Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A gulf of misunderstanding?

One of the most striking things about the ‘process’ in this part of the world is the disconnection between Israelis and Palestinians when it comes to envisaging the future. This was most visibly brought home to me during the German-sponsored IPCRI conference, ‘Peace Begins with Jerusalem?’ at the Ambassador Hotel yesterday afternoon. It was during the final session, with presentations from Sonia Najjar, Gilead Sher and Hilia Tsedaka, that I especially noted this.

Gilead Sher was Ehud Barack’s co-chief negotiator at Camp David. His presentation on Jerusalem was that the issue of Arab and Israeli neighbourhoods wasn’t the sticking point. Rather it was the Old City and how to govern the Holy Sites that caused the greatest headache. He felt that on Jerusalem the Clinton parameters that were proposed at Camp David 10 years ago are still relevant today, with the one caveat that the separation of neighbourhoods on the basis on population and majority groups should not be applied within the Old City. Instead he favours a form of independent third party administration, headed by an international and with Palestinian and Israeli input – effectively the Jerusalem Old City Initiative that was launched in May this year.

There is a catch though. Sher claimed that the time is not right for this measure to be put into place. He criticised the current process as one that is waiting for everything to be agreed between the two sides and he suggests an alternative of dealing with those issues that are feasible now and putting into place all those that can be agreed. On the surface this looks reasonable. But what is staggering is that he overlooks the fact that this has been the way that the process has taken its course since the early 1990s. In fact the whole Oslo process has been one of leaving the most insoluble issues to the end, with the aim of building confidence and trust between the two sides through smaller-scale measures in the intervening period.

It was therefore pertinent that Sonia Najjar’s presentation reminded attendees of the current and systematic process of Judaisation that is going on in East Jerusalem. She noted that Israeli laws and policies in the city are diminishing the Palestinian presence through settlement building (which as of today, there are reports that the US has abandoned efforts to try and restart the settlement freeze – outside of Jerusalem though) and the takeover of Palestinian neighbourhoods. Even if there is a ‘negative’ form of peace (i.e. no violence), this comes nowhere near any attempt to build trust between the two sides – or Sher’s vacuum.

That said, to what extent can Najjar’s own suggested course deliver results? Having cited various international obligations that Israel is a party to – and isn’t upholding – she favours international pressure on the Israeli government. But as the US failure over the settlement freeze has shown on the one hand and the Brazilian and Argentine recognition of Palestinian sovereignty within the 1967 borders has shown – there is as yet no teeth to enforce this. That said, it is not unreasonable for us internationals to pressure our governments on this issue, as Mandy Turner pointed out at her Kenyon lecture last week. Nevertheless, given the absence of international pressure to date, why should the future be any different?

So if the external environment is not conducive, what about on the ground? Hilia Tsedaka is with ‘Win-Win Jerusalem’, an organisation that wants to transform the zero sum game (‘win lose’) between Palestinians and Israelis in the city into one that benefits both. To achieve this requires greater citizen participation in decision making and she cited various examples of where this has happened from the top (e.g. Cyprus constitution) to the bottom and through mid-level players (e.g. the participatory budget in Porto Alegre). She feels that the more participation there is, the more trust will be generated between the two sides. Her method is to run facilitative workshops that ‘support’ and ‘empower’ Palestinians on the one side and transform Israeli minds on the other. This will create the conditions for greater trust, including shared interest projects, greater communication skills and better awareness of how to use the system.

Following the conference’s end, I said to her that I was still uncertain as to how trust was to be generated through the methods she suggests. Surely in the case of the Jerusalem municipality a more ‘empowered’ Palestinian is a threat and therefore someone to be denied greater participation rather than the other way around? I was still lost as to how the leap is made from win-loss to win-win.

And this is where I have the biggest problem with these proposals. Ironically, it was Sher that put his finger on it in the discussion when he said it was necessary to combine both top-down and bottom-up approaches to the process (and I assume he means more than just Jerusalem here). He said it’s necessary to condition people’s hearts and minds as well as proposing these ideas and projects, which lack detail of how they are to actually built trust. Unlike Najjar, he opposes third party intervention as a stick to beat Israel with, but supports it to help the negotiations along (a subtle way of shifting the terms of the debate, I feel). That said, he remains frustrated that there has been no movement forward since Camp David – and more to the point, no sign of any response from the Israeli leadership about the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been reiterated every years since it was first proposed in 2002.

To me this suggests that if confidence-building is to start somewhere, it has to be with the Israelis. Najjar’s analysis of a disempowered people being forced out of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, with the complicit support of the municipality and state, not only highlights the lack of trust between both sides, but also which side is stronger in this struggle. It’s time to stop pretending that the two sides are equal; indeed, Sher praised the institution building and degree of security that has occurred in the West Bank over the past few years – but he stopped short of suggesting that Israel offer something in return as a (confidence building) gesture.

The Israelis like to talk about Yasser Arafat having missed an opportunity at Camp David. Yet it often seems that it is they who are doing so. To conclude, contrary to the official rhetoric that Jerusalem is a united city, the pollster Dahlia Scheindlin (who spoke earlier) revealed that Israeli Jews recognise Jerusalem’s divided nature and neighbourhoods and are pragmatic enough to accept partition if their government present them with it. Rather than making public opinion, Israelis are following their leaders. Now is therefore the time for them to take the chance. Although I suspect they will miss it.

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