Can Israel and Palestine learn anything from Tunisia

This article first appeared in Haaretz Oct 16th

The Middle East looks like a graveyard for hope. Throughout the region, violence is spinning out of control and the world’s leaders seem to lack any semblance of a strategy to contain it.

It is on this backdrop that the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was so wonderful and surprising. While Nobel-watchers thought his holiness the pope or German Chancellor Angela Merkel were front runners, the committee decided to grant this honor to a quartet of civil society actors in Tunisia – the National Dialogue Quartet – who helped ensure that the birthplace of the Arab Spring would continue the path to democracy.

It is worthwhile reading the entire story behind the how the labor and trade unions, human rights activists, and a professional association of lawyers came together to form an unlikely quartet to save Tunisia’s nascent democracy after political assassinations and constitutional deadlock. Yet what is important is to understand that this unusual coalition was so diverse in its constituents, so unassailable in its credibility, and so masterful in mediation that it managed to get the budding democracy to pull back from the brink and fix the fractured political situation. Tunisia remains one of the few bright spots in a region so desperate for heroes.

It is always hard to apply the lessons from one country to another, but there is wisdom in how civil society played such a key role in Tunisia when the elected officials failed. Democracy is far more than the ballot box; it is a society that takes ownership of itself.

The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed. Israelis certainly don’t feel safe, and Palestinians are no closer to ending the occupation. The political echelons seem incapable of delivering their populations a bright future. Is there a role for civil society to play in this conflict, outside the ballot box?

At different times, attempts have been made to get different civilians to play a productive role in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the Kerry initiative, business leaders from across both camps came together to try to “Break the Impasse.” Yet despite this group comprising business leaders from a vast array of their respective economies, they could not find the way to move the ball forward.

Israel’s trade union, the Hisdatraut  and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions came together to express their hopes for peace and signed agreements to advance “fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”

And the human rights communities in both Israel and Palestine have long, established working relationships, trying to ensure international law is upheld both day-to-day and at times of conflict.

Yet before these branches can come together across the societies, they must first come together within each of their societies.

In Palestine, the divide between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is creating a fractious identity. Finding a way for civic unity for a society separated by borders and circumstance is a daunting task. It was the street on March 15, 2011 that demanded unity and kicked off the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the leaders’ failure to implement an agreement, it will fall on the street again to force the issue, and build the groundwork required to hold elections on the day after President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin has diagnosed, is split into tribes – ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews, and Arabs – who are struggling to find a common identity.

With Arabs making up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, we – Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – must collectively recognize that Arab citizens are not a tolerated few, but equal citizens. We need to put an end to the perception of Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat. For when we perceive them as a threat, two things happen. First, all of our relationships with “the other” inherently become threatening. Second, we bequeath this conflict to our children and our grandchildren.

At times of increased tension and violence, civil society – both Arab and Jewish – can calm the tensions, even as elected representatives fan the flames. They can do this by sharing access to public resources, creating common civic values and finding practical partnerships between different civic and municipal groups that offer public services.

A civil society that has found a collective identity, that has achieved wins for its communities and can credibly advocate on behalf of its communities, stands a chance at creating its own quartet – one that is just as effective as the Tunisians’ and more effective than the diplomatic Middle East Quartet that currently exists.

In a region full of violence and hate, I do thank the Nobel Prize committee for honoring the unsung heroes of Tunisia – the unionists and businessmen, lawyers and human rights activists – who showed that change is possible and hope still has a place in the Middle East.

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