It is with regret that I recently read about the closing of the Bitterlemons website dedicated to bringing Israeli and Palestinian voices together. Run for over a decade by Yossi Alpher and Ghasan Khatib, the site was produced on a weekly basis. Each issue focused on a single topic relevant to the Israel-Palestine conflict, around which there were four short essays – two from Israelis (including Alpher) and two from Palestinians (including Khatib). There was no artificial attempt to create a single joint narrative but rather, alternative narratives were presented side by side, and the reader could make up his/her own mind.
Over time, the site and its readership expanded to include a large international audience.
But times being what they are, Bitterlemons, like the peace process itself, has disbanded. The many international organizations which have traditionally funded Israeli-Palestinian cooperative projects, Track II discussions and other pro-peace activities have ceased writing the cheques. This is partially because of world economic recession, but equally because they are concluding that 20 years after the Madrid conference and the Oslo Agreements, peace is about as far away as it ever has been, and given the nature of the two governments today, there is little optimism that anything significant will be renewed in the short term future.
There is no dialogue between the Netanyhau and Abbas administrations, and there is absolutely no desire on the part of either side to move beyond the limited agreements of the past and to make the real hard concessions which will be necessary for any meaningful agreement ever to be reached.
And each side believes time is on its side. The Palestinians believe that the slow, but uni-directional, support of the international community for an independent Palestinian state will eventually bring about much tougher action against Israel, even by most of its friends, with the single possible exception of the US, which will force it into action.
The Israeli government believes the continuation of the existing status quo enables Israel to strengthen its position, not only through the continuation of its settlement policy in the West Bank, but equally through the strengthening of Israel’s military and economic structures, enabling it to face any future crisis from a position of even greater strength.
Neither Netanyahu or Abbas are prepared to face the wrath of large sections of their own domestic constituencies for the concessions which will have to be made, and which could ostensibly get out of hand, leading to internal discord and civil violence, and the replacement of the existing administrations with alternative, more radical and reactionary governments.
For the large majority of Israelis, the occupation is hardly a reality any more. The security barrier has created an entirely invisible West Bank, except for those few who live in the region or travel therein. Tel Aviv and Herzliya may be no more than a 20-minute drive from the West Bank, but it is as if it were non-existent, just something written about in the newspapers and occasionally seen on the evening news programs.
No longer are there Palestinian waiters in the restaurants, Palestinian cleaners on the roads, or Palestinian construction workers at the building sites. In the name of increased security, Palestinians have been completely shut out of the Israeli living space, replaced by foreign workers, and as long as there is no terrorism or suicide bombers, the majority of Israelis – from the far Right and through to the moderate Left, are more than happy to allow the existing situation to continue.
If at least there remains a limited Israeli-Palestinian dialogue which takes place at the level of diplomats, academics and NGOs, then the closure of Bitterlemons is evidence that this, too, has become increasingly difficult during the past few years. There is a feeling that these intense contacts and dialogues have come about as far as they ever will in the absence of real peace talks taking place at the government level.
In the past, such dialogue fed into the governmental level, bringing ideas and even limited goodwill into the process. But people have become tired of the inability to move forward. At best we have been treading the same water in recent years, at worst we have been retrogressing – where there was limited trust in the past, even that has dissipated.
Track II participants no longer informally represent their governments. At the best they simply report back about their meetings and about the people they met (a form of sophisticated but mutual espionage).
At the worst they simply repeat the tired messages of the past decade, ask about each others’ families as part of the polite and civilized talk between “enemies.”
They return to their homes no longer satisfied that the meeting has brought about any significant movement forward to achieving conflict resolution and a step toward peace.
In Yom Kippur prayers, we read the High Priest’s soliloquy that there is a “time for war and a time for peace.” But we read the prayer as a mantra or a slogan.
It sounds good on our lips, but it never gets translated into practice. Right now, there is the real danger that Israel is closer to a new, perhaps regional, war than it is to any form of peace making. It is a pessimistic thought as we try to think our way through the coming year.
Time is not, it is never, on our side and even if we feel we are approaching our own Ground Zero again, we need to shake ourselves up and find a new way forward.
Better that it should happen from within then that we should be forced to come to terms with a force from the outside, as indeed happened on this day 39 years ago.
At the time, we were still too satisfied with the post- 1967 realities to fully grasp what was happening beyond our backyard. Woe betide us if we make the same mistake again.