Shortly after he helped produce the Balfour Declaration that 100 years ago gave great momentum to the enterprise to establish the Jewish National Home in Palestine, and well before he became Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann cautioned that “the Zionist Congress …. Has to learn the truth that Palestine is not Rhodesia and that 600,000 Arabs live there who before the sense of justice of the world have exactly the same right to their homes as we have to our National Home.” Shortly before he died, Weizmann warned that ultimately Israel would be judged by how it dealt with those Palestinian claims.
That judgment is still pending, but since the collapse of the effort made by the Obama administration to facilitate negotiation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, it has been apparent that definitive diplomatic resolution of competing claims is unlikely for some years. The necessary political constellation is absent on both sides.
Israel’s prime minister increasingly depends on those who seek outright control or at least dominance over the West Bank territory that would have to be the heart of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian president is aged and increasingly discredited for failure to deliver benefits from years of unprecedented security cooperation with Israel and without an accepted process for identifying a successor.
The Trump administration has pursued an outside-in strategy, encouraging common interests between Israel and Sunni Arab states in part in the hope they can craft an unbalanced deal the Palestinians would have no alternative but to accept. The core of that approach involves Washington’s enrollment in effect on Riyadh’s side of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war that is responsible for much of the Middle East’s dangerous present volatility.
It was always questionable that a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace could be built on a policy that risks a wider, surrounding hot war. What small chance there might have been has been further reduced by President Trump’s speech, amounting to a free gift to Israel and slap in the face to the Palestinians on the highly sensitive Jerusalem issue.
With little present prospect of promising inter-governmental diplomacy, what can civil society do? Neglect is unlikely to be benign. Almost certainly the negative trends on both sides would increase, perhaps irreparably so.
It will be important, of course, to press governments to prevent negative measures such as destruction of Palestinian villages on the West Bank and construction of new Israeli settlements that reduce the viability of any eventual Palestinian state. But civil society should also concentrate on positive measures that improve the chances for successful future negotiations.
Past major pushes for a two-state settlement under the Oslo process and more recently the Obama administration have failed in no small part due to insufficient popular support, traceable to insufficient knowledge by both peoples of those on the other side. A consequence of two Palestinian intifadas and subsequent Israeli security measures, including walling off of much of the West Bank, is that Israelis and Palestinians have far less personal contact than ever before.
It is important for civil society to double down on initiatives and programs to reverse that trend so as to bring more Israelis and Palestinians — particularly young people — together in ways that allow them to experience “the other” as human beings, not cut-out enemy caricatures.
It would be particularly fruitful to increase opportunities for youths to study together in neutral environments for multi-year periods in order to build ties strong enough to survive the physical and psychological obstacles to cooperation they will experience when they return to home environments.
An example of what is possible is a school that Givat Haviva, an Israeli organization, is opening in 2018 for Israeli, Palestinian, other Middle Eastern and world students. It is cooperating with Wyoming Seminary, a college preparatory school in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which in 2018 will enroll two Israeli and two Palestinian students as tenth graders. These students will earn International Baccalaureate degrees after completing the eleventh and twelfth grades at the Israeli school.
The U.S. and Israeli schools are in discussions to expand this program in subsequent years to leading educational institutions around the world. If the initiative flourishes, it will strengthen person-to-person infrastructures on both sides. Larger numbers of young people who understand “the other” could become important when political circumstances on the ground, such as stronger, more assured Israeli and Palestinian leaders, eventually make a new attempt at a comprehensive settlement more promising.