The argument that developed around the statement of the IDF spokesperson following the destruction of the tunnel leading into Israel from Gaza that “Israel did not have the intention to kill senior members of Islamic Jihad” triggers thoughts of the impact of public diplomacy on developing realities.
Clearly, the intent of this unusual IDF statement was to prevent a possible escalation. Other direct and indirect behind-the-scene messages were passed from Israel to the Hamas leadership, to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia in the hope that a new round of warfare would not be the result of Israel’s justified strike against a tunnel whose purpose was clearly to launch a future attack against Israel.
Belligerent messages by politicians and military personnel are sometimes warranted and sometimes help to maintain or to create deterrence. Some of our politicians have mastered the art of belligerent statements; our politicians have not been so artful in delivering messages of a more peaceful intent. Belligerent statements from the military and security forces in Israel are far more cautious and restrained – usually emphasizing Israel’s military capabilities rather than issuing warnings and threats. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Iran excel in their own right with belligerent verbosity, matching anything the Israeli leaders can put out.
Public diplomacy is not the norm between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the IDF spokesperson’s statement raises the question of why not.
This past week Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon held a secret meeting in Ramallah with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Included in that meeting were other senior personnel including Gen. Yoav Mordechai from the Israeli side and PA intelligence chief Gen. Majed Faraj. The meeting was organized by US President Donald Trump’s special emissary Jason Greenblatt, who was probably also responsible for leaking the fact of the meeting to the public.
The meeting took place after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would not cooperate with the PA following the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The reconciliation process is moving forward, despite the many obstacles, and so far has been more successful than most of the assessments by the so-called experts on Palestinian affairs in the Israeli media and security services predicted. And despite political statements of ending cooperation of all kinds between Israel and the Palestinians, this meeting, and others, are taking place.
This meeting occurred because it relates to reality and the understanding that neither Israel nor Palestine will cease to exist and that both sides have many shared interests in resolving disputes, improving quality of life and preventing violence. There is great value in public knowledge of the existence of such meetings, and their outcome. Sometimes, perhaps, secret meetings are important and sometimes negotiations between warring parties can only exist and progress in secrecy.
However, in an environment of fear and hatred, such as that which exists between Israelis and Palestinians, in which there is encouragement of mutual de facto boycotts and policies of no-contact, public diplomacy is essential in order to speak directly to the people on both sides, above and beyond the reach of leaders who more regularly engage in public belligerency.
Unfortunately, both Israeli and Palestinian politicians gain more favor with their respective publics when they speak more harshly about and to the other side. This is the disastrous result of failed peace processes over many years. That is what politicians do – they seek the favor of the electorate in order to get reelected and as such the name of the game on both sides is verbalizing animosity and bellicosity. That is what politicians do. It is not, however; what statesmen and stateswomen do.
Statesmen and stateswomen see beyond the next news cycle or the next elections. They view reality through the vision of changing and shaping it rather than being shaped by it. Words have power and when spoken consistently and with sincerity can move relationships of animosity and fear into paths of understanding and reconciliation. This is something that few of our politicians (in Israel and Palestine) have realized and done. Public diplomacy is part of a peacemaking agenda which does not presently exist in either Israel nor Palestine. But that is what we need.
The rhetoric of belligerency strengthens animosity and feeds the lack of trust between the two peoples, thus reinforcing the power of the boycotters and naysayers. When I confront the “anti-normalization” camp in Palestine, who boycott all contact with Israelis, often including me – I tell them that I don’t understand how by not talking to me they will bring an end to the occupation and liberate Palestine. I say to them that they need not only to talk to me, they need to mainly talk to right-wing Israelis. I tell them that they need to convince the majority of Israelis that they really do want peace. I say the same to Israelis regarding Palestinians.
I know how little Palestinians believe that there are Israelis who really want peace with the Palestinians and understand that occupation cannot exist together with peace. Palestinians don’t hear the message of peace from Israelis or from within Israeli society.
Israelis need to reach out, not only to Palestinians who want peace with Israel, but mainly to those who do not, or to those who do not believe that peace is possible.
We badly need public figures and leaders to speak peace, in public, to the other side, despite the unpopularity of this dynamic.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.