This is one of the most difficult periods for Israel that I recall in the 38 years I have been living here. Only the height of the second intifada in 2002-2003 was more depressing. I am on a speaking tour in the UK now and soon will be speaking in the US. My audiences are varied and include Jewish organizations, non-Jewish organizations and universities. It is most distressing to learn from my audiences that there is a sharply decreased engagement with Israel and a growing attitude, particularly among young people, of not wanting to engage on issues that concern Israel. The discussion about Israel and its future has become even more polemic and nasty than it was in the past and the space for dialogue between holders of differing positions has become very limited.
Much time is wasted in fruitless, futile arguments regarding which side is responsible for the failure of the peace processes and negotiations. It is an argument that has no winner and the only thing that comes to conclusion is the possibility of dialogue and anything constructive.
I tell my audiences that I did not come to depress them.
My messages over the years have always tried to present some hope. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be hopeful. Not only are we plagued by a failure of leadership on both sides of the conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian societies are locked into the conviction that while we want peace, there is no one to talk to on the other side. As a Zionist and an Israeli it disturbs me to see the complete lack of initiative on the Israeli side that could take advantage of the opportunities that exist because all of the threats that we face together with many of our neighbors in the Sunni Arab world. I cannot decode the mind of Netanyahu and comprehend how such an intelligent man has no initiative regarding the primary existential threat facing the State of Israel: the continuation and entrenchment of the binational reality under Israel’s control between the River and the Sea.
Israel faces no conventional state-supported military forces today. The IDF is without question the strongest military force in the area. The Iranian-Hezbollah axis with some 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel in Lebanon is the only substantial military threat facing Israel today.
The regional non-state actors and terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic State pose challenges, as we know all too well – but they are not existential threats to Israel.
The conditions in Gaza that existed prior to the summer war of 2014 remain unchanged and the suffering of the nearly two million people in Gaza has only been increased further since then. Egypt allowed the Rafah crossing to be open less than 30 days in the past year, and while Israel allows hundreds of truckloads of goods into Gaza every day, for every 1,500 trucks of goods entering only one is allowed out. Detached from the West Bank economy or from Israel and the rest of the world, unemployment is Gaza is over 40 percent and among youth way above 60%. There are five working universities in Gaza and over 100,000 unemployed university graduates with no chance or hope of having a job and a career.
Hamas’s military has according to reports rebuilt its tunnels and restocked its rockets. It has also enlisted many new recruits from bereaved families who are willing to die for revenge and for Islam and Palestine. Deterrence against those realities is a myth in the minds of Israeli generals. The next round of warfare is only a matter of time.
Israel is not or should not be at war with the Palestinian people. Israel may have real and legitimate problems with the Palestinian leadership, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel as the entity on which Palestinian society and economy is largely dependent actually has a lot of positive leverage to help to create a better reality for millions of people. While it may be true that no negotiated peace can be achieved today, certainly with Hamas and apparently also with the PLO leadership, there is no logic whatsoever for Israel to wish for the people of Palestine to suffer. While I believe that engagement with Palestinian leaders – political, business and from civil society – is possible, the current Israeli government does not. But that should not prevent Israel from unilaterally undertaking policies which could improve the lives of our neighbors.
It is clear that much is not dependent solely on Israel, yet Israel does wield significant power and leverage to affect positive developments within Palestine. This does not have to be calculated on the basis of “they give, they get” because the calculation should be much longer- term. Millions of Palestinians are going to be Israel’s neighbors forever and their welfare and sense of hope is a matter which should be of concern to Israel – not for the love of Arabs, but for the love of Israel and concern for Israel’s welfare.
This is not only a matter of concern for government leaders and officials – it should also concern every single Israeli citizen. In this age there are almost no normal human relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
They are not going to disappear as Israel will not disappear. The idea of an eventual peace in the future based on non-contact and total physical separation is antithetical to the very notion of peace. There will never be peace within sovereign cages. If there is ever to be peace it will be based on contacts and engagement between Israelis and Palestinians in commerce, investment, research, science and medicine, water and environment, culture and academia.
There is no reason or justification to wait for our failed leaders to reach political agreements between them.
Individuals can take the lead and can reach out to the other side. Social media doesn’t have to be used to wage battle virtually with the Palestinians, it can also be used to seek understanding. It is possible to reach out to someone on the other side and say “I want to try to understand you and your positions and beliefs. Tell me about yourself.” You don’t have to immediately score points in an argument of questionable value. It is much more valuable and important to seek to understand and then have yourself understood – and this is possible through normal and decent human interaction. It will not always work, but it is always worth trying.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.