On anti-normalization, dialogue and activism – a response

“Those who reject dialogue as a means of ending occupation are alienating even the most sympathetic activists by positing replacement of one monumental injustice – occupation oppression and dispossession – with another: envisaging the disappearance of most Israelis from the region.” An argument for why the Palestinian struggle could benefit from a new approach to dialogue.

On anti-normalization, dialogue and activism – a response
Palestinian and Israeil flags (Activestills)

By A.M. Poppy

On 10 September 2012, Noam Sheizaf wrote here that his experience with the anti-normalization debate shows “the futility of any form of ‘dialogue’ at this point in time. As long as the political issue remains unsolved, such contacts make both sides more angry and ‘extreme.’” I don’t share this perspective. On the contrary, I seriously wonder whether dialogue may be the key tool for the radical peace movement.

The debate over the value of dialogue and joint actions has become central in many activist groups. The arguments for rejecting dialogue have solid radical credentials. They include a contention that it doesn’t work even for the individuals who participate in it —they remain unchanged, and there is some evidence that the adversarial experience only hardens participants’ position. In addition dialogue demonstrably doesn’t have any effect on the wider search for peace. Furthermore, in trying to talk to each other “as equals” dialogue also posits peace without justice (“normalizing the occupation”), and it provides positive PR cover for Israel to intensify oppression of the Palestinians.

But the context in which this rejection was formulated was the Oslo period. The repudiation of dialogue came after the years of the Oslo process during which huge amounts of barely-accountable money flowed in from abroad to feed the “kissing cousins industry.” (The Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information estimates that between September 1993 until September 2000 US$20-$25 million was allocated for funding people-to-people projects).

It benefited the well placed and powerful (the Israeli side), and exacerbated the asymmetry of power in the dialogue room, where encounters were improvised on a vague premise called Contact Theory. They gave rise to frustration, hostility and ever hardening positions. But with the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, Oslo collapsed, the people-to-people dialogue industry collapsed, and the Israeli mass peace camp collapsed. Things have become worse. What reaction should we have to this? Should we change our analysis in the face of new facts, or simply look for factors in the new situation to strengthen our previously held positions?

Some radicals (see Faris Giacaman) ask, how laughable is it to imagine Mandela or Gandhi advocating dialogue with the oppressor to better to understand his point of view? But the proponents of dialogue (see Gershon Baskin) ask how not talking can possibly help end the occupation?

Those few dialogue initiatives that survive, persist in a very different context from the Oslo period. In the new political landscape of stringent closure and separation policies, the existing dialogue initiatives are tiny, embattled, under-funded, and also structurally transformed. Organizations such as Seeds of Peace, Hands of Peace, Combatants for Peace have established centers in both Israel and in the OPT, they share decision-making through structures that straddle both sides, and they don’t leave politics at the door of the dialogue room and thus don’t neutralize the conversation as had been often been the case previously. They use more sophisticated methods of moderating and leading the discussion. They have learned many hard lessons and rethought their approach to dialogue. They justify their work by saying that dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is the only glimmer of hope in a very bleak landscape, and the sole bulwark against extremism.

Admittedly, this subjective rationalisation might be seen as a copout. Dialoguers have told me that reaching out to members of the other community is a moral obligation, and good in and of itself. I have enormous sympathy for them. “I don’t want to look my grandchild in the eye and say I did nothing to further peace,” one Palestinian combatant for peace is quoted as saying. But in truth, these are not satisfactory justifications on their own. They need also to show that in the objective, real world more good than harm is being done.

And it seems they can. They prove the anti-normalizers wrong who claim that dialogue has no beneficial effect on the individuals in the process. On the contrary, all the radical, non-Zionist Israeli activists I’ve come across quote some early dialogue-framed contact with Palestinians as important in their difficult journey away from Zionism. The programs I cite above can introduce you to the shministim (The movement of Israeli high schoolers who refuse to serve in the IDF) they have produced.

Meanwhile, can the anti-normalizers back their continued aversion to dialogue? Can they show that the remaining dialoguers, marginalized liberals, are still paving a path to perpetual occupation? Can they show that the middle-class English-speaking Palestinians who camp abroad or tour Europe with an orchestra really help to build apartheid and dispossess the people? Or is that actually done despite them?

As the situation worsens and hope dwindles on both sides of the Green Line a more extreme position is gaining currency. The more extreme radicals are turning away from pursuing the South African model (where a single state was created for all its people), and are turning towards the Algerian model (where the colonisers left the country when decolonisation came). This is a very disturbing development. Far from delegitimizing Israel, this position delegitimizes the struggle. It is self-defeating. It offers no vision, no leadership, and no hope for a just way to end of occupation.

This extreme radical position plays right into the hands of the fanatics on both the sides who want to see the other eliminated. Paradoxically, these radicals meet the fanatics coming from the other direction. They alienate even the most sympathetic activists by positing replacing one monumental injustice -occupation oppression and dispossession- with another: envisaging the disappearance of most Israelis from the region.

Where does dialogue fit in? I have begun wondering whether it is perhaps time for the radical camp to mirror the rethinking that the liberals have undertaken since Oslo, and reconsider their attitude to dialogue. Maybe it’s appropriate to reclaim dialogue from the Zionists; to reframe it in new, radical ways that could serve the struggle. That would firstly be a nursery for more Israeli activists (where will they come from otherwise?). And importantly, it will be a positive and tangible way to distinguish politically-informed radicals from the fanatics whose hatred is busily delegitimizing the struggle.

A.M. Poppy is a Sabra journalist and peace worker living in London. She has just completed an MA in international conflict and development at Sussex University. This blogpost is based on the dissertation she wrote for that degree.

On anti-normalization, dialogue and activism
Thoughts on a joint but unequal Palestinian-Israeli struggle