The September 2014 issue of Harper’s carried a fascinating dialogue among eight prominent Israeli and Palestinian citizens on the future of their relationship. It took place against the background of the Gaza war, but tried hard (not always successfully) to be forward-looking. I thought that a summary of the principal observations, at least as I view them, would be of interest.
- “We live so close to each other, yet we know so little about each other.”
- There was a time not so long ago when Palestinians had freedom of movement, without checkpoints.
- Economic, social, and other Israeli concessions divorced from steps to end the occupation will never be accepted by the Palestinians. Unless the occupation ends, either another round of armed struggle will occur or Islamists will become dominant among the Palestinian population, which would mean an even more violent future and an end to talk of a two-state solution.
- As of November 2012, by vote in the UN General Assembly, a Palestinian state has international recognition. Now it is up to the state of Israel to abide by the will of most of the world’s governments.
- Israeli Arabs may be a bridge to a new stage in relations. Their status and living standards must be improved, however.
- Israel’s rightward shift under Netanyahu, making it an ethno-religious (“Jewish”) state, not only limits peacemaking opportunities with the Palestinians; it also is alienating many Israelis and forcing them to consider emigrating.
- Joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, such as development of Gaza’s gas fields and establishment of industrial and high-tech zones, should be an important component of promoting mutual understanding. (As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, the key to a nonviolent future is “relationships of trust that create healthy interdependencies.” Water is a particularly crucial subject for cooperation. Friedman cites EcoPeace Middle East, a group that is addressing water quality and international cooperation to keep a common waterway, the Jordan River, clean (nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/thomas-l-friedman-the-last-train.html). There are plenty of other joint projects, but we rarely hear of them.
- Israelis and Palestinians cannot get past the divide between (as one participant put it) the important and the attainable. “The important” is ending the occupation: “Simply put,” said a Palestinian industrialist and former office holder, “for almost half a century we Palestinians have been living in a big prison. . . . One and a half million people locked in an area of 365 square kilometers.” “The attainable” is relaxing restrictions on movement and seriously addressing Palestinian apartheid—the intolerable living and working conditions in Gaza. (One recommended resource among several: Gideon Levy’s The Punishment of Gaza.)
- The United States, despite its lengthy diplomatic involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its major aid programs to both sides (though obviously lopsided in Israel’s favor), has not been especially helpful or even well-informed in bringing the two sides together. The US has failed to use the leverage it possesses, either with Israel to enforce a two-state solution or with Palestine to enforce recognition of and security assurances to Israel.
As I have proposed in previous posts on this issue (see #13, 14, 34), the human interest lies in cooperative security: joint Israeli-Palestinian recognition of their common right to the land; dramatic improvement in Palestinians’ quality of life; demilitarization of relations, and a shift of funding from weapons to programs and projects that promote Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and mutual understanding of their common future (see, for instance, activities under the Geneva Initiative at www.geneva-accord.org); and US support of these principles without constant deference to the position of either the Israeli government or its American backers.