Illusions of Building Peace from the Middle

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December 1, 2000
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Judith Green

Last night I attended, reluctantly, the official gathering at “Rabin Plaza” in Tel Aviv in commemoration of the 5th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, at which I had also been present. I don’t really enjoy the sentimental Israeli ballads that are the main programming at such events – not just because I didn’t grow up on such music, but because of a growing mistrust, distaste even, for the current language of “peace-building” and its aura of spirituality, love, and longing.

Even the Meretz Party stickers distributed during the evening – “Peace: Our Hope Is Not Yet Lost” – seem unbearably saccharine in the present environment. Since the outbreak of the Intifada in 1988, I have devoted much time to joint political activity with Palestinian and Israeli colleagues in what has now developed into an academic field of studies called dialogue and conflict resolution/transformation. We believed that persistent grassroots political work could affect public opinion among our peoples and that this would shorten the route to a negotiated treaty between Israel and Palestine, with optimum results for all. We failed. Although we understood, as Rabin did by l993, that military contests did not provide a solution for either side, I now question whether the current enthusiasm for dialogue and conflict resolution will prove more effective at the public level, at least in the Middle East.

Our activities assumed rationality, verbal dexterity, and an intense loyalty to concepts and moral principles superseding that given to nationality and ethno-religious identity. Dialogue group participants, although numbering in the thousands, came primarily from the social stratum of the educated middle class: community activists and professionals who generally disclaim personal “political” aspirations. This disdain for conventional political affiliation may have been fatal to the process.

Personally, the experience was both fascinating and educational. However, our assumption that our own social stratum had any particular influence on society was a delusion (common to the middle class). Indeed, in Palestine, the relatively high socioeconomic status of those active in peace and coexistence activities only aroused jealousy and suspicion among the people. If our group called itself “grassroots,” then who are the people now engaged in violent conflict on the streets, in the settlements, and in the fields of the West Bank and Gaza? What are they saying? Should we dismiss their hostile slogans as meaningless and blithely continue our peace-building acts, “coexistence” activities, and semi-religious rituals?

In addition to the hostile voices and bullets now resounding in the streets, I have also been listening carefully for the past two years to a change in the Palestinian voice. During the Intifada, the Israeli left was activated by the “peaceful” message of the new (1987) PLO platform calling for “Two States for Two Peoples,” which eventually led to mutual recognition in the Oslo Agreements. It seemed as though the Occupation and its disastrous effect on human rights was the issue and withdrawal to the 1967 borders would be the solution. The key issue of the Palestinian refugees was almost never raised. And yet now when I examine the Palestinian statements and petitions circulating, there is much less talk about coexistence with Israel and a two-state option, and much more emphasis on the “50-year suffering of the Palestinian people” and the right of return. Where are the operative plans for absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees within the future Palestinian State?

While the Israeli peace camp is still talking to itself about the “end of the conflict,” economic cooperation, and coexistence, its Palestinian partners have moved on, or moved back, to the unresolved issues of 1947. No dialogue will ever convince the Jewish people that this insistence on the right of return is not a weapon aimed against the State of Israel; that we have plenty of room to absorb an unspecified number of hostile Palestinian refugees within our society.

Our work has provided unforgettable memories – moments of “being at peace” together and indestructible friendships that cross the borders. This is an accomplishment – for me, one of the most important in my life. Nevertheless, at this moment I can’t quite decide whether our failure was due to problems of scale and timing or an essential misreading of the political and military mechanisms of societies in conflict. In fact, the same question could be asked of the Oslo Agreements.

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Judith Green is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Archeology and a Lecturer at the School for Overseas Students of the Hebrew University. She is a Board Member of the Jerusalem Information Center and the Rapprochement Dialogue Center.

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