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From Peace Process to Actual Peace

By Shai Har-El 

The collapse of the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, convened in Jordan in January 2012, came as no surprise. The past two decades of limping peace negotiations are just a reminder that the entrenched notion that yet another round of talks will generate the desirable document that will give birth to genuine peace is absurd. So is the thought that the bloody feud between the Israelis and the Palestinians can miraculously end with one set of signatures by their leaders, with neither serious peacebuilding and peacemaking efforts nor an infrastructure of peace in place.

At the core of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their respective narratives. Neither of them fully recognizes the national aspirations and dreams of the other. Israelis are reluctant to relinquish territories for a future Palestinian State, while Palestinians are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood within any of that land. It is a struggle between two legitimate national narratives. Nonetheless, I believe an alternative narrative is out there.

For an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement—based on mutual recognition of Israel and Palestine as the homelands of their respective peoples—to work as a possibility for the future, two minimum conditions must be met: formulating a shared vision of peace and having visionary leaders to promote it. With those basic conditions in place, the routine “peace processing” may possibly transform into a real peace process.

Peace itself is not a vision; it’s just a goal, a guidepost. Israelis and Palestinians need to create a vision of peace, set the strategy for getting there, inspire others to take that direction, and even sacrifice their political seats to get there. “Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare,” says a famous proverb. By that definition, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly a nightmare.

Only a powerful, shared vision of peace—broad enough to encompass all narrow, sectarian, partisan viewpoints—can move enough people to generate serious conversations about peace and create the desired paradigm shift in the Middle East. Only a transcendent vision of peace beyond war can help both Israelis and Palestinians escape from the limiting constraints of the past and open them up to exciting possibilities in the future. Only a shared vision of the future can unleash the energy of people and align them in a true peace process that cuts across society. In the words of futurist, Joel Barker, “Visioning without action is merely a dream. Action without a vision just passes time. Vision with action can change the world.”

Again and again, the politicians on both sides just take their time painting unrealistic zero-sum game pictures of the future, armed with nothing but their own ideologies, and unwilling to settle for less. They behave as if the vision of peace is a one-way street not to be shared with the other party to the conflict. It’s like the blind leading the blind. The blind at least are aware of their blindness; but the ones who are blind to their blindness run a dangerous game, always leading into the same ditch. Unfortunately, he takes with him his own people for the rollercoaster ride; forgetting that he was supposed to lead them responsibly to a safe place. So what’s the end result? “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Now, that both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—are in a dangerous state of limbo still concocting their win-lose strategy, it is actually a perfect time for visioning. It won’t be easy, but the status quo is no longer a realistic alternative. The “realists” who recommend preserving the current situation, the so-called status quo, should be reminded that the term status quo is only part of the phrase status quo ante bellum, meaning literally “the situation as it was before the war.” In wishfully thinking to keep things the way they presently are, they are in fact laying the groundwork for the next war. The status quo is simply unsustainable.

For the visioning process to succeed we need visionary leaders, who strongly believe in the unseen and take their people down a new road of discovery; one that lies not in holding to old thinking but in shifting the current paradigm, breaking out of the current comfort zone where most politicians prefer to operate.

Israelis and Palestinians each need a serious national conversation on the future of their relations. They should each run a separate national vision project, a conversation among their own people about the Israeli-Palestinian peace they can create if they put their minds to it; or more correctly, if they are willing to change their minds about the nature of the conflict. The conversation sessions are sufficiently important that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas themselves should convene them. Such nationwide public communication campaigns in their respective lands would be a major milestone in Middle Eastern political history. Effective visioning must engage both the grass roots from all sectors of society and the national leaders from the coalition and the opposition.

In these efforts, we will see the vision of peace emerging from the bottom up and the top down. We need participation and creativity from both directions, with self-expression at the people level and empowerment at the leadership level. For a compelling and engaging vision of peace to emerge it must be generated from both below and above. Only then each of the visioning teams will be able to design a future that best fits the aspirations, cultures, and interests of its respective nation. The final conclusion of these parallel visioning processes will be publicly announced in both Hebrew and Arabic, and the intentions of both parties will be expressed in clear words.

Just because all peace efforts by Israel and the Palestinians in the past have failed, does not mean that the future contains no possibilities. On the contrary, we need to keep the peace process alive, despite consistent disappointments, because anything else is tantamount to self-destruction. “Where there is no vision, the people perish;” on the other hand, “Where there is a vision, the people flourish.” It’s a choice we make—either war or peace.

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Dr. Shai Har-El is founder and president of the Middle East Peace Network (MEPN). He is a published author whose essays on Middle East affairs are published on www.mepnetwork.org. His most recent book, Where Islam and Judaism Join Together: A Perspective on Reconciliation, is forthcoming.


[Photo courtesy of ruskpp]

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