Is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other?

This piece is coauthored with Sarah Yerkes and was published by Brookings on Jan 4th

 Much has been written about Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while most of the analysis has focused on whether the speech was too harsh on Israel or how well Kerry defended the U.S. abstention in the United Nations, one theme of the speech has been overlooked: the idea that the two-state solution’s cause of death is not likely to be settlements or incitement, but rather the total lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. As Kerry said:

“In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.”

That line is important for multiple reasons. First, it underscores that the belief gap between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today is so wide that even if they agree completely on all of the final status issues—borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements—they are incapable of making a deal. Second, the leaders on both sides will never take the necessary risks for an agreement without overwhelming public support. That is, while public trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and lasting peace, it is a necessary one. And third, the innovation that is needed to get to a deal is not finding ever-new bridging formulas on the final status issues, of which the Kerry principles are just the latest iteration, but rather a focus on how to start traversing the incredulity gap that divides the people.

Mind the gap

Secretary Kerry is correct that nothing expands the belief gap more than continued settlement building on the Israeli side and glorification of violence on the Palestinian side. The crux of the quest for peace has been the concept of land for peace, and both parties seem incapable of giving the other side what they need to believe. Israelis may talk a good game, but Netanyahu’s statements about his willingness to negotiate land fall on deaf ears while settlement outposts continue to grow. The Palestinian security cooperation might keep the worst of the violence off the streets of Israel, but no level of coordination will be enough while stabbers and shooters of Israeli civilians are lionized by Fatah and monuments are dedicated to them.

Building trust between the populations requires different strategies than those for building track-one negotiations. It requires a systematic outreach approach to civil society, both in attention and, when appropriate, funding. At best, the U.S. government, alongside the other interested nations, aided civil society work in episodic bursts. At worst, they saw it as irrelevant while negotiations were ongoing.

We have both worked for years—one of us within the U.S. government, the other with Israeli, Palestinian, and American NGOs—to make the case that any peace process will fail without public support. Thus, we agree with Kerry’s comments that focusing solely on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and ignoring the people will only perpetuate this situation of total distrust. Yet it is frustrating that it took Kerry four years to understand this point.

To be clear, the civil society track is an “and” rather than an “or.” It buttresses other strategies and enables their successes, rather than stands alone. While it is not sufficient, it is necessary for any initiative to be successful.

Unlike settlements and incitement, which are driven far more by Israeli and Palestinian domestic considerations than international policy, engagement with the Israeli and Palestinian publics is one area where the U.S. negotiating team could have played a positive and effective role. Had Secretary Kerry realized in 2012 the importance of encouraging the public to push their leaders to stay at the negotiating table, he would have likely invested more time and money in supporting the efforts of civil society groups dedicated to preserving the two-state solution. Instead, the State Department largely ignored civil society, remaining laser-focused on the top leaders.

There is one important exception to this point. The U.S. government has repeatedly and strongly defended Israeli civil society in the face of an increasing attack by the Israeli government. During Kerry’s tenure as Secretary, the United States forcefully pushed back against different iterations of a harsh NGO law that particularly targeted foreign funding of human rights organizations.

However, during the 2013-2014 negotiations, Kerry made over three dozen trips to Israel and the West Bank. Yet despite the millions of miles flown and the tremendous amount of time that the secretary spent in the region, he never found a moment to meet with civil society. These were the groups, the people, whose expectations were raised when President Obama said in his 2013 speech in Jerusalem:

“And let me say this as a politician—I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Civil societies were expected to market the negotiations to their skeptical people, knowing that their governments were pouring cold water on them. Throughout the 14 months of negotiations, no senior member of the negotiating team held a town hall or public meeting with those who were expected to sell the process—either to hear their concerns or to give them the necessary boost to build domestic support for their efforts. And while there were some private attempts at outreach to civil society, they were insufficient and lacked the necessary high-level support to move the dial. When even the negotiators don’t take the efforts of those supporting them seriously, it is hard for them to be taken seriously within their own societies and by their own leadership.

Throughout the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $10 million a year in funding reconciliation programs between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. Not once did this line item make it into the Obama administration’s budget. Each year it was added to the federal budget after considerable effort on the congressional level in an ever-more difficult fiscal environment. When compared to how much the United States spends on military assistance to Israel and paying down the debts of the Palestinian Authority, it is a fraction of the resource to something that the administration only now recognizes as the underlying foundation to move forward.

