Ending the conflict means engaging Israeli, Palestinian civil society

How can the peace process in Northern Ireland help bring the occupation to an end? If that conflict teaches us anything, it is that engaging every level of civil society must come before signing an agreement.

By Gary Spedding

No two conflicts have exact the same circumstances; this is an important aspect to remember when comparing and contrasting seemingly intractable conflict anywhere in the world, especially considering the fact that quite often equalizing conflicts often evokes both hostility and enthusiasm in equal measure.

Recently, political analyst Tal Schneider, drew attention to what she described as the “non-existent engagement” with Israeli and Palestinian grassroots and civic society. Her criticism of the most recent Kerry-led initiative has accentuated one of the major flaws in the so-called peace process, thus bringing into sharp focus an “unpleasant top-down feeling.” This, according to sociologist John Brewer is a key problem, resulting from an attitude of imposing rather than building a durable peace. In his book Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach, he cites John Paul Lederach, who rightly contends that peace processes are too focused on reaching a political agreement rather than healing damaged relationships. Maintaining such a process exclusively at the macro political level in a deeply divided society fails to address grievances that extend to civil society.

By cutting swaths of grassroots and civil society representation out of the picture, those running the show have effectively dismissed the importance of community. Such a move can obstruct the required societal shift that often comprises a move away from violent, oppressive conflict, and into a non-violent and democratic political process. Without such a shift, communities most acutely affected by the conflict will remain unenthusiastic about sustainable change and lasting peace.

Netanyahu and Abbas in Washington, September 15, 2010 (State Dept. Photo)
Netanyahu and Abbas in Washington, September 15, 2010 (State Dept. Photo)

But the big questions remain: Why have both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders failed to actively prepare their own constituencies for peace? Why do political leaders continue to exploit fear in society instead of encouraging hope? Both Israeli and Palestinian populations need reassurances, not political grandstanding.

It could be said that the Israeli government, more so than the Palestinian Authority, deliberately polarizes their public on complex issues such as security. The need for security, arguably the biggest concern for the Israeli public, is also the most susceptible to manipulation by the powerful few who clearly have an anti-peace agenda. By playing on the fears of Jewish Israelis, obscuring ongoing rights abuses and stifling meaningful discussion on compromise, the pro-occupation right-wing successfully controls the agenda.

Learning from Northern Ireland

The case of Northern Ireland, which has endured one of the most violent and intractable conflicts in Western Europe, gives us a glimpse of a relatively successful, albeit fragile, peace process. It came about after surviving various stages, almost stalling on several occasions, and even coming close to being completely derailed. Israelis and Palestinians can learn a lot from the Northern Ireland peace process, which always included civil society actors at some level. These actors were, and still remain, a significant voice.

Israelis and Palestinians must internalize that within a democratic framework, they have the right, power and authority to demand inclusion in the consultation process when building a genuine framework for a durable peace. Civilians, political bodies, NGO’s and wider civil society deserve more than just vague proposals – usually formulated in secret and occasionally leaked in snippets to the public.

At present, the framework for conflict resolution has been so far removed from grassroots decision-making that chances are that its implementation will fail. Any agreement which excludes civic society cannot possibly have the capacity to address core issues faced by local communities. These issues may sound mundane to the elective, but are absolutely paramount to the individual needs of those on all sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be made to realize that nothing is lost from addressing genuine issues affecting everyday citizens. It is also a positive method of alleviating fears and resolve matters in ways acceptable to a more in the spectrum of both societies.

Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on Republican walls (Haggai Matar)
Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Haggai Matar)

Another point, raised eloquently by Dahlia Scheindlin, is the lack of hard information available to the public regarding the details of the current peace process. Her decoding of recent statements by key players highlights the current state of political leadership, and the inability of the elite to even talk rationally about core issues.

Adding to frustration is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who until just recently, hadn’t given a single interview in Hebrew to the Israeli press for over 400 days. This is how seriously lackluster current leaders are when it comes to being held accountable by the electorate, even on domestic issues. Netanyahu skillfully uses the security issue to distract and re-focus the priorities of the Israeli public, to the point that the peace process takes a back seat to safety, security and the economy.

How to re-engage the anti-occupation movement

Let’s return to Northern Ireland. During the days of the peace process, both the British and Irish governments regularly published position papers and joint statements on progress regarding their agreement.They also discussed issues such as public decommissioning and even released a new framework which acknowledge the urgency of removing “the causes of conflict,” overcoming the “legacy of history” and healing the “divisions which have resulted.” The language used by the two sides, as well as their level of engagement is entirely different than what what we see in Israel and Palestine today – it is a language of peace building rather than hysteric, fear-based polarization that is ubiquitous in the ferocious debates over the Middle East at present.

Re-engaging civil society is something that Israeli and Palestinian political leaders and representative groups (NGO’s, trade unions and the like) must carry out immediately. Furthermore, regularly publishing policy and position documents on issues ranging from settlements to sovereignty would be very useful as it encourages healthy debate, legitimizes multiple options and allows all legal voices to advocate for their desired solution with impunity. This was effective in Northern Ireland for multiple reasons: inclusion of civil society; cultivating an atmosphere ready for peace and leading constituents; and the electorate into what has so far been a successful, yet still fragile, peace process.

Utilization of such strategies would be instrumental in reviving Israeli and Palestinian civil society, and even more so for the anti-occupation movement. Strengthening the Israeli left-wing is essential as it would mean Netanyahu (and others similar to him) can no longer have the deciding say in the peace process.

Furthermore, Israeli political parties such as Meretz or Labor must begin making joint statements with Palestinian political groups and NGOs. Such activity would encourage more people to act on their aspirations for peace, while at the same time giving opportunities to underrepresented groups. It might also finally allow for a peace framework that includes non-negotiable clauses ensuring justice, equality and basic civil rights as the basis for any future agreement. This would bring in civil society while building confidence in the knowledge that the issues it brings forth will receive attention.

By working alongside political representatives, community leaders can ensure a thorough, comprehensive overview of any given issue, thus bringing about a situation in which an agreement can be endorsed at as many levels as possible. Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority must enshrine the right to non-violently dissent and publicly scrutinize institutions so that they can be held to account. Ensuring public engagement is vital in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it builds bridges and encourages empathy and compassion, while promoting dialogue within a trusted forum that deals adequately with grievances.

Gary Spedding is an human rights and conflict resolution advocate deeply involved in conversations surrounding conflict transformation and Middle East conflict dynamics as well as comparative conflict analysis of the Northern Ireland Peace process.

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