‘Peace’ doesn’t belong solely to Israelis, nor ‘justice’ to Palestinians

This article first appeared in Haaretz on the 30th of September 2014

The summer of 2014 was a horrendous experience. The kidnappings, riots, murders and war that gripped Israelis and Palestinians has left a bleeding wound that is still festering.

The violence of the summer also demonstrated the parallel universes within which each community, and their supporters, resides. Gilad Lotan’s groundbreaking research into the social media networks has demonstrated how each community talks past each other. Even people-to-people approaches, those attempts to try to foster some aspect of dialogue, found it increasingly hard to find a common language in the violent cacophony that engulfed the region this summer.

Digging a little bit into Lotan’s data we can find that the very language and concepts that each community uses are now completely distinct. ‘Peace’ is a term that has been appropriated by the pro-Israel community. In contrast, the issue of rights features prominently in analysis offered by pro-Palestinian networks; it is absent from the other side of the debate.

During my years working in and around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the appropriation of language has been getting worse. Within the Israeli camp, one hears of security, peace and coexistence. Within the Palestinian camp, justice, rights and freedom.

These concepts are all necessary for a lasting solution to the conflict, yet our inability to solve it has led the two camps to surround themselves with concepts that each believes are their birthright alone. Justice is not a divisible ideal; security must be inclusive if it is to be sustainable.

The appropriation of these terms though is more then just an interesting, if somewhat depressing, anecdote. The real world implications have been that programs that have sought to promote one or more of these values are instantly tagged as partisan.

‘Peace’ is only spoken about in quotation marks among many within the pro-Palestine movement. Too many false dawns have led them to the conclusion that any talk of peace is a fig leaf for the continued occupation. Peace has been replaced with Justice, a virtue that will reward the oppressed and punish those who occupy.

Within much of the pro-Israel community talk of rights (outside the right to self-defense) is immediately seen as suspicious. The institutional challenges of forums such as the UN Human Rights Council has created a defensive reflex within the community whenever the topic of rights is discussed.

Standing behind all of this are two radically different framings to the situation. For the Palestinians, this is a Zionist occupation of Palestine, one that has a clear imbalance of power between the occupied and the occupier. Any framing that tries to draw equivalence between the sides normalizes the situation and benefits the Israelis.

For the Israelis, this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, with Israel surrounded by a seething Arab world of hundreds of millions, a world that will not talk to them and characterizes them in the worst frames of Jewish history. An iron wall must be created to protect the villa in the jungle, a place where liberal democracy (with its warts and all) can flourish. Any cracks in that wall will be exploited and Israel will cease to exist. All outside must be treated with upmost suspicion. Peace is to be dictated on terms that can maintain the security that Israel has relied on to survive.

Each community viciously rejects any comparison to the other. The day-to-day reality means that while Israelis can generally get on with their lives and flourish (albeit under incredible levels of stress), Palestinians continue to suffer the daily indignities that an occupation brings.

The current situation is not stable. Violence is spilling out of the seams as the status quo fractures and groups try and take advantage of the despair that is filling the vacuum. Anything constructive must have a foundation, and in this case it must be based on the shared concepts of peace, justice, security, rights, freedom and coexistence. Finding ways to depolarize these concepts is essential to move forward. What must be done is to show that these virtues are all part of a shared future. This is the goal of people-to-people programming – creating a shared set of values with which to move forward.

People-to-people programs, whether between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs or within each group itself are easy to dismiss. On first glance they can appear fanciful and naïve. Like every other approach, they have so far not been able to solve this problem and are therefore dismissed. But that is a mistake.

These programs all have within them the necessary, aspects that any solution will be build upon. The creators and volunteers within these groups will be the first to tell you that they know that their work alone is not sufficient, but needs to be part of a mosaic to help turn the tide against those who wish to invest in the status quo and deepen the power imbalance. They are necessary though.

These dialogues, the ones that have survived the trials and tribulations of the past twenty years, are neither purposeless nor aimless. It is not about sitting around and eating humus while the world around them burns. Rather each attempts to affect change in some aspect of society, be it education, environment, economy, culture, faith or politics.

By coordinating and unifying various approaches, these peace builders look to create something out of the rubble that this summer, and so many of the summers before it, have left in their wake.