Israeli, Palestinian elections chance for peacemaking - opinion

It seems that Israeli and Palestinian politicians do not consider at all how their own words and actions negatively impact on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

People vote in Jerusalem on election day, March 2, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
People vote in Jerusalem on election day, March 2, 2020.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Elections taking place in Israel and in the Palestinian territories at the same season is a golden opportunity for genuine leaders to break through the dead-end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israelis and Palestinians often forget, or don’t realize, that what each side says and does has a substantial effect on the other side.
That is one of the reasons why Palestinians and Israelis have hardened their perceptions that the other side is not interested in peace. What Palestinians and Israelis hear from each other, particularly from the mouths of leaders and politicians, are mutually reinforcing negative messages. The message of “no partner” for years has been clearly heard by both sides regarding the other. Past rounds of elections in Israel have even strengthened the negative messaging about the Palestinians including the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Former military commanders running for high office in Israel have competed against each other by presenting graphic video materials, demonstrating that they were responsible for the killing of more Palestinians than their rivals. The prime minister talked about Arab voters racing to the polls to oust the Likud from government. Almost all of the Jewish parties outwardly rejected any kind of partnership with the Joint List, representing some 90% of Arab voters.
The Palestinian issue is almost completely absent within the Israeli political debate. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when he is mentioned in Israel, is mostly defamed and ridiculed by Israeli politicians. Any Israeli listening to these messages is led to believe that there is no Palestinian partner. Any Palestinian who listens to these messages is easily convinced that there is no Israeli partner for peace as well.
Palestinians have not held elections since 2006, so there are no campaign speeches and advertisements of Palestinian politicians to learn from. But when you open any Palestinian radio station, or watch any Palestinian television station, incitement against Israel is the clearest message of everyday and at any given time. I love to listen to Arabic radio stations when I travel in my car – it helps me to improve my Arabic, but sometimes I have to change the station because the messaging is so toxic and full of hatred.  
I know that the occupation is the root of evil and that Israel does some horrible things in the territories, all that being so, for many years I have never heard even a single message in the Palestinian media that could provide even an inkling of hope for better relations across the conflict lines. This very negative messaging has a direct impact on Palestinian public perception of their neighbors. Not only are Palestinians inundated with messages of not having a partner for peace in Israel, for any Israeli who might be listening to the Palestinian media, the “no Palestinian partner for peace” notion is significantly strengthened.
It seems that Israeli and Palestinian politicians do not consider at all how their own words and actions negatively impact on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Politicians may think that they are speaking and taking actions to influence their own publics, but those words and deeds have a resounding echo across the green line. It is clear that politicians want to gather votes and supporters.
The assumption for years, in Israel, has been that speaking negatively about the Palestinians and presenting the conflict solely in terms of who has a stronger fist is the way to appeal to the Israeli public. Essentially what these politicians have succeeded in doing is further acting directly to diminish hope that peace could ever be a real option. These politicians contribute to the absence of belief that re-engaging in peace negotiations has any real value.
Israeli politics have adopted a fatalistic attitude toward the Palestinians that the conflict with them is here to stay. Palestinians have done very little to challenge this attitude and even from the underdog position of being the occupied, not the occupier, Palestinian politicians have done very little to challenge the Israeli assertion that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. They have certainly not convinced the Israeli public that they do in fact want peace, as the majority of them claim.
THE DIALECTIC cycle of mutually reinforcing negativity between Israel and Palestine could radically change. This is the challenge to our politicians on both sides. Palestinians have a new opportunity with elections on the horizon. Unfortunately, most Palestinians that I have spoken to regarding their elections are very negative and pessimistic.
If elections in fact do take place, they are expecting more of the same. Either Hamas will win again, as a form of a protest vote, of the same corrupt politicians who are not trusted by the public will win again.
I remember once being in South Africa riding in a taxi where the driver was complaining about the terrible economic and political situation. He loved Nelson Mandela but hated the ANC (Mandela’s party). Elections had just taken place and I asked the driver who he voted for. He said: “Oh me. I don’t vote!” I told him then that had no right to complain. I say to my Palestinian friends who are already complaining about the outcome of the elections that have not yet happened: Organize and get the vote out! Change doesn’t just happen – you have to work hard for it to happen.
To the politicians on both sides, and to those who aspire to be politicians – in Israel and in Palestine – I say – understand the impact that your words and actions have beyond your own circle of listeners. People all over are listening. People want to have hope. They want to believe in a better future.
You politicians who are competing for the public’s support can influence not only your own society, but the society across the conflict line as well. Responsible politicians will understand that being a populist is not what we need, in both Israel and Palestine. We need politicians who will work every single day to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the only genuine existential issue that we all face.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press. It is now out in Arabic and in Portuguese as well.