Gershon Baskin in Front of a Statue of Martin Luther King Jr.

Is grass-roots activism a viable alternative to Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

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Gershon Baskin wishes that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that since although a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible.

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Friday, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Mr Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month, Mr Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinians are in open mutiny against Mr Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic and obsessive” Mr Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And it is unclear just how Mr Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race to the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new to the table. This has left peace activists contemplating “peace how” more than “peace now”.

“Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” said Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first. And Kerry has no Plan B.”

Ms Sadiq co-organised a recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations. The mood struck me as being similarly dour. Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds, from seculars whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or headscarves.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. As one speaker put it, “peace is too dear to be left to politicians”.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, whose collapse, as the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of the motivation behind Israel’s Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible,” he said, “because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, sidelining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Mr Baskin’s optimism that Mr Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals that garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure for which the majority on both sides vote should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Ms Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

MidEast Advisory Services (MEAS)

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