Breaking barriers to peace

March 23, 2007|By Ori Nir

As she makes another effort to create a "political horizon" for Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be well advised to take a good look at their states of mind. The picture that Ms. Rice is trying to draw, illustrating ways to resolve the core points of disagreement between the two peoples, cannot be an abstraction. It must be a vision that would reverse the confrontational dynamic.

Most Israelis and Palestinians have experienced only a relationship of bloody conflict. A majority on both sides has not tasted a different reality.

Consider the following figures, which Americans for Peace Now recently received from Fafo, the Norwegian Institute for Labor and Social Research, widely considered the most credible authority on Palestinian demographics. According to Fafo's most recent polling data, 51.3 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are 20 years or younger. That means that more than half of the Palestinians in these territories were born into a milieu of on-again-off-again warfare with Israel that started with the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

An even more striking figure is that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population, 80.3 percent, is less than 40 years old. That means that four out of every five Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived their entire lives under Israeli occupation, which began after Israel's victory in the 1967 war with the Arabs.

Israel's population is significantly older. However, more than one-seventh of Israel's population arrived in the country after 1990, mainly because of the large influx of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Accounting for the 1,010,900 immigrants who arrived in the past 17 years, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics data show that 52 percent of Israelis were not around 24 years ago (there are no available data for 1967) and 84 percent were not around 44 years ago.

These figures help explain some long-standing features of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, including the perception, in both societies, that the stalemate is chronic, unavoidable and, worse, irreversible.

Because most on both sides have been socialized within the reality of ongoing armed conflict, they have come to accept an adversarial relationship as normal, as default. They lack the personal frame of reference to imagine any other relationship. Recent polls of Israelis and Palestinians show that although majorities in both societies support a two-state solution, majorities of the same proportions think this desired solution is unattainable.

Both sides demonize the other. Most, on both sides, have never interacted with members of the other community in situations that are not adversarial. Most Palestinians are too young to have ever visited Israel.

Certainly, most Israelis have never seen the Arab towns, villages and refugee camps of the West Bank or Gaza. Indeed, most Israelis don't even know where Israel ends and the West Bank starts. Israel's minister of education is now fighting to have the 1967 "Green Line" border between Israel and the West Bank marked on maps in schoolbooks.

Scarred by a generation of alienation and violence, both societies are awash with hatred and vengeance. Both are cynical. Many in both societies have despaired of ever living in peace with the other.

It will not be easy to change the mindset of two populations that are to such a large extent a product of occupation and conflict. It will require a reversal in attitudes and values, which means dedication and commitment over time - perhaps over a long period of time.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas consistently say that they have not despaired. And although Israel has refused to deal with the Palestinians' new unity government because of the militant group Hamas' refusal to recognize the Jewish state, Ms. Rice is pushing ahead to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving again. She leaves for the Mideast today.

The degenerative nature of the status quo necessitates strong, decisive leadership. The status quo, bleak as it may be, should not suggest, however, that leadership and effort would not pay off. Palestinians and Israelis yearn for hope. And a promising glimmer of hope, resulting from Ms. Rice's trip, could dramatically transform the gloomy atmosphere on both sides.

Ori Nir, former West Bank correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist organization that promotes Israel's security through peace. His e-mail is onir@peacenow.org.

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