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Boycotts and threats ultimately hurt the Palestinian cause

Ron Pundak

A few days ago, hundreds of left-wing Israeli peace activists met to discuss the big issue: what to do? Should the focus be social or political? Is there a political solution? One state or two? And how to generate a center-left majority in the next elections? This time around, we looked at an additional topic: the influence of a peace process vacuum on the capacity to actually carry out activities involving interaction between Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
Since 2000, people-to-people and cross-border dialogue activities and informal political meetings have suffered a series of fatal blows. Failure of the Camp David negotiations, escalation of violence by both sides in the territories, and the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 led each public to conclude that the other is not interested in reaching a genuine peace and to lose faith in the motives and aspirations of the other.

Ever since, each public's cognitive image of the other has only worsened as the two sides have become increasingly indifferent to one another. A near-total severance of the two populations has been generated by two developments: the fence/wall and regime of permits that prevent Palestinians from entering Israel on the one hand, and the military directive that prevents Israelis from entering areas under Palestinian control on the other. The inevitable outcome is an accelerated process of ignorance, disinterest and relegation of dialogue to those who prefer to denigrate one another and argue that "there is no partner."

Nevertheless, dozens of Israeli and Palestinian organizations have persisted in holding activities dedicated to advancing peace, dialogue and reconciliation--involving youth, economists, artists, journalists, sport, medical research, capacity building, humanitarian and political issues, demonstrations against the fence, and many other issues. Many of these organizations network under the umbrella of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, whose objective is to create synergy among them for the greater good.

Throughout the years, there were always some on the Palestinian side who opposed any dialogue whatsoever with the Israeli side. These are not necessarily parties who oppose a two-state solution; rather, they argue that the occupation must end before they can talk with the occupier. These parties began as a negligible minority, but since 2000, their voice is increasingly heard.

In recent years, particularly since official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ran aground following the removal of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the return of Binyamin Netanyahu to the premiership, this "anti-normalization" line has succeeded in preventing many joint activities. More and more Palestinians are joining the boycott of such activities without distinguishing between Israelis who support legitimate Palestinian rights and those who actively or passively seek to prolong the occupation. In parallel, some doubtful Palestinian actors are exploiting this reality for personal political ends, based on the assumption that extremism attracts supporters and anti-Israelism means popularity.

The outcome is dangerous. Palestinians are, to fall back on a familiar cliche, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If the intention is to demonstrate to Israelis that Palestinians are justifiably fed up with the ongoing situation, this can only fail: the broad Israeli public is totally uninterested in a Palestinian initiative that essentially hurts only those activities that are fostered by the Israeli peace camp. Indeed, if Palestinians want to signal their anger and frustration to the Israeli public, the best way is actually to expand the dialogue in order to present their views and persuade Israelis to act democratically against their government's policies.

Lately, this phenomenon has taken a turn for the worse. Not only have Palestinians "crashed" joint meetings and threatened both participants and the owners of Jerusalem hotels where meetings were planned, but they have attacked Palestinian journalists who have ties to Israeli counterparts. One of these Palestinian journalists responded by asking how anyone can expect to see creative solutions to ending the occupation and the conflict if there is no free communication between the two sides.

Some Palestinians argue that joint activities such as those directed against the occupation are legitimate, whereas joint activities like sports and art are not. This takes me back to that recent meeting of the Israeli left, during which a leader of one of the more prominent Israeli organizations that work intensively on ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state related that his interest in the issue began years ago when, as a youth, he was involved in a meeting of Israelis and Palestinians who played classical music together.

Palestinian civil society must learn to distinguish between the Israeli governmental system that distances us from peace and Israeli civil society that is the vehicle for change. Palestinians should know that Israeli peace organizations and activists are their natural allies and that, despite their painful frustration, by exercising influence over the Israeli public they can hasten peace and the establishment of a state.

In the course of the past 20 years, the Israeli public has altered its views radically, to the extent of recognizing the need to end the occupation and achieve a solution based on two states and two capitals in Jerusalem. Much of this change can be traced to dialogue and cooperation activities. Severing contacts, threatening and boycotting will ultimately only boomerang against the Palestinian public.-Published 14/5/2012 © bitterlemons.org

Ron Pundak is chairman of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum.
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