Negotiations around a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether within a framework of one state or two states, have historically tended towards what is commonly referred to as ‘zero sum’ game – where the gains of one party are directly proportional to the losses of the other. A one-state solution would provide stability, civil rights, equality, and recognition for Palestinians, but in light of their rising population it threatens the very existence of a “Jewish State”; similarly, the establishment of a sovereign Palestine along 1967 lines neighboring Israel would require the eviction of over 600,000 Israeli settlers currently in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, in the words of Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Manuel Hassassian, “both Palestinians and Israelis are stuck between the historically inevitable and the politically impossible”.
Yet the struggle for peace seems rooted in the false premise that “a solution” exists and that we need only decide which to choose. In reality, however, the failure to resolve the conflict to date comes about not primarily as a result of the content of the plans, but rather the need for a shift in attitudes. Throughout over 70 years of conflict, three perpetual obstacles have lain on the path to peace: trust, security, and justice. Complicating matters, the longer these remain issues, the more difficult they become to resolve.
Fostering trust is an integral key to any peace negotiations; without this all efforts are wasted energy on fruitless diplomacy; central to the trust-building exercise is the dispelling of myths, prejudices, and misinformation. Over the decades and throughout numerous Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, positions have become entrenched based upon what each group thinks about “the other”: today, many Israelis believe Palestinians do not want peace, or at a stretch the borders of 1948 Palestine; on the other side, many Palestinians believe that Israel wants all the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates. Conversely, the truth is both sides actually have similar desires: stability, peace, prosperity, and a viable deal to facilitate these.
Such misunderstandings are, naturally, politically useful for scapegoating both among an increasingly right-wing Israeli government and within the militant Gazan leadership. Moreover, they are perpetuated by the daily lives of both peoples: unlike Arab Israelis in Haifa or Jaafa, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are not permitted to mingle freely with their Israeli neighbors. Beyond entire generations that have grown up under occupation, the result is that a majority of Palestinians have never had personal contact with an Israeli outside of IDF uniform – one must question what psychological impact of such limited experience has upon a people; likewise, many Israelis have rare personal interactions with Palestinians, who are generally tarred with the same brush as not only personal threats – bombers, terrorists, knife-wielders – but also existential ones – anti-Zionists and revolutionaries. Against this backdrop, it becomes evident that there is simply no environment or opportunity for the necessary trust-building: economic, cultural, and even political.
In this respect, there are lessons that can be learnt from Northern Ireland, where a fundamental part of success was the refusal to concede to binary narratives of Catholics or Protestants. Leadership on both sides in Israel and Palestine must be willing to move closer – a Trimble for every Paisley, a De Klerk to each Mandela, a contemporary Rabin to every Arafat. Leadership on both sides are responsible for building bridges; it is only through this that communication can improve and a sense of solidarity can be built. The intellectual wherewithal to disbelieve propaganda about a group in a vacuum is a difficult task, yet it becomes easier through the lived experience of interaction with them and seeing firsthand that information being spread is erroneous. As US President Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
One of the by-products of this misinformation has been the Israeli focus on security, resulting in much despair: a security wall deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice; checkpoints that exacerbate already prohibitive employment opportunities for Palestinians; and a policy of “defensive borders” that is a thinly veiled cover for further appropriation of Palestinian land, despite its failure to end rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas. Gaza has, since Israeli exit, been used as justification that Palestinians cannot be left to their own devices and to underline the need for a continued, hard military presence. To focus on Gaza, however, belies the reality that intricately-woven security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been a continuing success for many years. Ultimately, the Israeli government must heed the bottom line recognised by its own military: nothing will provide lasting security for Israel, Iron Dome included, more than peace.
Finally, the issue of justice – a matter that can only begin to take shape once ongoing crimes come to an end and with the recognition of historical wrongs; history, however, teaches us that it is rarely swift. Over a century passed between the beginning of the practice of the Stolen Generations in Australia and an acknowledgement of government wrongdoing by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; following the lengthy Saville Report in the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal apology for the actions of the British Forces on Bloody Sunday, over 40 years after the massacre; and, only weeks ago, France’s President Emmanuel Macron referred to French colonization of Algeria – which gained independence in 1962 – as a “crime against humanity”. The day will come, also, when a future Israeli government must apologize for wholesale crimes: forced evictions, extra-judicial killings, land grabs, severe curtailment of human rights, and economic suffocation of the Palestinian people – the reconciliation of Palestinians and Israelis depends upon it.
Incidents such as the free BBQ organised by Ichud Leumi outside Ofer military prison to taunt detained Palestinians on hunger strike highlight not only a visceral lack of humanity shown by some Israelis towards their fellow human beings but the chasm that is yet to be overcome between parties. Extremist views are held on both side in the vain hope that hammering can fix what requires a screwdriver. Such behavior ignores a core fact all-too-often neglected for its inconvenience and unpalatability to some: Israel and Palestine, for better or worse, are in a symbiotic relationship; neither state can ever achieve peace or security without the assistance, cooperation, and complicity of the other the assistance and complicity of the other.
Breaking the cycle of a ‘zero-sum’ game requires that Israel and Hamas realise that the promotion of rights for one party does not lessen those of the others – there is no finite quantity of rights or privileges that must be apportioned between the two sides. Searching for deep-rooted trust, lasting security, and meaningful justice are key to peace for all citizens, whether in one state or two. The sooner this is realized by both the general public and politicians in Israel and Palestine, the sooner they can begin the transition towards a much-needed more inclusive, constructive type of national and personal politics.