Critical Currents: Confidence building and human trust

Today, there is little desire and virtually no possibility for Israelis and Palestinians to meet.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The Obama administration is vigorously advocating the revival of confidence-building measures to invigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in a comprehensive regional context. To date, the focus has been entirely on the formal level. The most obvious, the most elementary and the most sorely needed step is ignored: nurturing human contacts between Israelis and Palestinians. Without heavy investments in people-to-people links - once the cornerstone of fostering a favorable climate for negotiations - no official progress will gain traction in these two fractious and mutually wary societies. Today, there is little desire and virtually no possibility for Israelis and Palestinians to meet, let alone interact, on anything resembling a normal basis. Where once there was a dense terrain of joint ventures, cooperative organizations, professional networks, local initiatives, youth and women's activities and small dialogue groups, now the common landscape is barren. There is precious little contact of any sort. Most Palestinians know Israelis only as soldiers who make their lives miserable or settlers who strip them of their assets and their dignity. Too many Israelis view every Palestinian as a potential terrorist or car thief, to be avoided at all cost. The opportunities for other kinds of relationships, those that can evoke more positive perceptions, are so scant as to be nonexistent. Proponents of the separation doctrine - initiated after the collapse of the Oslo process and institutionalized during the second intifada through the construction of the wall, a plethora of bypass roads, settlement expansion, hundreds of additional checkpoints and the ongoing blockade of Gaza - appear to have succeeded. This almost complete barrier between people is most acutely felt at the grassroots level, but it percolates up to other groups, culminating in decision-making circles where whatever talks currently taking place are marked by their human distance. The present state of affairs, one of faceless and nameless asymmetrical power relations, is hardly conducive to the cultivation of any sort of mutual understanding. What happened? Why has there been such a steady decline in the human connection between Israelis and Palestinians? Part of the answer lies in the growing sense of disillusion and futility on both sides. Many Israelis involved in previous activities in an effort to reach across the divide have been reluctant to continue in the wake of the breakdown of negotiations and the escalation of violence. Palestinians who believed fervently in joining hands with Israelis with a view to ending the occupation and realizing self-determination have become frustrated with the lack of progress and are totally despondent at the subsequent deterioration on the ground. The absence of any concrete results has seriously reduced motivation to work together, increasingly replaced by a loss of hope and all that this entails. Those few who - against substantial odds - have continued to insist on the necessity of joint action to mold a just future face immense obstacles. Some of these are logistical: Israelis and Palestinians who want to meet are rarely able to do so legally. The constraints on Palestinian movement into Israel (involving endless bureaucratic red tape to procure permits), coupled with the absolute prohibition on Israeli entry into the West Bank, has meant that most communication is virtual. E-mails, text messages and occasional cellphone conversations are not a substitute for direct contact. FACE-TO-FACE gatherings - so critical for building trust - usually take place abroad. These expose participants to charges of gallivanting around the world while those at home suffer, emanating from segments of the population increasingly inimical to their goals. The actual cost of such meetings is, indeed, often prohibitive. Financial constraints have thus proven to be a greater impediment than one can imagine. Donors have poured billions into security and infrastructure, to the utter neglect of the human dimension. Too much time and energy is devoted to fund-raising at the expense of substantive work on the ground. During the past few years political, pragmatic, economic, psychological and tactical factors have converged to discourage Palestinians and Israelis from perceiving each other - let alone coming together - as human beings. This retrogressive trend is likely to continue unless a concerted effort is made to build up a modicum of trust where fear, acrimony and despair reign. The human foundation for any resolution - especially one brokered by external actors - depends to no mean extent on fostering a different intercommunal dynamic. Without a groundswell of mutual interest and action, nothing decided by policy-makers will resonate in either society. Israelis and Palestinians have become all too adept at demonizing each other. Nothing humanizes even the bitterest rivals more than direct encounters. These are frequently painful and fraught with discord. Yet they highlight shared concerns, needs and aspirations. When such discussions do take place, they offer a partial remedy to rising violence - if only by underlining the fact that while talking, interlocutors cannot engage in other, far more lethal, pursuits. These interchanges sometimes go a step further: In a situation of marked inequality, they help to level the playing fields - a critical step toward reaching a political settlement. Ultimately, then, since Israelis and Palestinians are destined to share the land, they must find a way to carve out their future together. People-to-people links should not be seen, however, as an end in themselves. Naive, albeit well-intentioned exercises of this sort have led to too many misunderstandings in the past. They created a false sense of normalization without bringing about any tangible political change. This is why mutual trust dissipated so quickly in recent years, providing the main impetus for the development of violent or exclusionary tactics today. The political basis for such exchanges must therefore be explicit: the realization of an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The few joint efforts that still persist embrace these principles and have begun to generate a new discourse. This is true of a handful of human rights efforts, solidarity missions, ongoing professional contacts, women's peace work and a few grassroots undertakings such as Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families' Circle. It also enables several Track II initiatives to continue discretely and creatively. While official talks about talks proceed, a similarly pointed push must be made to facilitate more inclusive interchange aimed at promoting a nonviolent solution. The best answer to those who don't want such communication to take place because they fear its ramifications is to do everything possible to make it happen. Resolving the Arab-Israel conflict is all about human security; it cannot be attained without a human touch.