Terra incognita: Coexistence partners with ourselves?

Where are the billboards in Ramallah and Nablusshowing Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak asking the Palestinians to be Israel’s partners?

The shocking, but comical, news that the Palestinian Authority’s two most powerful politicians had withdrawn their support for a US-funded coexistence campaign encouraging average Israelis to be “partners” in peace is part of the larger failure of misguided coexistence projects.
The latest story goes something like this.
As a background to the peace talks now under way, USAID, a US government humanitarian and economic assistance organization, supported a Geneva Initiative ad campaign aimed at encouraging Israelis to support peace. The campaign created 30-second video clips of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat asking Israelis, “Are you my partner” and purchased 280 billboards across the country. The billboards are modeled on Facebook and show a photo of leading Palestinians asking people to accept their “partner request.”
On September 7 it was announced that Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad had asked not to be associated with the peace partner campaign because it was “too Israeli.”
Fayyad complained that the Geneva Initiative had not gotten his consent to be used in the campaign and according to reporter Avi Issacharoff, “Fayyad also reportedly noted that it wasn’t clear to him why the campaign did not also feature Israeli figures addressing the Palestinian public.”
This is a question others have raised.
Where are the billboards in Ramallah and Nablus showing Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak asking the Palestinians to be Israel’s partners? But the history of the partner initiative, which should never have been funded by the US government in the first place, is only part of the larger coexistence picture.
MANY COEXISTENCE groups seek to foster only a one-sided kind of coexistence. A list compiled by the website engageonline.org.uk proves the point. At the top is the Abraham Fund. The six “initiatives” displayed on its home page include the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools, efforts to fight for equal opportunities for Arab citizens and “promoting the employment and integration of Arab women in the workforce.”
A fourth initiative seeks to work on relations between police and the Arab community.
The fourth initiative seems to be slightly in line with coexistence, but it seems to place all the burden on the police, encouraging them to learn “Arabic culture” for instance. The program doesn’t seem to include any discussion with the Arab community’s youth, encouraging them to cooperate with the police rather than, for instance, throwing rocks at them.
The Negev Coexistence Forum is the most egregious example of one-sided nationalism masquerading as coexistence.
Founded in 1997, it offers tours of Beduin communities and lobbies internationally on behalf of the Beduin by sending delegations to places like the UN to get them recognized as an “indigenous” people. It also claims to work in illegal Beduin villages in the Negev, renovating kindergartens, constructing roads and working on water supply initiatives. They also provide legal aid.
How is any of this “coexistence” work? There is no work on behalf of, say, impoverished Jewish communities; all the work is only for one group and it is work designed to reward that group for illegal behavior and encourage greater nationalism among it. All that is fine, but why call it “coexistence”; why not call themselves the Negev Beduin Forum? Almost all coexistence efforts in Israel and the Palestinian territories break down on a fundamental level. There is a recognition that the types of activities coexistence groups want to do are simply not acceptable in the other community, so what ends up happening is that only Jewish Israelis are exposed to coexistence initiatives, while the other side remains blithely in the dark. In some cases the coexistence work seems to achieve the opposite, by caving to pressures by one group, the coexistence group actually becomes a mouthpiece for nationalism and irredentism, fostering radical Beduin or Israeli-Arab causes, such as Nakba education or lobbying at the UN on their behalf.
There have been several initiatives that appear to have gone in a more honest direction. A Geneva Initiative-sponsored women’s circle of Shas-affiliated women and leading Palestinian women is one example, as is the program Seeds of Peace that brought together Israelis and Palestinians and sent them to summer camps abroad.
But on a fundamental level the expensive “partner” billboard program is a fiasco, and just the kind of thing that does nothing to advance peace. At the entrance to Ramallah the most visible sign is a mural of Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for murder, and Yasser Arafat. No one will put up a sign of Israel’s prime minister seeking peace next to that mural, and that fact symbolizes that, while peace may come, coexistence certainly will not.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.