What Are the Real Interests Behind the Peace Industry's Players?

Those who wish to advance the peace process should ask whether a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves risks that neither side is willing to take.

Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik
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U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, left, meets with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2013, shorty before diplomacy froze.
U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, left, meets with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2013, shorty before diplomacy froze.Credit: AP
Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik

If you are reading Haaretz’s Peace Supplement and have actually reached this article, it’s likely that you have taken a more or less active part in one of the initiatives to advance the peace process. You don’t have to be on the dovish or left side of the political map: Dialogues and initiatives on a settlement, on the process itself, an understanding, possible solutions – these comprise a thriving industry encompassing nearly the whole political spectrum in Israel, the United States and Europe.

There are people who sign petitions, write Internet comments and go to parlor meetings and lectures, and many who take part in workshops and conferences. The industry of NGOs and research institutes whose mandate is to advance the peace process and organize encounters between Israelis and Palestinians is vibrant; it has been flourishing for more than 20 years. Donors with excellent intentions from the United States – mainly wealthy Jews – and Europe – mainly public foundations – do not tire of injecting money into the industry. Nor is there any shortage of peace promoters in Israel, too. The peace process creates and attracts entrepreneurs, almost like the startup nation does. Meetings of businessmen, academics, politicians, diplomats, students, youth – there is no category in the market that is not addressed by NGOs, foundations and ardent promoters.

In contrast to high-tech entrepreneurship, in which one out of 10 investments is successful, there have been as yet no successes in the peace process. In fact, in recent years we seem to be mostly regressing. Yet amazingly – and this should perhaps give us pause – entrepreneurs and activists in this realm are proceeding with exactly the same approaches, ideas and methods.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I would argue that a large proportion of the people involved in these activities are neither insane, off the wall nor “extremists”: They know that the result will not be different.

The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians has been in stable equilibrium for some decades. Governments come and go, generations pass, and the Middle East today looks dramatically different from the way it did a decade ago, certainly from the way it did in the 1970s, the first decade of the occupation.

A convenient equilibrium?

The most important question that most of the players in the peace or war industry fail to place at the top of the agenda is this: Who are the truly dominant players in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab world, the United States, and among all the others involved in the peace process? The next unasked question is: Why is the present equilibrium convenient for them, and why would upsetting that equilibrium pose a threat or expose them to risks they are unwilling to take?

Two years ago, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists invited me to “talks” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Most of the activists from both the left and the right were students of Prof. Ronald Heifetz, for the past three decades one of the leading, and most riveting, lecturers in the United States on the subject of public leadership.

I was very enthusiastic, and suggested that they consider focusing on the “peace” talks they were holding about Heifetz’s ideas, under Harvard’s aegis. I suggested they identify the true players – both open and hidden – in the conflict, and then try to dig deep and understand why the present equilibrium might suit those players. They should ask why a disruption of that equilibrium would threaten the players’ social or economic status and their loyalties to their reference group or to their communities of origin. This would not be a discussion about security arrangements, land swaps, demilitarization or the type of cohabitation Israelis and Palestinians might enjoy after a settlement. In this discussion, we would be trying to understand the perspectives of all the players in the conflict: why they might fear change, and how any such change would threaten the things they consider important.

Naturally, such a discussion would force Palestinians and Israelis to look in the mirror – at themselves, not at the other side. They would have to look at the socioeconomic structure within their own community. They would have to lay bare the perspectives, fears, loyalties and vested interests of the strong, dominant groups within the Israeli and Palestinian societies as well as those in the Arab world and among the relevant western powers. This could raise questions about the different perspectives of the economic and social elites, compared to weaker groups in these societies.

My Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors saw immediately where this would lead. The moment we start to examine the social and economic structure of the societies involved in the conflict, we will find that beneath the clichés through which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been conducted in recent decades lies a far greater complexity relating to the interests and perspectives of each player. The leaders who meet at the White House every few months are not the true players in this conflict; they are in place, they espouse their approaches, they pull in particular directions because there are many groups in the population who are pushing them to take the positions they hold.

My suggestion was not accepted; both the Palestinians and the Israelis rejected it immediately. My Palestinian friends explained to me in private conversations that there was no chance they would be able to talk openly about the different interests that exist within Palestinian society. My Israeli friends, too, were appalled at the idea that we would have to probe deeply into the guts of Israeli society and reflect on the question of the risks and fears that different segments of that society see looming if the existing equilibrium is disturbed.

I took my leave of them and wished them well. We will meet again and conduct that conversation, because the day is fast approaching when the present equilibrium, which preserves the conflict and the occupation, will exact too high a price.

The writer is deputy publisher of the Haaretz Group and founding editor of TheMarker.

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