The post-Oslo generation neither meets “the other side” nor does it know much about its situation. This is why dialogue fora could play an important role. But talks over hummus are not satisfying the needs of the societies or create any positive change. Dialogue needs clear parameters and aims in order to be successful. By Tobias Pietsch
This article is part of a series which analyses various approaches Europe might pursue to advance the end of occupation and bring forward Israel-Palestinian peace.
Read all articles following this link.
Today there are no negotiations or dialogue. The relations between Israelis and Palestinian on official as well as on personal levels are based on deep mistrust, fears, enemy images, incompatible narratives and even disrespect.
The so-called Oslo generation of Israelis and Palestinians born since the 1990s grew up and lives in a reality of separation. While encounters and dialogue were part of everyday life during the Oslo years, the Second Intifada dramatically stopped contacts between Israelis and Palestinians. The post-Oslo generation neither meets “the other side” nor does it know much about its situation. This is why dialogue fora between the two societies could play an important role today.
Role of dialogue fora
Dialogue between civil society, NGOs and representatives of both sides is more important than ever, as there are no final status talks, ongoing separation and estrangement. As the conflict is broadening the gaps between the two societies, the role of those who are willing to talk to each other is getting more important. Especially against the backdrop of the constantly repeated mantra of political officials on both sides: “There is no partner to talk to; there is no partner for peace”. This has not only been held by the Netanyahu governments, but also by the chairpersons of the Israeli Labour party: Edud Barak coined it after the Camp David talks, and Avi Gabbay, the newly elected chairman, repeated it at an event in Dimona in October 2017.
Any future agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that is to be sustainable needs to overcome stereotypes, mistrust and fear. In order to achieve mutual trust and understanding, dialogue on each other’s narratives and personal stories is a key tool. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, inventor of the Compassionate Listening tools applied to create peace for communities in conflict, said: “an enemy is one whose story we have not heard.”
Alsharq is a project run by independent, critical journalists on a voluntary basis. All our articles are free of charge in order to be accessible for as many people as possible.
Still, they cost us a lot of time, effort – and also money.
You can support us through a donation. Click here for banking details:
This shows the relevance of civil society dialogue in order to overcome the lack of a partner or unwillingness on the other side. And actually, there are representatives of civil society and of the political class on both sides who understand the necessity of dialogue and are willing to talk to the other side.
Obstacles and Spoilers
But as the promising times of Oslo are long past, and the enduring conflict and changes on the ground, like settlement expansion, continuation of the construction of the separation barrier or expropriation of Palestinian land, strongly impact the daily life, especially on the Palestinian side, the parameters for dialogue need to be readjusted. Hummus-talk meetings, joint soccer games or talks to meet “the other side” for an afternoon are not acceptable any more as adequate forms of encounters in Palestinian society. Israeli and Palestinian kids can have a wonderful afternoon playing football together. Teenagers from both sides can have interesting talks over some plates of hummus. Adults talk about their experiences or visions. Yet, at the end of the day they return to a reality that has not changed. The Palestinians return through the checkpoint and find themselves under the same occupation as in the morning. This form of dialogue is not only frustrating, but also easily targeted by spoilers, calling to stop such encounters while the occupation is continuing. In both societies, political and social actors try to prevent dialogue: the political right in Israel and the BDS and anti-normalisation movement on the Palestinian side.
Without taking the political realities, such as the ongoing occupation, the separation, the imbalance of power and the loss of hope in conflict resolution into account, the willingness to participate in dialogue activities can no longer be generated. Let’s not be naïve: a solution to the conflict is not to be found in a dialogue group. That’s why it is important not to insinuate being able to do so or to romanticize the political framework. Rather, there is a key question that needs to be answered: what is the specific dialogue activity good for? Why should one participate – again or still – in dialogue? Frank and satisfying dialogue needs to take those factors into consideration and should lead to change on a personal, social or political level. The possibility to achieve concrete outcomes is the key for the willingness to participate. Outcomes can be joint statements or media statements, the inducing of policy changes, joint campaigns and actions or the achievement of concrete improvements on the ground. The Good Neighbors Abu Tor/Al-Thuri, a dialogue group of Jewish and Palestinian neighbours in Jerusalem, succeeded through joint demands to the municipality to improve the infrastructure in the streets inhabited by Palestinians. Without a cooperation they would probably not have received trash bins, sidewalks and improvement of the streets.
