By Alex Croft
“The face off wasn’t between Israel and the Palestinians. It was between those who supported peace, and those who objected to it.”Uri Savir, former Israeli Chief Negotiator
Savir was reflecting on the reaction of Israelis and Palestinians to the Oslo peace process of the mid-1990s – a historic period in negotiations.
An era of treaties and relative compromise between peace-seekers on either side, both leaderships united to overcome the forces of extremist and political Israeli/Palestinian ultra nationalism in 1993.
Young people across the world are rarely taught this period of positive history and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
Instead, we know only what is fed to us in simplified terms and on a regular basis, by the news media and on social media; the generalised image of ‘Israelis’ versus ‘Palestinians’.
Savir’s quote therefore raises the question of whether it is time to restore a discourse which goes beyond the conventional idea of ‘sides’ defined by national identity, focussing instead on peace-seekers rather than peace-objectors.
Sharon Booth, the executive director of Solutions Not Sides, an educational organisation aimed at encouraging conversation and tackling hate speech around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supports such a change.
Booth wrote: “Instead of Israelis vs. Palestinians and their respective camps of supporters internationally, the alternative paradigm is those who seek solutions to end the conflict vs. those who support one side against the other.”
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict programme for the US Institute for Peace, argues that simplifying such a complicated issue only damages future peace initiatives.
She told Redaction Report: “Like any conflict, and any society, the Israeli and Palestinian context is more complex than surface understandings.
“Simple binaries… all fuel a situation in which facts are cherry-picked to fit a given narrative, zero-sum mindsets prevail, and minimal effort is made to engage around mutually beneficial solutions.’
The case seems strong, then, that the ‘Israelis vs Palestinians’ generalisation which has taken hold of the global discourse has aided the polarisation of an already divided region.
International support camps for either side have not only grown in size, but have also moved further away from an amicable conversation on reaching peace. As Kurtzer-Ellenbogen points out, “the discourse is characterised by debate, rather than dialogue.”
Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist for Haaretz newspaper and previously an aide to the former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, thinks it’s difficult to change the binary nature of the debate.
One of Israel’s most prominent critics of the occupation, he sees no need to shift away from an adversarial debate with ‘sides’ defined by national identity.
“You can’t help it,” he tells Redaction Report. “In any conflict there are these generalisations.
“When you speak about the conflict in former Yugoslavia you speak about the Serbs, you speak about the Muslims, the Bosnians. You cannot get into a resolution of all kinds of differences within those societies; in conflict, there is always a major line, a major policy.”
Not only does Levy see these generalisations as unavoidable, but he also believes they ring true.
He added: “Most of the Palestinians supported the second intifada, most of the Israelis are supporting the continuance of the occupation.
“If there is some resistance in the margins, it doesn’t matter much.”
So, in his view, what is the largest issue with how the conflict is discussed internationally?
“The main problem is the problem of the last few years, in which the international media lost interest, was absent.”
While the international media has covered the conflict fairly and better than the Israeli media itself, it still didn’t pay enough attention to the conflict.
However, after decades in which “nothing basically changed”, he notes that Europe is “much more interested in questions like immigration and the environment, rather than the Palestinian issue.”
To Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, the conversation needs to be transformed. Levy argues the priority to reignite it, with peace negotiations currently off the agenda?
Or perhaps both are necessary, as lasting peace is further than ever from becoming a reality.
The international community hardly batted an eyelid following the Israeli government’s publicised plans for further annexation of the Palestinian territories in 2020; the conversation needs to be brought back to the forefront.
But while the international debate remains as polarising as it currently is, progress will remain slow, and ultimately insignificant.
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