Wherever I go in Israel and whoever I meet, I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Israelis really want peace. Likewise, wherever I go in Palestine and whoever I meet there, I am convinced that a majority of Palestinians really want peace. Strangely, when I present these findings to Israelis and Palestinians alike, both sides disagree.
They both say “we want peace, but they don’t.” Then they (both sides) provide very convincing arguments filled with “facts” proving that the other side really does not want peace. Both sides have a stockpile of ammunition to prove how bad the other side is, how evil their intentions and how impossible it is to make peace with them.
It is quite clear that both sides are victims of years of failed attempts to make peace and have suffered the results of those failures. Often, and incorrectly, we have heard the term “victims of peace.” That is the biggest lie of them all. There has never been peace between Israel and Palestine and those thousands who have been killed, on both sides, are not “victims of peace,” they are victims of the continued conflict and the failure of the parties to reach peace. The Oslo agreements were not peace agreements – they were at best a peace process that failed.
The continuation of the conflict, with its violence, incitement, hatred, lack of contact, lack of desire for contact, fear and self-righteousness perpetuates itself to the extent that the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians are completely convinced that peace is impossible. They are so convinced that there is no partner on the other side that they have even let go of the dream. There is no hope for peace in Israel, nor in Palestine. In the absence of peace, and in the evaporation of hope, both societies have turned inward. They have become more religious. They have become more nationalistic. They have bought the self-sustaining narratives that all of the blame for the failure lies on the other side. For a while they rallied around their flags and their leaders, but now, on both sides, there is growing impatience with the respective leaderships. Neither side quite knows what or who they want instead of their current leadership, but the growing dissatisfaction is becoming clearer with each passing day.
Israelis will be given a new chance to decide who and what they want. But the Israeli political system does not elect leaders directly and the multi-party system does not usually, at least not in the past couple of elections, produce a clear leader or a clear path forward.
The Israeli body politic is divided, divergent and pluralistic – representing the diverse mosaic of political cultures within the society. Coalitions are formed, often from parties with conflicting worldviews, but out of interests and desire for power come together and try to lead. The society then tends to agree to a false reality that the leader, the prime minister, represents a majority of society.
That is not always true and very often completely false. But it is almost always true that in polls between elections the incumbent always comes out on top, often far above all other contenders. That has been the case with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past years. As elections get closer that tends to change and we are already beginning to see that change.
In Palestine, with no election date set and no idea when they might take place in the future, public opinions polls are demonstrating clear fatigue with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. This has many explanations – first and foremost being the failure of President Abbas to deliver his primary election promises: ending the Israeli occupation, creating a Palestinian state, bringing prosperity – all through non-violence. He has not succeeded in delivering on even one of these promises. Additionally, he was supposed to serve a four-year term, which means that he should have stood for new elections in 2009, or 2010 at the latest. That has not happened. The Palestinian house has been divided. The government of national consensus that was formed in May 2014 is faltering and the “unity” seems to be collapsing.
The most popular Palestinian politician in the polls is Marwan Barghouti – currently serving five life sentences in Israeli prison for his responsibility as leader of the second intifada (although not convicted of actually killing anyone with his own hands). Palestinian frustrations are on the rise: dissatisfaction with their political and economic realities, deep despair about the situation in Gaza and the extraordinary hardships faced by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians there – all of these combined are very fertile ground for political violence – inwards and outwards.
Palestinian political violence would most definitely feed the Right in Israel and strengthen those who wish to prevent the Palestinians from achieving statehood and freedom and that is exactly why some actions by Netanyahu’s government and right-wing activists could provoke Palestinian violence. The Israeli Right offers no real alternative for dealing with the conflict other than the falsehood of “managing” it. There is no such thing as managing this conflict. The conflict does not stand in place and it refuses to be managed. The continuation of settlement building, the continued tightening of the economic grip by Israel on the neck of the Palestinian economy, as has been the case over the past couple of years, and the lack of any vision of solution to the conflict will continue to empower the extremists in the Palestinian camp while the moderates who want to achieve peace will be further weakened.
Palestinians, like Israelis, have lost hope. That is a very dangerous situation.
I continue to hope and I continue to be optimistic.
On Monday evening I sat with several young Palestinian men in a café in Ramallah. They have invested all of their resources to launch a new radio station in Ramallah. They are broadcasting in Arabic the voice of peace and hope. They received a license from the PA and have already set up their studio and transmitter.
They plan to soon also broadcast in Hebrew. They told me: “We cannot accept this reality we are living. We are heading toward a new round of violence and we have to do everything possible to prevent it.” They said, “The violence won’t lead us to anything positive.”
It was very encouraging to hear them. Their voice is a low whisper at this time but it can become a loud roar heard above all of the other noise of anger and anguish – if only there would be some kind of positive response from Israel.
Hope can build hope. That must be the thought that we Israelis keep in our hearts and minds as we head into these elections. Who will create hope – who has a vision of peace, who can lead us to peace? These are the most important questions that we must answer. And just as hope builds hope, to build partnerships is a conscious decision which is self-sustaining and mutually empowering. It is not fate that has created the lack of partners – it is the work of leaders who have failed. Now we need new leaders who will refuse to fail and will not try to convince us that peace is only the naïve dream of false prophets. Peace is a decision first, and then it is made through actions.
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.