Sarah Brown: How did you first get involved in OneVoice?
Joel Braunold: During University I was a member of the National Union of Students National Executive Committee. While an office holder the war in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) broke out and I saw the effect of the conflict spill over into UK campuses and made me wonder what people in the region thought of their advocates abroad.
It was during this time that I met Jake and Sayeeda from OneVoice Europe who were attempting to hold the advocates of Israelis and Palestinians accountable to what people on the ground actually thought. I had spent two years studying Talmud in Jerusalem and thought that I knew the region well, but meeting OneVoice allowed me to actually speak to people living under occupation and within the conflict.
When I graduated I won a fellowship with the Legacy Heritage Foundation (out of the US) and convinced them to allow me to work for OneVoice Europe as a fellow. Now almost five years later (with a little break for some grad school and private sector work) I am still with the movement.
SB: Could you tell our readers about any experiences that you found particularly striking or surprising during your involvement with OneVoice?
JB: Despite the asymmetry with the conflict the populations, Israelis and Palestinians, are mirror images of each other. Before starting at OneVoice I had spent a significant amount of time in Israel and knew the Israeli psyche very well. My first time travelling to the West Bank, to work with our Ramallah office, I encountered Palestinians who spoke about Israelis the same way that Israelis spoke about Palestinians. The populations are so similar in their outlook of the other, both positive and negative, that it is a tragedy that they cannot recognize themselves in the other.
SB: I recently heard Moshe Amirav give a talk in which he suggested that the Arab League and the European Union should replace the United States as the key intermediary in negotiations between Israel and Palestine. What is your view of that proposal?
JB: It’s interesting. While I was at grad school I wrote a paper about the challenge of the mediator being perceived as impartial. After twenty years of attempts, the US is seen as flawed as an honest broker. Yet there are two very important points when considering this view point.
1) It is the US’s relationship to Israel that makes them a valid broker at all. The Palestinians’ main complaint is not that the US has a unique relationship with Israel, but is that they don’t use it to motivate the Israelis to achieve a two-state solution. Seeing that any solution would require the Israelis to make the main amount of sacrifice at this point (the Palestinians made their compromise with their acceptance of two-states), the Israelis are the ones who need to move from the comfort of the status-quo. If the US could use its influence to affect that, then I think that their relationship with Israel would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.
2) There is a tendency to blame the mediator when the talks fail. The US is not involved enough, or they are obsessed by it. They need to want the deal more than the parties or they cannot want it more than the players involved. Whatever happens, the US is the easy party to blame, as by blaming the party in the middle, the Israelis and Palestinians avoid the responsibilities for their own failures. The biggest issue is not the US but the belief gap that exists within each population. As long as the populations are willing to accept two-states but do not believe it will happen in the medium term, then the conflict will never be solved as those opposing a deal enter into that incredulity gap and will build ‘negative facts on the ground’. Those opposing a two-state outcome are therefore empowered by this belief gap while those wanting the outcome are left advocating over a diminishing reality.
Could a different format work? Well as long as the US was present at the Israeli side and the Arab League there at the Palestinian side I think it could. One creative idea would be to subject any agreement to a vote in the UN both in the general assembly and at the security council where each side is ensured support therefore leveling the playing field. Yet all the talk of different mediation is for nothing unless the parties start trying to prepare their populations for the reality of two-states today. If we do not start building it today then we allow the reality on the ground to be changed by those looking for maximalist positions rather than mutually acceptable ones.
SB: Support for the BDS movement seems to be growing. What is your own view of boycotts?
JB: I think that the first thing to say is that anything that supports non-violent activism to show one’s opposition to the occupation should not be dismissed. The move from violence to non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation is something that should be encouraged and supported. Having said that, there is a difference between the tactic of boycott and the principles of the BDS movement itself.
The BDS movement is principally a rights focused movement that is supposedly agnostic on solutions to the conflict. The rights they endorse they see as inalienable and concern equality, right of return and end of occupation. The rights approach maintains that nothing can mitigate these rights, they can never be balanced or negotiated with.
The implementation of these rights removes the ability to achieve a mutually acceptable two-state solution. The reality of conflict resolution is that it is a balance of rights. The right to self-determination versus the right to security. The right of return versus the right of sovereignty over one’s own population. [This should not be interpreted that I support the current trajectory of laws in Israel around minority rights. I do believe that you can create a state with a stable majority and equal rights that might one day reflect changes in its demographic makeup. It is to say however that no country can be expected to offer a population that is equivalent to 85% of its current population the right to return and naturalize, if they so choose.
In many cases, these rights balance individual rights versus national rights. Now if you reject the concept of a national right then there is no balance to be sought and therefore you can be an absolutist about the rights of the individuals in this case. But this conflict has been about two national movements and two peoples. By reducing it to a contest of individual rights, you remove the concept of the nation state, something that is at the heart of the conflict for the Israelis.
In addition for many proponents of BDS Israel, as a nation, is not a rights holder. Their positions in the negotiations are merely impositions on Palestinian rights born out of colonialism. Reality dictates that you cannot remove the Israelis, but you should not think of their demands in terms of rights as all of them flow from a place of injustice.
I do not subscribe to the view that Israel has no rights. I also do not subscribe to the view that individual rights automatically trump the collective rights of the nation state. I think for a successful resolution that ends the occupation and achieves a mutually acceptable two-state solution, rights have to be balanced against each other. No side will ‘win’. This is not to say that I think that the current series of actors are negotiating in good faith.
I am a solutionist and weigh the various tactics to achieve the outcome that I think is most realistic, in this case the two-state solution. Do I think that boycotts make this solution more likely? Well I think demonstrating the unacceptability of building settlements is essential. My main goal is to get the state of Israel to stop funding them. Is the best way to get there to boycott the settlements? – I think that in many cases the answer is yes. Is it true in all cases? No. There is no hard and fast rule, and it is another reason I don’t subscribe to an absolutist set of principles. I’m a pragmatist looking to achieve a vision of peace that I think both populations can accept.
SB: Which journalists/analysts on Israel/Palestine do you find most insightful?
JB: I have a rich diet of various perspectives. I think it’s essential that everyone read people that they disagree with if they want a broad view.
I generally read Haaretz, Jpost, Ynet, Times of Israel, Maan, Al-Monitor, BBC, NYTimes Aretz 7, PNN, 972 Mag every day. In terms of most insightful, Yossi Verter’s political sketch on Friday’s in Haaretz is a must read and Daoud Kuttab for Al-Monitor is great on PA issues.
All Joel Braunolds answers are made in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the OneVoice Movement. All Children of Peace interviews cover a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and do not necessarily reflect those of Children of Peace.