Reactions to the horrific back-to-back kidnappings and murders of three young Israelis and a Palestinian teenager have made clear several disturbing realities that must not be ignored.
First is the total lack of trust and empathy that defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. This is, of course, an old story. It was the central observation of Zogby Research Service’s recent study into the changes in public opinion in both societies over the past two decades.
This breakdown in trust was in evidence in the stories believed by some Palestinians that the kidnappings were but an Israeli concoction designed to give them a free hand to destroy Hamas and Palestinian reconciliation. More disturbing has been the story spread by some Israeli media hinting that young Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir might have been the victim of an “honour killing” committed by his relatives. That such tales can be told and, even worse, find receptive audiences is troubling.
There is also an empathy gap and it was on display in the inability of either side to express or even feel compassion for the losses experienced by the other. There were a few heartfelt statements of sorrow, the most poignant of which came from the parents of the murdered Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, both maintaining that no parent should have to endure their pain.
This lack of trust and compassion not only defines the attitudes of both publics, it also describes the behaviour of their leaderships. Other than Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni, few officials on either side condemned the killings.
Too many Israeli and Palestinian leaders fell in line with the angry and distrustful mood of their vengeful publics. Some Israeli ministers issued calls to “wipe out Hamas” and retake Gaza and “clean it out for good”. For its part, Hamas leaders steadfastly refused to condemn the kidnappings while its official spokesman callously said that he would “bless the hands” of those who seized the three Israeli teenagers. Some Palestinian Authority officials even suggested that kidnapping may be the only way to secure freedom for Palestinian prisoners.
This souring of the mood in both societies is an old story born of a conflict that has witnessed one people, with a long history of victimisation, dispossessing and victimising another people. The violence that ensued during the last century deepened each party’s fear of and anger towards the other.
What was remarkable about the period immediately following the 1993 Oslo Accord was the optimism and openness demonstrated by both Israelis and Palestinians. What they needed, at the time, was a firm hand and a push to close the deal. What they got instead was a US administration whose advisers foolishly cautioned against dramatic intervention, and a US Congress hellbent on anti-Palestinian obstructionism.
Left to themselves, Israelis and Palestinians fell prey to the worst instincts of their most extreme elements. Settlements grew; with the closure of the territories, Palestinian poverty increased; an extremist Israeli massacred Palestinians in Hebron, while another assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin; while Hamas organised suicide bombings that took a terrible toll. During the first decade after Oslo, trust collapsed.
At an ill-prepared Camp David Summit, the Israelis dictated terms they must have known a reluctant Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could never accept and then proceeded to lie about it as the “best deal ever”. The breakdown of this summit coupled with the Palestinian public’s growing frustration with Israel’s oppressive policies led to more violence, more repression, and more mutual recrimination.
The impact of this sorry history has been a hardening of views on both sides. Left unresolved, pain and anger don’t dissipate over time. They fester and grow. The accrual of bitterness has reached the point of no return. Despite the wishful thinking of some, we will never get back to the post-Oslo period.
Neither the Israeli or Palestinian public will be in a position to forget the past 20 years. The Israelis, backed by the US Congress, act with impunity and callous disregard for the consequences of their behaviour. Moderate Palestinian leaders, operating as captives in an occupied land, have been repeatedly humiliated by the Israelis and lack the power to make any meaningful change to the lives of their people.
With Israel/Palestine on the brink of a new explosion, appeals for restraint offer no solution. As the events of the past few weeks have demonstrated, the status quo is a disaster waiting to happen. It is way past time that we recognise that the parties cannot negotiate their way to a two-state solution. Israelis lack the will to make a meaningful offer and Palestinians cannot accept what Israel is offering. The US administration, because it cannot muster the resolve to challenge Congress, stands powerless.
At the same time, as recent events should have made clear, the one-state solution is also inconceivable. To propose this is to condemn both peoples, especially the captive Palestinians, to more pain and repression for decades to come.
If there ever were a situation that called for the United Nations to intervene and declare its authority under Chapter 7, “threats to peace, breaches of peace ...”, this is it. This mess was created by the international community and the international community retains the ultimate authority to resolve it.
The Palestinian Authority should prepare to go to the United Nations in September and force a vote in the Security Council. Faced with this option, the US will, no doubt, baulk; Israel and its supporters in Congress will become hysterical. This will not solve the problem, in short order but it will unleash a new dynamic in which the world community will inevitably be forced to take ownership of a conflict that they have ignored for too long.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa