Communication is the means by which people and societies come to agreement with
each other. We generally communicate in order to be understood better, to
achieve our goals, to create partnerships and to mobilize others to our aims.
But expressing oneself is not sufficient – it is as important to listen to the
expression of others.
This is a banality, but not self-evident. In Israel
we do not speak to each other, but often preach: Two Israelis, three opinions.
We generally do not doubt the Almighty, but we do question Him creating us with
one mouth and two ears. What for? The same is true for our next-door neighbors –
the Palestinians. In a visit to a Ramallah café, one can witness lively Middle
Eastern discussions with a noise level that makes listening impossible, just as
in a Tel Aviv café; an orchestra of parallel monologues. This is much more the
case between these two societies – people talk a lot about each other, but
rarely to each other, and they certainly never listen. “You are a blood thirsty
terrorist,” “you are a cruel occupier” ... end of discussion – common traits,
but no common language.
There is much talk today about reviving an
Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Barack Obama and John Kerry would like to
save Israelis and Palestinians from themselves.
Conditions are being
discussed to create the framework for serious peace negotiations. Yet the chance
of that succeeding is slim as long as there are such fundamental
misunderstandings, not only between the political leaders, but also between the
Mutual understanding can only happen if people on both sides
hold open and frank dialogue, and actually listen to each other.
ignorance can lead to catastrophe. It is time for the people in a small,
disputed holy land to understand each other, and listen to each other, on
several levels: President Shimon Peres has often said in this context that it is
impossible to agree about the past, so we should agree about the future. Indeed
there is no way even in thousands of years of negotiation that Israelis and
Palestinians will agree about their historical narratives.
They form the
ethos and myths of societies and form identities.
We Israelis are
convinced that Israel was created in the land of our forefathers, that the
dramatic return of Jews to the Land of Israel is a fundamental historical right;
that Arabs committed a mistake of historical magnitude by rejecting our
legitimacy and small reborn state; that David Ben-Gurion declared the state on
the land and capital of King David.
The Palestinians are convinced that
they were here first, that they are the original and constant inhabitants of
Palestine; that the Jews committed a historical atrocity by coming here only in
the last century, evicting and expelling them from their land; and that
Jerusalem is the holy site from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to
Israelis must understand that the Palestinians have a legitimate
national identity and culture, that they lived in this land for centuries and
are led by the national movement of the Palestinian people; that a Palestinian
state is not an artificial creation, but rather it will be created, like our
state was, on the basis of a historical claim and identity.
Palestinians have to understand that Israel is the historical homeland of the
Jewish people, that Israeli statehood is based on a historical link to the land,
not on 20th-century history; that we are here not because of the Holocaust, but
despite it, that Zionism is not a colonial force to expel Palestinians, but a
legitimate national movement recognized by the world. This will lead both sides
to the one logical and fair conclusion that the land must be shared by the two
peoples and states. Both peoples have to internalize that the existence of the
other can be an opportunity, not a catastrophe or “nakba.”
coexistence there may be no existence.
Both sides are moved by national
aspirations and by fears and suspicions. Most Israelis perceive in their
Palestinian neighbors people committed to the destruction of Israel, that they
want a state from the River to the Sea, and us in the Sea; that the expression
of this aspiration is brutal terrorism against civilians. This sense of
insecurity is amplified by the view of a small country in a sea of hostile Arab
countries. David encircled by Goliath.
The Palestinians’ strongest
experience and concern is living under Israeli occupation. They view the
occupation not as a result of the Six Day War, but as Israeli policy to annex
the territories to sovereign Israel, an extension of the Jewish colonialism, as
expressed by the settlements.
They see Israelis as cruel occupiers and
they feel that they are humiliated by Israeli soldiers, who run their daily
lives and movements.
Given these conflicting perceptions, reasonable
compromise seems out of the question: “There is no partner for peace” is echoed
across the Green Line in Hebrew and in Arabic. Both sides are wrong of course.
Almost all Palestinians are not latent terrorists, and most Israelis have little
desire to sustain the occupation over three million Palestinians.
lacking is a sense of equality, leading to a beginning of mutual trust, and a
sense that most people are similar, with basic hopes and fears. This sense is
difficult and easy to develop – difficult because of deep prejudice founded on
historical narrative and political demagogy, easy because all it takes is an
ongoing dialogue and actually listening to each other. How many Israelis and
Palestinians have had a cup of coffee together in Tel Aviv or Ramallah? While
narratives and concerns are based in the past, aspirations are linked to the
future. Israelis seek to live in security, not threatened by Arab terror or
missiles. Palestinians seek freedom and independence, not threatened by Israeli
occupation. Many on both sides believe that these aims are incompatible, based
on the divergences in their historical narratives, and current perceptions. Yet
if past and present cannot be changed, the future can.
In a future of
peaceful coexistence, there is no reason why an Israeli Jewish state and a
Palestinian Arab state cannot live side by side, with a secure, peaceful border
based on the 1967 lines.
Creating this dialogue is not sufficient; there
is a need for direct negotiation with American mediation. Yet it is hard to see
how such negotiations can succeed if perpetual deep misunderstandings persist.
Parallel to political negotiations that are an urgent necessity, there is also a
need for a more basic dialogue between the two societies, as after the political
settlement most people, Israelis and Palestinians, want the same things – to
live, to prosper and to provide a better life for their children.
dialogue that is needed is a mutual learning process. We must become curious
about each other as well as empathize and listen to important voices: • We must
listen to those who express forcefully the historical narratives – Palestinians
to Amos Oz and Israelis to Mahmoud Darwish; not for agreement, but for better
• We must listen to those who have suffered from fighting
in the wars, as Palestinians listened to Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and we listen
sometimes to Jibril Rajoub.
Military leaders know the alternative to
coexistence: the sacrifice of many young lives.
• We must listen to the
voices of peace and moderation; Palestinians to Shimon Peres, the ultimate
Israeli nation-builder with empathy for the Palestinian cause, and Israelis to
Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), a life-long leader in the PLO, and a man of peace.
The rhetoric of leaders is all important for mutual understanding as any peace
process is also a pedagogical one.
• We must listen to the ordinary
people and we will discover, as I have, that we have a lot in common – a sense
of being historical victims and an ability to overcome many hardships, a sense
of cynicism toward a hostile world and a sense of humor to cope with it. We must
and can develop a common human language; there is generally a natural chemistry
and even camaraderie when Israelis and Palestinians finally get
• We must listen to the mothers on both sides. Maybe women can
succeed where men have failed – the basic nature of women is with the well-being
of the children, and that we do have in common.
• Finally, we have to
listen to the young, who are the majority and the driving force in the two
societies. Young people today want to belong to a globalized world – to
modernization, democracy and new opportunities arising from scientific and
technological advances. They can communicate on social networks where listening
Indeed we must listen to our children – and let them lead the
way. They are indeed more open to listening to the other and to taking
innovative roads to peaceful coexistence. I listen most to my own daughter –
Maya Savir, an author – as she looks at the world through the eyes of her
children’s well-being in a future of peace.
Such dialogues are essential
– political negotiations must be coupled and enhanced by mutual social
understanding and dialogue. This dialogue cannot lead to an agreement over the
narratives of the past, but they can create a common narrative for the
I once met with a group of deaf young Palestinians and Israelis
who communicated through sign language. Their tutor told me that these young
people understand each other – they cannot hear, but they do listen to each
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served
as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this
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