In addition, dialogue can have a personal impact on the ones participating. While it does not necessarily narrow differences of opinion, it helps participants to reassess their self-identity taking into account the other side’s narrative, thus also enabling them to also influence their respective societies.
Who talks and who should talk?
Dialogue fora are usually associated with the Israeli left, the leftovers of the peace camp and liberal Palestinians from Ramallah or Bethlehem. Indeed, the interest and willingness to participate in dialogue is higher in the political left and liberal spectrum than in the political right. But dialogue is neither a monopoly of one camp, nor does it always fit into the political left-right scheme. Combatants for Peace, for example, is a platform of former soldiers and militants from both sides, definitely not stemming from a left-wing background. Some settlers and their Palestinian neighbors engage in dialogue projects, for example participants of the initiative Two states, one homeland, from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc or a project called Talk17 – which definitely does not bring together adherents of the peace camp. Both initiatives include Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank and aim at finding an alternative to the two-state solution which would give both sides the freedom to remain living where they are right now.
Generally speaking, dialogue should be open to everyone willing to talk and respect and reflect the parameters mentioned before. Dialogue should aim at the whole of society as every Israeli should know about Palestinian history, the Naqba and daily life under occupation. Likewise, every Palestinian should know about Jewish history, and Israeli fears and concerns. Mutual understanding, realizing that multiple narratives exist and can stand next to each other, and creating empathy for the other’s perspective is key for building trust and reaching a sustainable peace agreement.
But dialogue should also take place inside the two societies: between Hamas and Fatah members; Arab and Jewish Israelis; Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; Israelis living in the center and the periphery, just to mention a few. The two societies are no monolithic blocks, and existing cleavages and inner-society conflicts are also obstacles for cross-border talks.
Finally, dialogue could and maybe should involve external partners. A third party can act as a moderator, a mediator, a fair broker, and as one who provides incentives and guarantees. This could be foreign civil society, NGOs, third states or the European Union. But whether on a social or a political level, a third party needs to take into account the power structures of the conflict parties and their needs. It needs to avoid double standards and inconsequent actions. In order to be seen as a fair broker, both sides need to be sure that the third party is not only fulfilling a role as a moderator but is also willing and able to support and empower the parties, to provide guarantees for a fair dialogue and to stand against spoilers of all kind. The European Union tries hard to be not only a payer but also a player. But in order to be a player the EU should not only pay for infrastructure in the process of Palestinian state building but also claim for compensation and political consequences if this infrastructure gets demolished by Israeli forces. The EU has to implement agreed implications such as labelling and taxation of settlement products in the same way in all member states in order to be coherent in their actions and to be accepted as a serious player.
Outside support – ideologically, financially, practically – has become even more important as shrinking spaces and lack of safe spaces are challenging those who are willing to talk. At the same time the landscape of dialogue fora has been widening to a broader political spectrum, opening new opportunities and target groups, involving actors who do not aim to achieve a two-state solution or are seen as spoilers to a peace settlement. This opens the critical question whom to support and whom not to support. German and EU regulations do not allow to fund Israeli activities beyond the Green Line. So how to deal with dialogue groups involving settlers or even taking place in settlements? In order to achieve a broad outreach among all sectors of society, it does make sense to also support dialogue which involves people who are not naturally seen as dialogue partners or are even considered spoilers. Germany and the European Union should offer frameworks and safe spaces for dialogue among all kind of participants as long as they agree among themselves to have fair talks.
Tobias Pietsch studied Social Sciences (M.A.) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Political and Social Studies at Universität Würzburg. He works for the media platform Alsharq as a journalist and organizer of study tours. He has lived and worked for one and a half years in Jerusalem where he completed his one year civil service at the Willy Brandt Center Jerusalem. He is a board member of Alsharq e.V. and of the support association of the Willy Brandt Center Jerusalem.
More on this topic at Alsharq:
Support our work – just click on the link for a donation