Savir's Corner: Understanding through listening

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.

Abbas in Kuwait370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Abbas in Kuwait370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 two peoples.
Mutual understanding can only happen if people on both sides hold open and frank dialogue, and actually listen to each other.
Mutual 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 heaven.
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.
The 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.”
Without 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.
What is 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.
The 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 understanding.
• 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 together.
• 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 is reading.
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 future.
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 other.

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 piece.