Creating common interests in the Middle East

By Meir Amor | 1995-09-01 12:00:00

The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is fraught with obstacles which seem to threaten its continuation. Many Israelis, Palestinians and others who initially supported the peace negotiations seem to be giving up on it now. Proponents of the Palestinian cause tend to justify their new stand by pointing at the recurrent Israeli attempts to confiscate Arab land (the last incident was in Beit Safafa near Jerusalem), human rights violations, and the consolidation of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. On the other hand, advocates of the Israeli cause point to the Palestinian rejection front, composed of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, that seem as forceful, lethal and uncompromising as ever. Terrorist acts and human suicide bombs are causing death and spreading despair.

This article is written in support of the peace process, bearing in mind that the other option to peace is war. However, there are issues in this peace agreement that must be clarified. In order to expose the problems involved with the peace process in the Middle East, I suggest that we distinguish between a political peace agreement and a social peace process. The former is just the initial necessary step, whereas the latter is the crucial one. How can we acquire the frame of mind to see peace as a social process?

There are only two options to deal with the conflict in the Middle East. The first option is the way of war. The second option is the new way of negotiation and dialogue. We know much about the human suffering that accompanies the way of war. Wars are false instant solutions. Neither the Jewish-Israeli Question nor the Palestinian Question can be solved by the war "solution." War is well known in the Middle East; it even came to be taken for granted as a procedure. The responsibility for war in the Middle East cannot be laid exclusively on the shoulders of one side. The war path is always open and ready to be activated by factions on both sides. Oddly, it is the option of peace that some find threatening. The negotiating table might open up new relations, ideas, and language that are anathema to warmongers of any camp.

The agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate meant two things. First, it meant the opening of a responsible dialogue aimed toward future prospects, not just past resentments. Second, it also meant the abandonment of the long tradition of mutual rejection. However, this new openness was the outcome of a bloody, acrimonious struggle, not of good will. The war path was abandoned only after some people on both sides were convinced that it led only to more disasters.

Two crucial principles--reciprocal responsibility and recognition--are the real foundations for any peace project in the Middle East. Recognition means that both sides accept the elementary and fundamental right of the other side to exist in the Middle East. Reciprocal responsibility means that the well-being of one side must be an essential element in the well-being of the other. Without these components, neither political nor social peace can be achieved. It is a simple fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will wither away because their opponents wish them ill. There is only one way to deal with their existence-to face it as an enduring reality. Israel and Palestine are here to stay in the Middle East.

The peace process is a reality that emerged out of twelve decades of a war situation. The bargaining positions from which the peace negotiations started were, and still are, war attitudes, since these attitudes are based only on the mutual experience both parties have--the war experience. To transform war postures, a peace process is needed. However, it is not easy to come by; it must be worked out by hard effort.

Peace needs steadfastness and courage. We are just at the beginning of this process. No illusions or romantic perceptions of peace are needed now, nor are stereotypes of Jews, Israelis, Arabs or Palestinians useful. Instead, the prerequisite for a peace process is a conception that the well-being of one side largely depends on the well-being of the other. These notions of dialogue and reciprocity are revolutionary new concepts; they are rooted not only in moral convictions but also in realistic appreciation of the social situation of Israelis and Palestinians.

The future of the peace project will depend on how Israelis and Palestinians cooperate in everyday encounters. Since Israel is the more powerful side, its policies and intentions are the most important factors. Are the sides going to co-operate in order to achieve equality? Or is the Palestinian side going to be subjugated as before, except that now it will be an economic subjugation, not a direct military one? This question brings us to the issue of power differences.

The Social Peace Process

The geo-politics of the area, the demographic factors, and the long historical and cultural roots of every point in the negotiating agenda show the inter-connectedness of the life chances of Israelis and Palestinians. To ignore these factors is to court disaster. Peaceful relations mean taking account of this inter-connectedness, without hesitation or reluctance. But such peaceful relations can materialize only on the basis of the concrete interests of people from both sides. As of now, there are no joint economic interests of people from both sides; they must be created. The creation of these interests is the peace project. If there is any peace project worthy of the name, it is this. The goal should be the creation of numerous, viable democratic associations, and economically interdependent, cooperative joint activities of Israelis and Palestinians within each society and between the two societies.

Take tourism and water resource management as examples. Touring the Holy Land means crossing national, religious, as well as geographical lines. Without joint responsibility and attention, tourism can turn into a bone of contention instead of a bridge for peaceful relations.

Anyone aware of the scarcity of water in the region knows that it must be jointly supervised, since rain that falls on Nablus flows toward Tel Aviv. Moreover, if there is an epidemic in Gaza strip as a result of poverty, malnutrition, and deteriorating sanitation systems, it is as much an Israeli problem as a Palestinian problem--not only because Israel has direct moral and political responsibility, but also because diseases know no national borders; they travel fast; and the distance is short. There is no other way but the interdependent way. What are the problems and obstacles involved in meeting this objective? And how can we deal with them?

