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Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue and Why it Isn't Working


Recently two friends came to visit Israel from abroad. One asked a question, and the other may have answered it in part. One visitor is a student from California is comparing the role of dialuge in the conflict in Northern Ireland with that in Israel. In Ireland, dialogue between politicians, and between communities seems to have succeeded. Between Israelis and Palestinians it has not.

Differences of language and culture between Jews and Arab Palestinians are much greater than those between factions in Northern Ireland, but instinct tells us that something else is wrong. Something is not working in these dialogue efforts, because we have not been able to get ordinary people, who represent their societies, involved. Instead, "dialogue" seems to have become a pursuit of a self-selected few.

Ratna Palle visited from Holland and met members of the Family Forum (or Parents Circle) group. Her impressions provide, in part an answer to why dialogue is not working between Israelis and Palestinians, and within Israeli society.

"The Palestinians are not our enemies, the occupation is. Israel is not in danger so much because of the primitive Kathyusha rockets of Hezbollah, but because of the occupation. Not the Palestinians, but the occupation killed my sister; occupation leads to resistance."

Thus spoke the Israeli representative of the Families Forum (formerly the Parents Circle), an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a dear one in the struggle between the two peoples, and who decided to strive for peace together instead of avenging their dead. The Palestinian representative agreed wholeheartedly: the occupation is the problem. Israel must end the occupation, and can do so without running a risk, as it has one of the most powerful armies in the world, he argued.

He called for peace, and denounced violence on both sides, but he also felt that it would be 'asking too much to accuse my own people as long as they have to live under the occupation', and that 'the Palestinians cannot be expected to empathize with Jewish suffering as long as their own suffering is not acknowledged'.

I had mixed feelings about this meeting. The Palestinian was brave and sincerely tried to reach out, although he could not really detach himself from his victim role. Moreover, he was never challenged to do so, as the Israeli representative volunteered to take all blame and put it at Israel's doorstep. "Because of our army, in which I served, his brother and so many other innocent Palestinians died", he humbly declared. In the same breath he stressed the necessity to get to know and understand the other side to achieve peace and reconciliation. Beautifully said, but what other side? He, for one, did not represent that other side to the Palestinian. There was no other side at this meeting.


The Israeli side was well represented in many of the other meetings we had during our week's stay in Israel, and that may have been the reason that no one from our group felt compelled to argue with the Families Forum people, but I secretly wished for a confrontation between these two speakers and the many others, who had passionately defended Israel and who had been challenged only now and then by - among others - the only Arab participant in our group.

"You are not very objective!" she had told the settler woman in idyllic Eli, who vigorously defended the Jewish claim on Judea and Samaria, emphasized the settlers' longing for peace, and casually denied the existence of a Palestinian people or Palestinian identity.

"What is a Palestinian?", this woman who had emigrated from the Netherlands rhetorically asked, repeating Golda Meir's famous statement: "Who is a Palestinian? I am a Palestinian".

It was the start of a fierce debate, in which the settler woman argued that nothing happens unless God wants it to happen, and thought that Sharon had been laying in a coma for so long because the hereafter does not want to have him either. "This is our land. The Arabs are welcome to live here in their communities and are entitled to autonomy, and whoever is not satisfied with that can move to one of the 22 Arab states. I also moved here from the Netherlands because I wanted to live in the Jewish state".

Somewhat later in the bus, on our way to one of the outposts of Eli, one of our group called for less confrontation with our hosts, and to not try to convince others of our point of view, and most of the group agreed.

I had mixed feelings again. The remarks of the Arab participant, who also claimed that Israel can well do business with Hamas, as "they mean what they say" (something that brings me to a very different conclusion, considering for example their charter), had contributed to a lively discussion, and I don't see why settlers with their often outspoken views, should not be confronted with what these views evoke in other people, also in many Israelis...

What is dialog? Dialog is somewhere in between adopting the other's narrative, and hard confrontation. It means a willingness to listen to the other and his/her story and experiences, without renouncing one's own views. Peace Now shut the door by refusing to talk to the settlers.

In the Families Forum there would be only real dialog if the Palestinian representative were confronted with another narrative, with Israelis who not only blame the occupation, and thus their own side, but for example also point to the way terrorism is often glorified as martyrdom in the Palestinian press, in mosques, and in schoolbooks (see PMW). He should have been confronted with the fact that the conflict did not start with the occupation, but on the contrary, the occupation was a result of a conflict that had lasted for about half a century by then, and was caused by the refusal of the Arab world to recognize any form of Jewish self-determination in the Middle East. He should have had to deal with the fact that anti-Semitism thrives in the Arab world, where Jews and Israel are made responsible for nearly all ills that befall the Arabs, and many lies and myths of the Nazis are revived.

Dialog is not eating couscous and pita together and declaring that there should be peace, but getting to understand each others' point of view. Dialog means a conversation, and confrontation, between people with different points of view. There is no dialog when Nonie Darwish speaks with Zionists, and there is no dialog when Jews for Justice for Palestinians or Jewish Voice for Peace or Jeff Halper sit together with Palestinians.

Any sign of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East looks great and seems hopeful. However, without understanding of the view and the suffering of the other side, it will not contribute to real understanding between Israelis and Arabs, and will not bring about real peace and coexistence. Peace doesn't mean full justice for one side, as that inevitably comes at the expense of the rights of the other side; it means a painful compromise, in which both sides have to give up things that they perceive as their eternal and inalienable rights.

