I recently returned from a two week stay in Israel and parts of the West Bank, both Palestinian Areas A and B and Israeli-controlled Area C. There’s no substitute to traveling and meeting with the people “on the ground,” including native voices and fellow American diplomats. I participated in portions of Israel Policy Forum’s delegation and as a member of an Avi Schaefer Fund cohort.
As the imposing Mediterranean sun sets coinciding with the exodus of Tel Aviv’s young workforce from their offices, summer nights take hold just as they might in San Francisco or Berlin. Finding an inch of table space to watch the World Cup can be an impossible task on Dizengoff or Rothschild boulevard. In Jerusalem, murmurs of the upcoming October municipal elections spread through corners of the city alongside the many “Trump Make Israel Great” advertisements. Who will represent the ultra-Orthodox on the ballot? Will the city’s younger generation of Palestinians actually turn out and vote?
The cafes and ice cream shops in nearby Ramallah reflect the cultural needs and aspirations of a modern urban center. Isolated and with limited sovereignty, emerging Palestinian entrepreneurs build their own high-tech future while watching the same soccer matches as their Israeli counterparts. Through the puzzle that is Areas B and C to Ramallah’s south in Bethlehem, Israel’s security barrier – also “Separation Fence” or “Apartheid Wall” depending on who you ask – is adorned both with World Cup projector screens and Palestinian protest art. Murals calling to “Make hummus not war” and “Find something worth fighting for” are intertwined with global pop-culture references to Larry David and Rick and Morty on these concrete slabs.
A simple glimpse behind the surface through conversations with locals reveals that whatever semblance of tranquility is obscured by deep-rooted contradictions and inequalities. But leaving aside the politics and history of the conflict for a moment – tasks not just or feasible in practical reality – the American and global, Israeli and Palestinian societies must find agreement that the present status quo is not normal nor sustainable. Amidst an alternate and equally important conversation of complexities, conflicting narratives, moral injustices and more, the contemporary political and public discourse has worsened drastically and requires the bar for consensus to be significantly lowered. Hope – or even the mere ability to do so – for any sort of different pathway forward has dissipated for many.
While initiatives dedicated to the “bottom-up” approach continue to operate within and across borders, they stand defiantly at the front lines against the “top-down” political echelons. These civil society and public sphere organizations – whether dedicated to shared society, improved economies, or grassroots organizing – are nearly uniformly underrepresented in political leadership and are operating in a post peace process context. In 2015’s elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly suggested that leftists (implicitly foreign funded) were bussing Arab citizens in masse to the voting booth. Roughly one year ago, it became evident that the U.S. government had backtracked its public commitment to the two-state solution. And most recently, the Palestinian Authority is refusing to consider or even look at any impending peace plan from the Trump administration and its regional partners.
The political abandonment by the primary players of the peace process, in its traditional and rhetorical sense, hassled to an abandonment of hope. As a result, the pressing question becomes how non-governmental actors can fill this void in the months and years ahead, both policy-wise and beyond, before leaderships are replaced or shifted in stance. For activists, educators, and other change-makers outside of the conflict area – including in the American Jewish community where I operate – the primary theory of change must be rooted in positively influencing the Israeli and Palestinian societies themselves.
Two major problems exist in this regard. First, outside actors perpetuate the conflict’s divisiveness by operating with a dependence on their own respective internal motivations and concerns. The BDS movement, while demonstrably and holistically opposed to Israel’s existence, broadly appeals to foreign individuals’ personal desires to make the world more just and equitable. By contrast, the diaspora’s case for Israel’s existence in the Middle East is spread primarily through appeals to self-determination and Jewish political capital. In this sense, foreign entities and their agendas are primarily – and perhaps subconsciously – acting for themselves and their own existences, as opposed to with respect to the parties in Israel or Palestine.
Both instances lead us to the second and most glaring problem: the prevalence of a zero-sum mentality. The rationale follows that if my community and I are primarily in support of the Jewish homeland’s existence, then we must not be as concerned for a Palestinian state. If others are driven solely by human rights perspectives, then they must not be bothered by the concerns of the more powerful party.
This mentality finds its haven in foreign lands because foreigners are not the ones living with the consequences of their advocacy. The one-sided nature of their actions negates the reality and necessity of win-win scenarios and de-incentivizes the leaders themselves to return to meaningful negotiations and even public positions that represent such a perspective.
Whether through economic, environmental, security, or other lenses, the shared future of Israelis and Palestinians through cooperation and an eventual separation into two states must be central to how foreign individuals, organizations, and governments view the pathways out of conflict. Win-win policy examples we can support given the dire situation in the Gaza Strip include a return of security-vetted Palestinian workers to Israeli employment opportunities or enhanced water desalination projects to improve quality of life and the prevention of the spread of disease. Beginning in July, our Israel Policy Forum team will begin outlining fifty pragmatic steps and ideas that we believe can be utilized to build consensus, while also showcasing the specific manifestations of a win-win perspective.
Up until this juncture, the U.S. government’s approach can be perceived as opposite to the viewpoint I’ve expressed here. While troubling, if the various American stakeholders and international community can reach broad consensus that the present situation must be improved, then we must begin working across divides to reach compromises that reflect this win-win mentality. The longer we wait to do so, the closer we become to the lose-lose.