What Does “Dialogue” Do for Peace among Israelis and Palestinians?
“Dialogue groups place Palestinians in a position where, in order to share their experience with Israelis, they are compelled to acquiesce to a distorted reality. If they refuse, they are perceived as . . . disinterested in peace.”
A couple of years ago, a secular Israeli High School refused to allow its students to form an Israel-Palestine dialogue group. Reports indicated that the school’s principal was concerned participation would reduce the rate of students serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Apparently, from the principal’s perspective, Israel’s need for security was more important than its need for either side to empathize with the other side’s suffering; and those needs were mutually exclusive. Whether aware of the deeper implications of his decision or not, the principal chose to cultivate seeds of conflict rather than of peace.
Dialogue groups have the potential to put a human face on the “other,” to transform him or her from an enemy image in one’s mind to a human being with the same needs and dreams as anyone else. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to commit acts of violence against a fellow human. The human must first be objectified, or dehumanized, before he or she can become a target of physical or emotional violence. Dialogue groups are, therefore, a threat to those who are wedded to the belief that the other is the source of conflict and must be vanquished.
Notwithstanding their ability to bring a greater humanity and compassion into the lives of their members, however, there is another factor that needs to be honored for these groups to achieve their full potential. That factor is reality. The dialogue groups that I have encountered – and there may be some I am unaware of that do not conform to my experience – presume a symmetrical relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli sides. They begin by establishing parameters that favor psychological comfort over historical truth with simplistic presumptions such as, for example, that both sides have been traumatized, that both have committed acts of violence, and that the two sides are, in essence, equally responsible for the failure to arrive at a peaceful resolution to the problem.
Whenever dialogue groups ignore the documented history of Israel-Palestine, they fail to fully disabuse Israelis of the unfair characterization that Palestinians are, by nature, incapable of compromise. They condemn Israelis to a state of denial in which their characterization of Palestinians is undoubtedly true of themselves.
A different way of saying this is that as long as Israelis blindly believe state-sponsored Zionist myths, passed down for generations, of Israel’s birth and its benign attempts to make peace with the Palestinians, it is the Israelis who will be incapable of compromise.
Correspondingly, dialogue groups place Palestinians in a position where, in order to share their experience with Israelis, they are compelled to acquiesce to a distorted reality. If they refuse, they are perceived as disinterested in what the other side has to say and, therefore, disinterested in peace.
Dialogue groups are tricky because, on the one hand, it is important to keep the members involved, yet on the other, involvement that doesn’t acknowledge history only perpetuates delusion. And it is often the case that the groups are led by counselors or therapists who, not having studied the history of Israel-Palestine yet hoping to support some kind of emotional healing, are unaware that by establishing these parameters they are profaning the history.
And although the first two parameters are indeed true, without historical context their inclusion robs Israelis of the opportunity to take responsibility for their participation in the dispossession of the Palestinian people.
For years I have heard comments like “Israel has always offered land for peace but the Palestinians have always rejected the offer.” In 1977 Nahum Goldmann, founder and president of the World Jewish Congress and a president of the World Zionist Organization, said: “Israel has never presented the Arabs with a single peace plan. She has rejected every settlement plan devised by her friends and by her enemies. She has seemingly no other object than to preserve the status quo while adding territory piece by piece.”
In 1948 Syria offered to take in 300,000 Palestinian refugees as part of a comprehensive peace plan. UN Mediator and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche pleaded with David Ben-Gurion to respond to the Syrian offer but Ben-Gurion refused, just as he refused to talk with Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, who used British, Maltese, and Quaker emissaries to try to negotiate with the Israeli prime minister. Instead of negotiating, Ben-Gurion labeled Nasser the “Hitler of the Middle East,” a phrase that persuaded Jews around the world that Israel’s neighbors were more interested in igniting another genocide than in peace. Jordanian, Yugoslavian, and American attempts to resolve the conflict were also ignored or rejected by Israel. Israel has never honored the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords that call for “full autonomy” for the Palestinians; and for years insisted that peace was impossible because of Yasser Arafat. Arafat died in 2004. Israel has never responded to the 2002 Arab peace initiative that would have ended the Arab-Israeli conflict, normalized relations with the entire Arab world, and provided security for “all the states of the region.”
A study of Israel’s history leads to the unavoidable conclusion that it has used peace negotiations as a strategy to mask its true motives. Peace has always been secondary to the acquisition of more land. Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, laying out Israel’s true motives: “Israel takes more land [so] that the Palestinian state will be impossible . . . the Israel policy is to take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we’ll say that is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the state.”
The bottom line is that good intentions are not good enough. A just resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem requires all of us to challenge our beliefs through sincere and objective research. Otherwise, we will never intuit our roles in the suffering of others, nor will we intuit how to alleviate that suffering. And for those of us who happen to be strongly identified with one side or the other, our anxiety will remain unresolved, leaving us with the dilemma of victimization: Why does the world not understand my people juxtaposed against evidence that is beyond dispute?
Richard Forer is the author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear Into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict. He can be contacted through his website, www.RichardForer.com.
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