time and again to answer the public’s call. It is now the responsibility of the public to take charge and show the leaders the road to peace.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
[email protected] Web: www.alonben-meir.com
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