Overcoming Israeli-Palestinian barriers

Friday 04/09/2015

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s presumed public commit­ment to a two-state solution means little unless they begin confidence-building measures.

Even if they negotiate an agree­ment, it will fail unless they first prepare their respective publics psychologically. Failing that only points to their lack of commitment to peaceful coexistence and no one should be fooled by their empty rhetoric. Peace will not be reached without the public’s — both Israeli and Palestinian — support and engagement.

Young Israelis and Palestinians need to see each other through a different lens and adjust psycho­logically to accept that coexist­ence is irrevocable and they must choose to live in violent hostility or in peace.

Contact between the two sides is very limited and does not allow for free social and human interaction to discuss their concerns about one another or share personal experi­ences that bring people together.

Anyone familiar with the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians will tell you that stereotyping, mu­tual lack of trust and animosity are common. The Palestinians view the Israelis as cruel, uncaring and bent on denying them a state of their own; the Israelis see the Palestin­ians as terrorists determined to wipe Israel off the map.

This is what the leadership on both sides has deliberately and habitually propagated over the decades.

This is what has become in­grained in the psyche of the public.

There are many measures both sides must take to mitigate psy­chological impediments that have separated their publics for decades. If the leadership truly believes that they must reach a peace accord before they encourage and institute reconciliatory public measures, they are disingenuous and danger­ously misguided.

The Israeli and the Palestinian governments and civil society can play a constructive role in reshap­ing public opinion, including:

• Modify textbooks to more accurately reflect the historic nar­rative, recognising the existence and rights of each other. Both sides ought to amend their curricula regarding the existence of the other. As long as their historic and religious claims to the same land remain set in stone, little progress can be made.

•Mutual tourism: Israelis and Palestinians should be able to cross security checkpoints in both directions to enjoy each other’s social settings — eat in restaurants, roam marketplaces and experience firsthand how the other is living.

• Joint sports activities: Israeli and Palestinian football, basketball and other sports teams, such as the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Team, can meet to train, compete and develop camaraderie. This should include national and professional teams, which implies recognition of sovereignty.

In other areas of interaction, the governments can facilitate joint activities between the civil society and the private sectors, including:

• Student interaction: Young Israelis and Palestinians must be encouraged to mingle and talk about their aspirations and hopes to be free and unburdened by un­certainty and perpetual conflict.

• 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 work reflects their lives. The governments should fund joint exhibitions and allow them to tour cities and expose the young and old to see and feel what the other is trying to express through their art.

• Public discourse: Universities, think-tanks and other learning in­stitutions should encourage Israelis and Palestinians to participate in discussions and public lectures on coexistence to make it not only inevitable but desirable.

• Establish forums consisting of individuals with varied aca­demic and personal experiences who enjoy respect in their field, are independent thinkers, hold no formal position in government and have thorough knowledge of the conflicting issues.

• Israeli and Palestinian media should regularly report on positive developments between the two sides, share with the public chang­ing political winds and discuss how cooperation on trade, security and health care benefits ordinary citizens.

This should include the produc­tion of movies, television shows and plays (including comedies) to reflect how much they have in common and their mutual cul­tural influence in food, music and interchangeable Arabic and Hebrew words and jargon.

• Female activism: Civil society should support efforts by groups such as Women in Black and Women Wage Peace to use their formidable power and make their voices heard.

These activities and more must constitute the forerunner of any peace negotiations. Indeed, even if, at present, peace negotiations are not in the offing, given that coexistence is an irrefutable fact, Israeli and Palestinian govern­ments and civil society must begin a process of reconciliation to create momentum for future talks.

None of this will occur without some hurdles, resistance and even outright acts of sabotage as there still is a significant constituency on both sides that simply does not accept each other’s right for state­hood or even to exist. They can be overcome through persistent implementation of these measures.