Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory is undeniable: one of every four voters decided that Netanyahu must continue to be Israel’s prime minister. A majority of Israelis support a right-wing vision for Israel’s future. But let’s not forget, even for one minute, that nearly half of the Israeli population does not. Half of Israel’s population continues to support a vision of two states for two peoples, and I would venture to say that if Israelis believed it was possible to achieve such a solution, that number would grow to two thirds.
Ever since Camp David in July 2000 and especially after the outbreak of the second intifada, and even more so after April 2001 when Palestinians began launching suicide terrorist attacks inside of Israel proper, most Israelis accept the assertion made by Ehud Barak after Camp David that there is no Palestinian partner for peace.
The Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett trio strengthened that assertion with a clear and determined strategy to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The people of Israel, even most of the half of them from the Center leaning toward the Left, do not believe there is a partner for peace in Palestine.
I strongly disagree and I base my disagreement on constant ongoing contact with the Palestinians and their leaders.
I have sat with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and extensively discussed all of the issues in conflict in permanent-status negotiations and I know that there are possibilities for reaching agreements that will provide Israel will all of its security needs. I have had these discussions with a large number of Palestinian leaders throughout the West Bank, in cities, towns, villages and refugee camps. I am there several times a weeks for years already. I speak to Palestinians in Gaza almost every day.
Through the organization I founded in 1988, 27 years ago, IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (formerly Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information) we convened more than 2,000 roundtable working group meetings of Israelis and Palestinians from every field of concern regarding peace: security, economics, water, environment, agriculture, nature protection, border control, law and more. Over these years I have met thousands of Palestinians and discussed with them every aspect of peacemaking that one could imagine. I am convinced that there is a Palestinian partner for peace.
Since the second intifada there is almost no contact at all between Israelis and Palestinians. We live separated by walls. The gates and fences are controlled by Israel but they also deny Israelis freedom of movement in the territories they control. The geography of fear has taken hold and has dictated an inability to develop human contact across the conflict lines. Yet even without direct contact it is amazing to me the degree of certainty with which so many Israelis continue to make the statement that there is no Palestinian partner. It has always amazed me how many Israelis claim with seeming expertise that Palestinians simply do not want peace and will never accept us Jews on this land.
When I first developed an interest in working for peace some 37 years ago I encountered Israeli after Israeli (like almost all of those who attack me in the talkbacks to my articles) who would say to me with a great deal of authority, “You don’t know them” (of course meaning the Arabs). Well with all due respect, there are very few Israelis who know them better than me or who have spent more time talking to them than me. My knowledge is not only academic (like many of the so-called experts on Arab affairs who spend their time in ivory towers reading about the Arabs), it is direct, constant and ongoing.
Many of us who do support a two-state vision fell into deep despair following the elections. Netanyahu has proven that he will not, by choice, lead Israel into the direction of direct genuine negotiations with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians will continue their strategy of gaining international support for their state on the basis of the June 4, 1967, lines with east Jerusalem as its capital and the isolation of Israel among the nations of the world will increase. Many of those who support two states will continue to maintain that the problem is the lack of a Palestinian partner and that with Netanyahu at the helm there is no hope anyway. This is definitely cause for despair.
But the fastest and most direct path from despair to hope is thoughtful and strategic action. We do not have the luxury of allowing ourselves to fall into disempowering, debilitating despair. It is time for action and my suggestion is for the kind of action that requires no leader, no mass movement, no organization, no demonstrations and no funding.
Every single one of us owns a smart phone, or a computer, or a tablet. We are all online and we are all connected.
It is time to make use of the borderless world of the Internet and cyberspace to reach out and make contact.
It is possible to speak to people on the other side of the conflict line with the greatest of ease. What is essential is that what motivates us to do this should not be winning a debate over who is more right and just. It should be curiosity and intent to understand. I have always found that when I say to someone who is perceived as an enemy “I want to listen to you, I want to try to understand your positions, your interests, and your needs. I want to comprehend why you think like you do” – you will find someone on the other side who is willing to talk.
There will be sufficient time and opportunity for you to make your points, to express your positions, interests and needs and for them to also listen to you. But if you begin by saying that you want to listen, you will almost always find someone who is willing to talk. Take the time. Listen.
Ask questions. Try to understand. This is something that every single one of us can do. The Palestinians, like us, are connected, they are online. They use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
Open your Facebook and find some Palestinians and say to them “hi, I am an Israeli and I would like to listen to you.” Find them in the West Bank, find them in Gaza – yes even in Gaza they are connected, online and on Facebook. For those who find this challenge too daunting try it with first with Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.
But do it, take the challenge. Don’t sit in your passivity and allow despair to dictate to you how we will continue to live in this land.The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.
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