How Many More Decades Do We Have To Watch This Silly Shuttle Diplomacy between Israel and Palestinians? It doesn’t work!

How much longer do we have to watch an American diplomat shuttle back and forth between Israel and some neighboring country? From Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to John Kerry it’s all the same process. The tennis match image comes to mind and I would use it if it were not such a cliché. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s all pointless and that comes from somebody who believes in talk. Even though I recognize that talk is slow and there’s nothing magical about it, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.

Kerry and negotiation

When talk fails it is usually for one or a combination of three reasons. One, it’s the wrong kind of talk. Two, the wrong people are talking, or three the structural conditions are interfering. All three are at work in the Israel-Palestine shuttle diplomacy. It’s the wrong kind of talk because the two sides are unprepared to have serious political conversations when they need more authentic mutuality. The wrong people are talking because there should be more conversational work at the civil society and interpersonal levels. The structural conditions could be improved to increase democratic forms of communication, inclusion, and more creative and grassroots routes to problem-solving.

Palestinian supporters often boldly claim that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to bringing greater peace to the region and although this is an exaggeration supporters have been successful at turning the conflict into the symbolic prototype for all the world’s problems. I think about the ugliness in Syria, the savagery of militant groups, rising religious authoritarianism, escalating economic inequality, Iran and the spread of nuclear weapons, and then discover that serious people in Washington want to talk about West Bank Palestinians!

Of course the conflict must be resolved or at least managed into agreement. But the biggest beneficiary of any resolution is going to be Israel. How long can Israel continue to occupy the West Bank? How long can it remain a security state? How long can Israel maintain its successful democracy and market economy if it has to oversee 2 million Palestinians?

There will not be peace between Israelis and Palestinians – real peace when barriers can be removed – until it emerges from democratic impulses born in civil society. When Palestinians demand more of their own rights from their own leadership they will be in the position to demand rights from Israel. America should be supporting Palestinian political infrastructure by working on the economy, improving governance and civil liberties, and expanding business practices that can rationalize relationships and serve as a foundation for future democratic relationships. But the conflict remains intractable and diplomats like Kerry are operating at the wrong levels.

Muslims and the Jews tell two different stories both of which are fueled by media and policy decisions. Israel tells a story of historical oppression and discrimination culminating in the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. Jews feel vulnerable and threatened. Muslims feel disrespected by the West and the victims of media biases that portray them as fundamentalist and inherently backward, not to mention violent and religiously extreme.

These narratives produce tensions between Islam and the West and are decisive. They make for a cultural divide which results in polarization of identity issues, adversarial framing of historical matters, and rejection of any sense of shared responsibility for conflict. US policy and world media circulate these images and messages to the detriment of any sense of complementarity between the two.

In my opinion, there are two things that can happen: the differences between these stories can be emphasized, which will lead to increased intensification leaving the disputants to be trapped inside their own threatened identity. And the macro level of official contact will continue to founder. Or, these narratives can be reframed in order to seek points of convergence where it is possible to formulate cooperation and mutual affinities that direct them away from a “conflict-saturated” reality. Rather than rival narratives, Jews and Muslims can avoid the drift toward polarization and begin to tell a new story, one that affirms a distinctive identity while acknowledging the “other.” I choose this direction.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 7, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy, Political Conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is an insightful and pithy piece that states clearly that there’s a big difference between “the peace process” and “(real) peace”. It resonates with the sense of many (Israeli) activists that “peace” has become a dirty word and that the Israeli government is interested only in protracting the process in order to preserve the status quo. I don’t , however, agree that Israel (government or people) have more to gain from real peace than Palestinians (independence, return of refugees, freedom of movement) and I wouldn’t result the US or EU governments to direct the democratization of Palestinian civil society (given that such interventions are mostly neo-liberal). And there’s some slippage here between the specific Israeli-Palestinian issue and the more global Jewish/Muslim relationship. But other than that, the key point of this blog is spot on – thanks Don!

  2. I think the US is not interested in moving us forward from a state of conflict. The US is supporting Israel’s military and security and that is its real interest. I also think that if the US wishes to help solve the war in Syria, it can do so, regardless of its involvement in our conflict, why is it displayed as either or? in addition, not only Palestinians need to learn democratic values and practices, also Israelis have have been living in an undemocratic society for most of their lives, with the additional obstacle , that they believe that they are democratic. As a political educator I can say that Its very hard to challenge this misconception, and the American people are not helping Israelis see the gap.

  3. I think it is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that the US is only interested in military and security issues with respect to Israel. There is real politics and military and security issues are important but those issues can be improved if there were truly some agreement and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.what do you mean that the US could solve the Syrian conflict if it really wanted to?how could they do that give me an example. the US has no one to support in Syria. They do not support Assad and the government and the rebels are collection of ideological groups from all over the place. We are paralyzed because there’s nobody to support.
    Again, Israel has its weaknesses with respect to democracy no doubt about it. It is not a liberal democracy like the United States and probably will not be if Israel is going to be a Jewish state. But still Democratic values and the habits of democracy are important for both sides to develop if the conflict is going to be tamed..

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