Many years ago, Boake Carter (a conservative British columnist) wrote that "in time of war, truth is the first casualty." Truth and honesty are too often the first casualty of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue too. People anxious to please say things they don't mean, and sometimes believe things they know are not true, they 'make allowances' for the other side, and they hide some ugly truths. It produces the dialogue of couscous and falafel, which a Palestinian friend once called "fluffy bunny dialogue." It can't produce real understanding or progress toward peace. The purpose of dialogue is for each side to understand the truth of the other, and to accept the other as an equal human being. If you have to "make allowances" for unacceptable beliefs and actions, attributed to the occupation, or to the Holocaust or to whatever reason, you aren't accepting the other as an equal, and you aren't judging them by your standards.

Dialogue is only serious when real opponents are willing to engage in dialogue and to air their differences frankly. In Israeli-Palestinian society and within Israeli society, we do not have real dialogue. We have some Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to peace because of ideology. They have developed some mythical illusions about the conflict and about possible solutions. Most of the "dialogue people" on both sides, but especially the Israeli side, are divorced from most of their society. We can't get a settler from Izhar in a room with a Hamas person and get them each to recognize the humanity of the other. Settlers do not talk to "regular Israelis" much, and "regular Israelis" in turn do not talk to "peace people." Middle Eastern societies are not pluralistic. They are segmented. Israeli and Palestinian societies are not exceptions.

Perhaps dialogue is a model that can only work in the West, or perhaps it can work here, but only if we take the hard route of telling the truth, of bringing together people who represent the mainstream of Israeli and Arab society, and of looking for the penny where we dropped it, not where the light happens to shine.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 5 comments

Well said. I have experienced all these examples of an unwillingness to engage each other in honest and respectable dialogue, both by the extreme left, the moderate left, the Arabs and the settlers.

However, I think there is something more important than voicing narratives -- it is necessary that groups of Israelis among themselves (Arabs too) and Israelis, Palestinians and others who want peace, should listen to the concerns of each other and than work to find a constructive way to solve our problems. It is necessary that people realize that dialogue is not going to result in victory, in which onme side accepts the point of view of the other completely, but rather that by understanding the other's point of view, and having some respect for him or her, they wil work together to reach some kind of acceptable compromise, or if that is impossible, that they will at least have respect for each others' humanity, thus reducing the violence.

I find trhe settlers arguments absurd. But I could engage her in a respectful debate, point to our disagreements calmly, and show an understanding of her religious and personal concerns as a settler (although I am not religious myself).

Posted by Micha @ 09/29/2006 02:52 PM CST

Dialogue has always lacked in the Middle East. The Israelis and Palestinians never want to talk to each other. Jonathan Cook who lives in Nazareth wrote on antiwar.com an article on how he rarely sees Jews during a day in Nazareth. This segregation society leads to no dialogue between each group and in effect no dialogue between societies.

Nonetheless if this be the case then not talking to Hamas does no good. You need to talk to these type of people and see what their veiws in order to make compromise.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 09/30/2006 05:51 AM CST

This is a very good article, but what is the solution - how can you get the real debaters to the table? I believe that the only solution can come at the hand of an unbiased arbitrator. Unfortunately, that arbitrator should be the United States, but under the current administration, that is impossible.

Here in the US, there is little to no objective discussion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, there is only the Israeli government point of view shown on corporate media stations. Here, Israel is always the victim and Palestinians are the "terrorists". According to our network news, Hezbollah launched unwarranted attacks while Israel just defended itself. One Palestinian deputy Prime minister, Nasser Shaer, is released, while 60 Hamas officials remain in prison, and there is not one story on USA news stations.

How can we in the US expect that a peace in Palestine can occur between neighbors who have fought since 1948 in their present political state and much longer before then, when our entire country is told the Israeli government is right. How can Americans visualize Mideast peace when Bush innaugurates his second term with "Israel's wars are our wars."? How can Americans even hold a decent objective conversation when Secretary of State Rice, when asked to intervene in the latest Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, says "But what would I say?" - embarassing.

My belabored point is that Mideast peace cannot occur between two fighters. Who, when in the middle of a fistfight, said "Wait, let's objectively look at each of our points of view and evaluate our options." There must be a referee and that referee should be the strongest kid on the block - the USA. However, the USA, the administration and most of the people, are not yet unbiased and therefor not yet qualified to hold that post. And, unfortunately, other than US Representative Kucinich or Ralph Nader, who could never be elected, no other current political leader could hold that post either.

Posted by Larry Basich @ 09/30/2006 06:32 AM CST

Your article Ami points at the intellectual laziness of religious people.

For example, the woman settler says "in which the settler woman argued that nothing happens unless God wants it to happen, and thought that Sharon had been laying in a coma for so long because the hereafter does not want to have him either. "This is our land. The Arabs are welcome to live here in their communities and are entitled to autonomy, and whoever is not satisfied with that can move to one of the 22 Arab states."

Any honest intellectual KNOWS that God did not tell this woman shhiit. Period. End of story. No need to prolong the debate. God did not give this land to the European woman. If he did, then she must present proof, maybe ask God at the meeting to tell the Palestinian woman, that "I God am giving this Netherlands woman the land". LOL. AHHHHh the fukenn stupidity.

Posted by John @ 10/02/2006 06:19 PM CST

That's very true. If God would just make it clear now who owns the land by speaking individually to all the protagonists, the problem would be solved.

If S/He chooses not to do that, we have to assume S/He wants us to sort it out by ourselves.

Posted by Spike @ 11/16/2006 03:37 PM CST

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