Critical Currents: The new peace constituency

Joint Palestinian-Israeli initiatives, put on hold during the 2nd intifada, have expanded considerably.

Gaza kids 88 (photo credit: )
Gaza kids 88
(photo credit: )
The raging leadership crisis, brought to a head by the scathing interim report of the Winograd Committee, has diverted attention from one of the most significant and promising developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Quietly, persistently and creatively, a revived peace front is being consolidated. This multifaceted coalition is securing the civic foundations for a serious effort to resolve the conflict. It is also, in important respects, a harbinger of its main contours. The number and diversity of joint Palestinian-Israeli initiatives, put on hold during the height of the second intifada, have expanded considerably during the past couple of years. They have gathered momentum in recent months, as new diplomatic possibilities have emerged and the inability of existing leaders to capitalize on these opportunities has become more pronounced. These activities have assumed a variety of forms, from networks of human rights organizations, think tanks, veteran peace movements and women's groups, to new formations involving academics, grassroots organizers, local activists, religious leaders and young people. Alongside the better known work of the Geneva Initiative, the Peres Center for Peace, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), Gush Shalom and the Jerusalem Link (to mention but a few), it is possible find literally dozens of associations today. These include not only the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace (IWC) and Combatants for Peace, but also specialized strategic planning units, militant protest groups and cultural workshops. THE SHEER number of Israeli-Palestinian interchanges currently taking place is startling, given not only the extent of animosity fomented by the ongoing violence, but also the immense logistical obstacles impeding face-to-face encounters on the ground. If in the past meetings could be held easily on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the completion of the municipal wall precludes this possibility. For more than a year, Gaza residents, with minor exceptions, have been unable to reach the West Bank, where internal mobility is severely impaired by roadblocks and multiple checkpoints. For Israelis, in turn, it is illegal to go to these areas. Nevertheless, some entry permits for Palestinians have been issued and other, often ingenious, alternatives for communication have been elaborated. These include a multiplicity of electronic channels (e-mails, video conferences, chat groups, Skype) as well as the ubiquitous and overused cellphone. When all local options have been exhausted, meetings are convened abroad. Several such conferences or consultations have taken place virtually every week during the past year. These encounters tend to focus on four main topics. The first is substantive, centering on developing ideas not only on permanent settlement, but also on the nature of future relations between Palestinians and Israelis. The second is procedural, concentrating on generating innovative ways to jump-start and sustain a viable diplomatic process. The third is organizational, designing means to work together to expand the ideological and sociological representation of those involved in peacemaking. And the fourth is humanitarian, dealing specifically with immediate measures to alleviate suffering and increase mutual confidence (such as lifting the economic embargo and expediting a prisoner exchange). A spate of reports, resolutions, appeals and recommendations has emanated from these efforts. They are being scrutinized by decision makers and discussed in various forums locally and internationally. In all probability, they will be widely disseminated during the coming weeks at multiple events scheduled to mark 40 years of the occupation. Together, they form a sound and crafted infrastructure for a full-fledged peace process. These resurgent conflict resolution initiatives possess several novel characteristics which distinguish them from their 1990s predecessors. Their composition is much more heterogeneous, involving diverse sectors of each population and a spate of political actors not previously part of such interchanges. Their range is much broader, including regional and international components alongside bilateral ones. Their positions are clearer, focusing squarely on how to bring an end to the occupation and translate the two-state vision into a reality. Two features, however, stand out: the fact that Israelis and Palestinians active in these frameworks are speaking together with one voice, and that they encompass decision makers alongside civil society activists. Indeed, what is unique to the contemporary peace landscape is the emergence of a shared constituency which crosses national divisions and is united in its determination to thwart extremism and chart a workable course for coexistence. It is all too easy, in the midst of constant warmongering and deep despair, to dismiss these organized signs of positive change. It is equally tempting to cynically ignore their implications as violence continues to flare and elected leaders are exposed in all their ineptness. It would be a grave error to do so. Although this nascent peace coalition cannot replace a committed and functional leadership, it can lay the building blocks for rational interaction and create a climate for eventual reconciliation. It also provides what is sorely missing today: the moral and political impetus to compel whoever is in office to move forward. Ultimately, once good sense prevails at the apex, this civilian partnership for peace will offer a much-needed guarantee for the successful implementation of any durable agreement.