I have been accused in the past of being a dreamer, of wearing rose-colored glasses.
And so when Israel’s current “Change” government was formed and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was nowhere to be found on its agenda, I was really concerned. The items listed in the coalition agreements covered repairing rifts and inequities in society, but only those affecting citizens within Israel.
Since then, Prime Minister Bennett has proclaimed that Palestinians would not get a state under his watch. I am not sure how many noticed, but he also noted that annexation would not take place. Bennett recognizes that the coalition will only stay intact as long as the issues they attack are common ones; the bigger issues cannot be touched as they would not only rock the boat, but sink it.
Bennett’s publicly asserted adamance regarding statehood – even if tempered by knowledge that there was a pragmatic reason accompanying his own ideological one – made me think things will only get worse as Palestinians and the world see no progress towards a resolution.
My fear was that once the world realized that a broad coalition was no different than the far right government that preceded it insofar as the conflict was concerned, those who had blamed Bibi as the impediment to progress would no longer have him as a scapegoat. I truly feared that Israeli itself would be further vilified and anti-Israel sentiment would increase.
At the same time, I see cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian governments increasing. The hostile positions that both sides clung to when the previous Israeli government was in place seems to be replaced with attitudes of looking to improve conditions. And I now realize that even without a date to get back to the negotiating table, change can happen.
So, when someone in a Facebook peacebuilding group I am in shared a CNN piece about how the Israeli government is embracing “shrinking” the conflict instead of solving it and asked for opinions, I had to voice mine.
The article cited Micah Goodman, who wrote about this approach in a 2017 book and whose 2019 article in The Atlantic, “Eight Steps to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” gave me much food for thought when I read it a year and a half ago. It is a long and worthwhile read. (And please, let me also offer my much shorter suggestions for ways Israel can unilaterally improve relations, from this past May.)
My comment on the CNN piece in the peacebuilding group reflected that I viewed Israel embracing shrinking the conflict positively, with some caveats. “After too many years of hostile relations between the two sides, this approach offers an opportunity to change the tenor of the relationship. Not only that, but to build trust and to change world perception. All important. Shrinking could be viewed as preparatory steps for resuming negotiations. But I can’t see this government saying that outright and they ought to. Palestinians need to hear that. The other caveat I also have about shrinking is if the Palestinians don’t welcome the actions taken. If they equate activity to make their lives better as normalization, they may reject some of the steps. And that would be a pity.
“I think that this concept, if viewed as a stepping stone, is good. I also think that Hamas may not buy in, and given the PA’s relationship to them, it could work in the PA’s favor if all Palestinians’ lives improve in a day-to-day way. If the Gulf and other countries building ties with Israel were to also be brought in to somehow work with the Palestinians to help shape asks of Israel — that is, to shift the dynamic from ‘what Israel decides to give’ to ‘what Palestinians ask for,’ that this could also help strengthen the PA. A lot depends on how Abbas takes to the shrinking idea.”
And so, I want to have hope. I want to keep my glasses.
One other possible effect of increased cooperation could be the humanization of each side in the eyes of the other. And this is really important. Whether or not this government is willing to open negotiations, if attitudes can change, then this time spent building relationships can bear fruit in and of itself.
How? By giving the two respective publics periods of adjustment, time to learn that they can trust the other side. Now, for this to work, both sides have to continue to want to improve relations. In fact, both sides really ought to stop thinking of themselves as sides and more as partners seeking the same thing, a better future for themselves and their children (see also my blog, “It is better to pick a cause than to pick a side.”)
This may be too much wishful thinking. Let’s just say that the public begins to see that working together is better than opposing each other. And let’s say that the next time elections come around, the public and future coalition partners are putting peace on their agendas. Perhaps then we can get to the next stage.
And what would that be? Precisely what I blogged about four weeks ago in “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: How to move forward” when I wrote about what I had learned at Hebrew University and about the paper I had written for the course I tool there. That is, each side must acknowledge its role in the other’s suffering, must express empathy towards the other side and must do so truthfully and credibly.
I do think that the only way that this approach can work is if the political leaders on each side understand the psychological needs of the other side and of themselves. In my actual paper, I propose ways to get the ears of the politicians, but it can’t be done alone.
So let’s start with shrinking the conflict. Can we find a way for countries who’ve signed the Abraham Accords – with Israel’s blessing – to find ways to help the Palestinians vis-à-vis their relationship with Israel?
Can we also find ways to continue humanizing Palestinians living in both the West Bank and Gaza? Can they find ways to humanize Israelis despite Hamas and other groups who would fight against that?
If we can pull that off, is it such a far step for each side to want to help the other? But then the biggies: To acknowledging where we have contributed to the other’s suffering. And to empathize with them. And to say it with conviction so as to be believed.
While it would be better for the leaders to lead this effort, if enough of the public embraces these steps, then it will push the leadership to do the same.
Yes, I am clinging to my rose-colored glasses, I know. But I want a better future. Can you blame me?