BORDERLINE VIEWS: Diplomatic visits: A dose of Middle East reality

As though people still believe that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict constitutes the magic panacea which will bring everything else into place.

US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on July 20 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on July 20
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A brief visit to Israel by the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is followed by an even shorter visit by the British minister responsible for Middle East affairs, Tobias Ellwood. Despite the fact that much larger events are taking place in our region, not least the implosion and destruction of an entire state in Syria, the war against Islamic State, the formation of a Kurdish state and the mass flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the term “Middle East Peace process” still has only one connotation for many observers – the desire to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The visits by these two leading diplomats is an attempt to show to their own constituencies back home that Israel-Palestine, the longest ongoing unresolved conflict on the face of the earth, has not been forgotten. As though people still believe that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict constitutes the magic panacea which will bring everything else into place.
Even if that were ever true in the past, which is highly unlikely, it is obvious that it is no longer the case. No one realizes that better than Israel itself, with no real desire or urge on the part of our leaders (or the Palestinians for that matter) to make any significant move on the diplomatic front.
Given the daily changing geopolitical conditions in our region, the present government is able to harden its stance toward the Palestinians, to renege on its former commitments to territorial withdrawals, while some of the more hardline ministers no longer feel inhibited about publicly renouncing the two-state principle. Education Minister Naftali Bennett openly proposes the formal abrogation of the Oslo Agreements, arguing in favor of Israel retaking direct control and administration over Area C which has been under Palestinian autonomous control for almost 20 years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not go out of his way to criticize Bennett’s comments, in itself a form of silent agreement to the re-emergence of these more intransigent positions on the part of Israel’s government. Netanyahu is able to portray himself to the diplomatic visitors as being a moderate player in a government which has outflanked him on the Right, reflecting changing public opinion within Israel. The Left has moved to the Center, the Center to the moderate Right and the moderate Right to the extreme Right and this is reflected not only in the composition of the government but equally in the acceptance of the increasingly intransigent anti-peace statements made by its senior representatives, not least the Foreign Ministry incumbent.
The latest bout of terrorism on our streets, a mini-intifada at the very least, has only served to harden the hearts of the Israeli public even further. Last week’s publication of the monthly peace index by the Israel Democracy Institute shows a clear decline in support for the two-state solution among the Israeli public – either because they no longer see it as implementable, or because they are no longer prepared to give it a chance in the wake of increased terrorism and violence.
So what exactly is it that these key diplomats, representing major world powers, seek to accomplish on their present visits? As relatively new players in the Middle East arena, where so many before them have failed, they will seek to learn and see firsthand – a fact-finding mission. They will meet Israeli and Palestinian policy makers and will perhaps visit critical locations, such as the settlements or the separation barrier. But they will also hear the same old, tired, twostate mantra, from government officials, think tanks and representatives of NGOs, as though nothing has changed during the past decade and that all it takes is for the two sides to agree to sit around a table together and negotiate in good faith, and everything will miraculously be resolved.
But almost 50 years on since the Six Day War of June 1967, and 20 years since the short-lived euphoria of the Oslo Agreements, just about everything has changed.
Settlements have grown to a point where, within a few more years, they will approach half a million people in the West Bank (and this figure does not include east Jerusalem), while a younger generation of both Israelis and Palestinians have become far more radicalized than their parents’ generation. A growth in religious fundamentalism and political radicalism, along with a reality of territorial separation of the West Bank from Israel, has resulted in the cessation of Israeli-Palestinian encounters (even under conditions of political and economic asymmetry), meaning that the next generation of leaders and opinion makers on both sides will have even less knowledge of what makes the other tick than did their parents’ generation.
As part of the recent FP7 EUBORDERSCAPES research project, consisting of a consortium of universities and research institutes in 21 European and neighboring countries, a Ben-Gurion University team recently completed a short documentary video looking at the impact of the Separation Barrier/Wall/Fence on the attitudes of young Israelis and Palestinians living on each side of the wall, especially within the Hebron-Kiryat Arba area, a micro-region within the West Bank where emotions and animosities are among the most extreme anywhere in the conflict. These young, astute and eloquent children, aged 10-13, display different attitudes and understandings of the conflict than their parent generation. Where the Palestinian parents spoke Hebrew (if only because they had worked as menial laborers in the Israeli workplace before being replaced by foreign workers), their children no longer speak or understand the language of the occupier – and the same is true for the smaller number of Israelis who took it upon themselves to learn Arabic and to shop in the kasbahs and markets of their Palestinian neighbors than in the past.
When asked to describe what is on the other side of the wall, both the Palestinian and Israeli children portray almost mirror-like images of evil and violence, a fear of the unknown and the invisible which takes place just a few hundred meters from where they live, but which they no longer visit or encounter, unless it is accompanied by heavily fortified security patrols. If, until the outbreak of renewed violence in the past few months, we had been led to believe that the security barrier resulted in a an era of relative security, then it is clear, listening to these children, that the invisibility and lack of knowledge about the other side which has also resulted from the construction of the physical barrier has created a much deeper feeling of fear and insecurity among the younger generations. They only perceive darkness, violence and threat on the other side. If this is the atmosphere within which the next generation of young adults and leaders are growing up, we will be even further away from returning to something remotely resembling negotiations or peace talks than we have been during the past 20 years.
A new generation of diplomats, eager but somewhat naively believing in an ability to kick-start the peace process from its present situation of total stagnation, have to understand these important structural and generational changes which have taken place and which are becoming stronger daily. Simply returning to the 20-year-old mantra, two states for two peoples, with a clear line of demarcation separating the two from each other in some miraculous cartographic invention in which each is equally dissatisfied with the outcome, is no longer an option, even for all those with good intentions. Our visitors have to be made aware of what is really happening on the ground, not just what the official representatives of the state and the think tanks roll out in conference after conference and report after report.
My generation who took part in years of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and Track II discussions believed that we would eventually bring peace to the region through a process of networking and mutual understanding.
While we succeeded in creating important networks which last and are effective until today, we failed dismally to bring peace any nearer. It is incumbent upon a new generation of diplomats and future political leaders to hear the frustrated and radicalized voices of the new generation of Israelis and Palestinians who will be tomorrow’s residents of the region and for whom yesterday’s attempts at peace making are no more than a lesson in history.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and chair of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.