Ball in Trump’s court

The next administration, whose dedication to the two-state solution is questionable, might look for some out-of-the-box ideas to try and unstick the parties and move the situation to a more stable setting. If we have any advice for them it is this, it starts with hope and change. It might seem odd that the Obama slogan needs to the be organizing philosophy for their approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but without hope, the parties will never move beyond their retrenchment. The key to hope is change, that the status quo can be different, that people do have agency.

To help each society recognize this potential, all the tools in the foreign policy toolkit must be used, including working with civil society groups. That’s essential for delivering that message and demonstrating to skeptical people that we are in a new era with new opportunities.

This should include:

  • Senior level advisors, including the new advisor for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, meeting with not just the parties, but civil society groups privately as well publically;
  • Inclusion of the USAID people-to-people reconciliation grant program into the federal budget; and
  • Leveraging U.S. dollars off those of the rest of the international community in the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which currently enjoys bipartisan support, that can provide the necessary bandwidth and budget for a systemic approach to the trust deficit.

We are glad Secretary Kerry understands how important it is to establish trust and confidence among the leaders in order to preserving the two-state solution. And we are glad he made a strong case for why the Israeli and Palestinian people must push their leaders to take political risks.

With the Paris peace conference on the horizon, a new U.S. administration being sworn in, and the parties jockeying for position in the new environment we hope that the lessons that took four years for Secretary Kerry to learn can be remembered and reflected on as seriously as the principles that he presented.

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The Saddest Thing About Israel’s New UN Envoy: U.S. Jews Will Get Used to Him

This article appeared in the print edition of Ha’aretz on August 30th 2015

My Twitter timeline was awash with sad and exasperated tweets last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in his wisdom to pick Danny “Deportation Now” Danon as the new face of Israel to the world, by appointing him Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. His rejection of the two-state solution and his want to deport all refugees make him the poster boy for the far-right members of Likud. His close relationship with Glenn Beck and his friendly on-camera appearance with Mike Huckabee suggest he could soon become Israel’s own representative to the Tea Party. And if that weren’t enough, despite being fired as deputy defense minister for not being able to have the self-restraint to withhold attacking the government during a time of war, Bibi apparently felt that this was the best person to build global partnerships and prevent diplomatic upsets.

Analysts rushed in to show the internal political reasons for the Danon pick: Bibi’s wish to remove him from the Likud Central Committee, to free up a cabinet seat and the like. Some, like veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz, despaired, writing that this move showed Bibi’s true face and that of Israel.

Personally, I think this appointment demonstrates the utter disregard that Bibi has for diplomacy and his desire to control everything from the Prime Minister’s Office. Let the diplomats do public relations, anything of importance comes directly to him.
Ignoring the “why” of the appointment, the sad reality of this move is that the firestorm will calm down and the U.S. Jewish community will get used to having Israel’s own version of Ted Cruz in their backyard, and will invite him to the normal functions and honors.

When Avigdor Lieberman was first appointed foreign minister in 2009, there was an equal cry of anguish from the global Diaspora community. For his first term, it was then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not Lieberman, who handled the U.S. relationship. Yet, when Lieberman was reappointed as Foreign Minister in the following Knesset, he was often seen as the grown up in the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly during the peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. His obnoxious policy positions toward Israel’s Arab minority, which he had always held, did not change, though, and on the eve of the most recent election, while still foreign minister, Lieberman threatened some 20 percent of Israel’s population, on live television, saying that they were citizens “for now.” We just got used to having a brutal pragmatist who saw a fifth of Israel’s population as disposable.

So too will be the case with Danny Danon: We will get used to him. There will be some awkward moments for sure, maybe the Anti-Defamation League will issue a condemnation or too, but nothing serious. Danon will get the same invites to the same receptions as his predecessor did. Jewish Americans have set their expectations so low for him that if he manages to get through a speech without a racial slur, it will be seen as a diplomatic masterpiece.

All the while his appointment makes an utter mockery of the work that the Jewish community – led by the American Jewish Committee – has been doing in the United Nations. The AJC, nicknamed the “State Department of the Jewish People,” sees its role as being the representatives of mainstream Jewish opinion to the diplomatic community in the United States and to foreign governments around the world.

