Diagnosing The Conflict
Leading thinkers discuss the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what might be next for the peace process
Every now and then experts are asked to sketch the outlines of a conflict that seems interminable and intractable. The Palestinians and Israelis have now been at loggerheads ever since the mid-20th century. And while the conflict may have been easier to understand in the past—its core issues, the mindset of each side, major obstacles to peace—some observers believe that it has now become enveloped in a cloud of confusion, one that may reflect a broader Zeitgeist of angst and uncertainty.
Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian thinker and former president of Al-Quds University, told The Media Line that in the past the conflict indeed seemed easier to grasp.
“There was a path that people thought they were on and perhaps that made them think they could see the end of it. But there is no path now, especially an institutionalized path, and therefore you can’t really tell where we are heading,” he contended.
With respect to possible solutions, Nusseibeh elaborated, there are many imagined possibilities, from a federation of semi-autonomous Palestinian entities; to the formation of a Palestinian confederation with Egypt or Jordan; to the two-state or even a multiple-state solution.
Regardless of whatever scenario might emerge, “we can take the following as a basic guideline or principle: We are together,” he stressed. “There are over 800,000 Israeli Jews on the other side of the [1967 borders in the West Bank], and over a million Palestinians on the other side who are Israeli citizens. However you look at it, Israelis and Palestinians have to be integral to one another.
“At the moment,” he continued, “they are not intermingling in a good way as one side—the Palestinian side—faces a clearly unjust and unbalanced situation. But people on both sides, not necessarily the governments, wish to reach peace and stability. This is an important factor that will influence how the future unfolds.”
When asked about U.S. President Donald Trump’s role, Nusseibeh noted that Palestinians view him with “trepidation because he doesn’t seem to do the things that people assume presidents do.” In this respect, the U.S. administration took bold decisions that have pushed two “taboo” issues to the forefront of people’s perceptions, namely the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
“Now whether having pushed them up front is going to help resolve them or not, will be something to find out,” he concluded.
Micah Goodman, author of the Israeli bestseller Catch 67—which will be published in English in September—told The Media Line that the mainstream populations on both sides have “lost their political certainty.
“Within the Palestinian community, there is a strong sense that the two dominant paradigms have failed. The paradigm of using violence has collapsed, but also the paradigm of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] of non-violence and international pressure has also not worked for the Palestinians.
“The Israelis are also perplexed,” Goodman related. “Most of them believe that if we stay in the West Bank, we are risking our future, and if we leave the West Bank, we are likewise risking our future.”
This loss of certainty, he explained, presents an opportunity to start listening to each other. On the Israeli side, it is a chance for the Right and Left to exchange views and begin to reconstruct a dialogue.
“But this is not happening,” Goodman asserted. “What has happened is that a new conversation is taking place on a new medium, namely the Internet.” Citing the theories of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor who examined the role of media in modern culture, he explained that we have a naïve understanding of how messaging and online media work, a problem that is exacerbated in a conflict zone.
“It is no longer the message that shapes a neutral medium, as many people used to think. Rather, it’s the ‘medium that shapes the message.’ Take, for example, a post on Facebook that is nuanced and considers reservations and counter-arguments. It won’t get that far. But take the same idea, peel off the arguments and strip it of nuance, add only convictions, and start it with a personal experience and end it with a personal attack. That post will do very well.
“And as a result,” Goodman concluded, “you would expect that because the conflict’s classic paradigms are collapsing, there is room for new conversation, but that conversation is also collapsing on social media.” Accordingly, instead of a “battle of ideas” in which both the Israeli Right and Left consider and evaluate the ideas of the other side, society has devolved into a “battle of tribes.”
“We don’t use politics to express policies anymore,” he stressed. “Instead, we use politics to express who we are—it’s a politics of identities.”
We would be wise, therefore, to place renewed emphasis on ideas at the center of debate.
Recently, the American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest Jewish advocacy organizations, held a conference in Jerusalem, which included a panel titled, “Twenty-Five Years Since Oslo: What’s Next for the Peace Process?”
Its organizers noted that the 1993 Oslo Accords heightened expectations for “a step-by-step road to peace.” The Accords were capped off by a ceremony on the White House lawn. Former Palestinian chief Yassir Arafat and then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands, as past U.S. president Bill Clinton looked on. What ensued, however, “has been a deeply disappointing series of failed negotiations, inflammatory threats, heated rhetoric, terror and violence,” according to Goodman. “Since then, peace has remained elusive.”
To understand why the Oslo process did not live up to its promise and to probe how peace talks might be revived, the conference assembled international diplomats intimately involved in previous negotiations.
Tal Becker, a legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke at length about the psychology behind the present deadlock.
“It is not so much how you produce change, but how you regenerate a belief in the possibility of change, as both societies seem to be pretty convinced that this conflict is a permanent part of the landscape.”
He explained that in terms of solutions there are only so many possible permutations and configurations, many of which have already been exhausted. The need now is to touch on deeper issues.
“When you look at the psychological mindset of each society, then you have a completely different set of challenges.” For example, Becker opined, from the Palestinian perspective, “it doesn’t seem possible to spend so much energy, time and money demonizing Israel and then say you want to make an agreement with Israel. The public feels like that’s not a viable and authentic Palestinian move. On the Israeli side, if our preoccupation and sense is that our legitimacy is not acceptable to the other side, then how can we easily grant more power and opportunity to those we see as denying our legitimacy?”
The challenge, then, is to push both societies to gain a sense of what it is like to be an Israeli Jew or a Palestinian. “That enables space for the success and welfare of the other side to be success story for you too, and not a liability,” Becker concluded.
Other participants included Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process; Fernando Gentilini, the European Union’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process; and Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
They touched on several themes, including a process of imminent transition in the Palestinian Authority as Abbas grows older; Israel’s convergence of interests with Sunni Arab countries as a deterrence to Iran’s ambitions in the region; and President Trump’s willingness to enact far-reaching policies.
Ross, who also served as U.S. special Middle East coordinator under Clinton, said that “one of the challenges of America is to restore a sense of possibility.”
There is great disbelief on both sides, Ross noted, as neither side believes in a two-state outcome. “Yet the concept of two-states for two peoples has always been the only one that really makes sense; one state for two peoples is a prescription for an enduring conflict.”
Both Ross and Mladenov argued that attention must be focused on changing the realities in the Gaza Strip. “We cannot have a situation where there is four hours of electricity per day, 96 percent of the drinking water is undrinkable, and untreated sewage is allowed to flow into the Mediterranean.
“When people have nothing to lose,” Ross added, “the potential for an explosion is very high.” Echoing that sentiment, Mladenov stressed that “avoiding another war in Gaza means acting now, today, before it explodes.”
Both diplomats agreed that by dealing first and foremost with the dire situation in Gaza, a context for a peace plan could emerge.