On the Israeli side there are at least two major obstacles to the peace process. The first is the Israeli tradition of being a war society. Israel developed a war structure and culture because Israeli Jews were engaged in a constant war for their survival with Palestinians, Arabs and Arab countries over the last century in the Middle East. A war structure and culture means that human and material resources, energies, and talents are channelled to "national security," not to peaceful pursuits.

The other factor, which is intimately related to the first, is the concrete, real, and historically justified "fear complex" of Jews and Israelis for their actual existence. These factors are not imaginary; they are realities that must be part of the discussion at the negotiating table. For example, Palestinians have to care about the Holocaust that happened to Jews because, like a giant concealed magnet, that traumatic event shapes the Jewish and Israeli conception of reality. It means that the Palestinians, the oppressed group in the Middle East, must come to terms with the Holocaust that happened to their oppressor, the Israeli Jews. These are only some of the intellectual, moral and real challenges both sides have to face and surmount in their pursuit of peace.

On the Palestinian side there are at least two major obstacles. The first one is the "rejection front" which manifests itself now as religious fervor. The religious way is chosen mainly because the other ways are not able to provide better solutions. The Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are the political expressions of alienation and despair among Palestinians caused by Israel's brutal policies during the long military occupation, and the endemic and humiliating poverty to which Palestinians have been subjected. If a viable alternative were to present itself, some of this religious zeal might wane.

The other obstacle is the conflict between the incipient democratic institutions and the established hierarchy of the PLO and religious bodies in Palestinian society. Democratic organizations and attitudes emerged out of necessity in the occupied territories and they displayed their power and grass-roots origins during the Intifada (the Uprising). The Intifada was not only a political uprising against Israeli occupation, but also a social and to some degree, a democratic revolution of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories. These organized bodies and the legacy of the struggle for independence present a real challenge to the leadership and legitimacy of the PLO and established authorities within Palestinian society. Hanan Ashrawi's fate--"the lost leader" as the New York Review of Books called her--is only one example of this internal struggle within Palestinian society. Discussing these issues should not be perceived as washing dirty linen in public but, instead, as part of a democratic and peaceful process. This is the context in which the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians should be analyzed.

This article is addressed to people in Canada who have some interest in the peace process in the Middle East. Any simplistic formulation of "good guys versus bad guys" is as wrong here as anywhere. To deal peacefully with such human issues as the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations requires the courage to make slow moves in unknown and unmapped directions. It requires an enlarged perspective that includes both sides. Such an attitude is not based merely on a moral argument but on the acknowledgment of real historical factors.

Myths About The East

When I speak to people in Canada about the situation in the Middle East, I find that many of them are coloring the issues with their native stereotypes. This inclination is prevalent among some Jews, Palestinians, and other parties that have some interest in the area. The Middle East should be dealt within its own right and understood in its own terms. For example, Israelis and Jews are not equivalent. Though they have much in common, non-Israeli Jews and Israeli Jews are not the same. Israeli Jews have a unique identity and culture based on their Jewish heritage and their specific Israeli circumstances and history. Besides, not all Israelis are Jews; a substantial minority of Israeli citizens are of Palestinian origin.

Israel's genuine identity is denied by many proponents and opponents alike. Some of the critics of Israel's policies tend to link their anti- Israel or antiZionist attitudes with anti-Semitism. However, one can be critical of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip without being anti-Israeli. One can criticize Zionist institutions and politicians without being anti-Zionist. One can even be an anti-Zionist without being an Anti-Semite. Undiscriminating, stereotypical attitudes toward Jews or Arabs, Israelis, or Palestinians are wrong if a clear understanding of the Middle Eastern conflict is intended. The question is how to build a different future and right some of the wrongs that were done to the Palestinians.

Peace depends on how many Israelis and Palestinians will reach out to each other, how many Israelis and Palestinians will hold each other's hand across the lines of hatred, suspicions, fear, and reluctance. And these are empirical questions, not just wishes. The democratic associations of Palestinians, which led the Intifada, can show us the way toward peace too. These associations are active in many fields, from health care to education, from workers' unions to women-based enterprises. On the Israeli side there are similar organizations that try to transfer power to the hands of ordinary citizens. Further-more, there are some organizations that do cooperate across national lines. These organizations can become the nucleus of future peace interest groups.

Peace and war are not the business of politicians alone. Soldiers and civilians fight and die in wars; civilians can create peace and preserve it. The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians needs the active involvement and moral commitment of ordinary people from both communities. It depends on it, and in the last analysis it is the people's ultimate responsibility. Although the politicians decide on wars and sign peace contracts, it is up to the people to transform war relations into peaceful ones. In the Israeli government as well as in the Israeli society, there are people who see peace as their existential interest. In Palestinian society and in its political circles as well, there are those who perceive peace as the only way to secure life. These people will work for peace, and they need your unbiased help.

Meir Amor is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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