The AJC took on preventing the United Nations from recognizing Palestinian statehood when the General Assembly voted on it in November 2011, as one of its major calls for action. Its rubric was: support peace and oppose the UN “gambit.” It feels odd, then, that the AJC lobbied the world to vote against recognizing Palestine as a state on the grounds that doing so would go against a viable two-state solution, but went silent when the Israel announced its new ambassador to the United Nations is a decisive opponent to the two-state solution and supports annexation in the West Bank.

I wonder what the atmosphere was like within the AJC when Danon’s appointment was announced. How does appointing a man who spent the past few years embarrassing Bibi – including in the pages of the New York Times – in his desire to destroy any hopes of two states for two peoples play with the AJC policy position and advocacy for a two-state solution?

By tolerating the appointment and adding Danon into the fold of the U.S. Jewish communal architecture, the American Jewish community will show once again that there is no right-wing flap in the communal tent: While we brutally and viciously police the lines on the left regarding who is in and who is out, we are starting to understand that one can say whatever he wants on the right and still be welcomed with open arms.

Israeli commentators worry about what Danon’s appointment says about Israel. I worry about what his reception in America will say about us.

 

Interview with Children of Peace

Children of Peace 4/9/14

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. 

 

Israeli apathy and Diaspora panic will bring about a decay of the Jewish people

Ha’aretz 12/7/12

Around this time last year, I wrote a piece for Haaretz about howHanukkah teaches us that we can move from passive acceptance to creative action concerning our fate. The point of the Jewish people having a state of our own is to have the ability to control our own destiny, so that things no longer just happen to us; we can affect the world.

This year for Sukkot I wrote another piece about how our desire for complete self-reliance is just as bad as our former state of victimhood; both demonstrate a ghetto mentality not fitting for a Jewish state.

I was at the United Nations on November 29, when the vote passed to upgrade Palestine’s status to non-member observer state. Having been there, seen the Israeli reactions and read hundreds of the opinion columns that followed, I’ve come to two conclusions:

First, we Jews in the Diaspora are most poetic when we describe our powerlessness, our enemies and our self-loathing. Clearly we have not internalized the lessons of Hanukkah.

Second, the Israeli public’s immediate reaction to adversity is flippancy. They have obviously ignored the lessons of Sukkot.

Following the November 29 vote, Jews in the Diaspora splashed articles throughout the media, providing marvelous analogies and crippling analyses. The range of emotions from rage, despair and anger to complete acceptance provided for a political spectrum that resembled a shiva, or seven-day Jewish mourning period.

Among Israelis, however, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that was even slightly worried. “Who cares,” an Israeli journalist quipped to me, moments after the November 29 vote, “Nothing will change, life will go on, and we will never be able to change our situation.”

The famous Israeli apathy – generated from a toxic mixture of conscription, terrorism and living in a small, hot country – has resulted in a culture of solitude and cynicism. That doesn’t mean Israelis are depressed. Quite the contrary – they are rather happy as a nation. The14th happiest nation in the world, to be exact.

This flippancy is evident not only among the Israeli population, but also among their leaders, especially when they attempt to cope with situations that seem beyond their control. Whether using humor to conveydiplomatic messages or turning every crisis into a catchphrase, Israel’s leadersip has built a rhetorical repertoire that makes even the harshest of diplomatic entanglements seem to the population like water off a duck’s back.

As Jews around the world panic and feel victimized, the Israelis are insulated inside a self-reliant island -everything is a crisis to a Diaspora Jew; nothing is worth worrying about to an Israeli. Even on the most serious of issues – the Iranian nuclear threat – Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu draws cartoons and references ducks.

While panicked hand-wringing and resorting to morbid humor may seem like different reactions to the same problem, they are actually both signs that we, as a people, do not believe we can truly be masters of our own fate.

Furthermore, if panic and flippancy are the only reactions we can muster now, not only will the Jewish people suffer moral decay, we will perpetuate this disregard for our tradition, which urges us to strive and thrive. If we are ever to progress as a people, we must move beyond expecting disaster and failure in all circumstances.

Of course, one could just ignore and make fun of me. I am just another panicked Diaspora Jew after all.