Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue Isn't for Wimps - We Need More of It

What can dialogue between young Israelis and Palestinians achieve, when senior political figures on both sides see only another round of war?

Rosemary Hollis
Rosemary Hollis
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Rosemary Hollis
Rosemary Hollis

According to Naftali Bennett, ‘there is not going to be a Palestinian state’ alongside Israel, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. There cannot be, he says, because, ‘a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That’s the equation.’ Bennett proposes annexing the 60 percent of the West Bank directly controlled by Israel and inclusive of Israel’s main settlement blocs.

Khaled Meshal has an expansive vision too. On his recent visit to Gaza he told the Hamas fighters to ‘keep their fingers on the trigger’ and: ‘Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah, and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa.’

So here we are, it’s us or them - zero-sum thinking prevails.

For those of us who have worked for many years to enable Israelis and Palestinians to actually speak to one another as fellow human beings, to listen to the stories of the other, away from the conflict zone, these uncompromising messages represent a particular challenge. Never easy at the best of times, when the conflict escalates (as it did last November) dialogue dries up. Neither side is interested in talking or listening to the other, for fear their anger and distress will overwhelm them.

For nine years now the Olive Tree program at City University London has awarded scholarships to both Israelis and Palestinians to study in parallel and learn from one another as well as other students what life without constant confrontation, suspicion and animosity can be like. They all develop more self-awareness and self-confidence along with a greater understanding of the corrosive effect of zero-sum thinking about themselves in relation to the other.

When there is hope in the possibility that a better life can be had by all through positive thinking about how to share rather than to exclude or deny freedom to others, the concept of dialogue is more easily embraced. Without such hope, it will be a challenge to convince prospective Israeli and Palestinian candidates for scholarships that they have something to gain from discovering the humanity in each other. After all, ignorance makes it easier to hate and to fight.

They face another deterrent too. On both sides of the conflict the impression prevails that dialogue is for wimps, even though in practice it is mostly an unpleasant experience, from which there is much to learn but not without dissonance. The opportunity to study for a degree in London is what keeps the students coming, but that only makes them the objects of envy from their peers back home. Latterly students have reported increasing levels of resentment and suspicion.

Those Israeli alumni who have chosen to work in the beleaguered human rights sector, dedicated to countering at least some of the pernicious effects of the occupation, or who simply dare to suggest that the Palestinians are human too, are subject to accusations of having gone soft on the enemy and lacking proper patriotic instincts.

The Palestinians returning to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza, hardly dare speak of their London experiences, let alone their hard-won discovery that the Israelis are not all hostile. To blend back in and feel at one with their communities again they must return to the struggle of daily existence and conclude that the few Israelis they got to know are not representative and too few to make a difference anyway.

The program can be sustained as a model of how individuals born into and brought up in the conflict, either under occupation or party to its enforcement, can become more aware of their anger and heal some of their trauma. This is what dialogue with the enemy does. It doesn’t remove or end the conflict, but it does help those who dare to stick with it to gain a sense of agency and self-esteem.

All but one of the nearly fifty young men and women awarded Olive Tree scholarships over the years have attained their degrees, most with high marks. And that applies equally to Palestinians and Israelis. For all of them, rising to the challenge of studying in a foreign language, far from home, in multicultural London and according to a demanding schedule is ultimately cathartic and liberating.

That is reward in itself for the supporters of the program. But some observers are increasingly asking about the bigger picture. If there is no hope of Israeli-Palestinian peace then why invest in a new generation of leaders who could make it work? The answer, of course, is that to give up on the efforts of the few to make a positive difference where they can, is to become complicit in the continuation of the conflict.

Rosemary Hollis is Director of the Olive Tree Program and Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University London.

Palestinian activists set up on January 11, 2013 an 'outpost' named Bab al-Shams.Credit: AFP

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