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Peace process? What peace process?
This is a common phrase used by both Israelis and Palestinians when asked about the negotiations process that was launched by U.S. President George W. Bush at Annapolis last year and which, according to Bush’s timeline, should have produced a Palestinian state by the end of his presidency in January.
Since the signing of the Oslo provisional peace deal 15 years ago, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals, professionals, and politicians have held hundreds of meetings in Israel and in most European cities to promote dialogue and coexistence, in the hope that eventually Palestinians will have the state the accords outlined for them, living in peace alongside Israel.
This week, the Peres Center for Peace, established after the Oslo peace accords, drew hundreds of Israelis, Arabs, and international leaders and professionals to discuss peace during its 10th anniversary event in Tel Aviv, under the aegis of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now Israel’s largely ceremonial president.
I attended sessions of the 3-day event and also took part, as a journalist covering the conflict for the past 14 years, in a meeting a week earlier between Israeli and Palestinian representatives of the media and academics in Seville, Spain, hosted by the Three Cultures Foundation , a non-profit organization founded under the aegis of the Andalusian Regional Government and Morocco, and organized by the Israeli and Palestinian branches of the Geneva Initiative Peace Coalition.
The mood at both meetings among activists committed to a peaceful solution to the 60-year-old conflict was sombre.
In between the two meetings, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians who won her party’s elections to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, announced she had failed in forming a government and called for early elections scheduled for February.
A key sticking point was the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious Shas party to join her in a coalition because of its opposition to her negotiating with Palestinians on dividing Jerusalem between Israel and a new Palestinian state.
Divisions in Israeli society over the Oslo accords, divisions that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 – coincidentally on Nov. 4, the date of this week’s U.S. presidential election — continue to pose obstacles to peacemaking.
In Seville, a historic place of meeting, and conflict, among Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians sat in cafes and in formal sessions to discuss coexistence, and chances for an elusive peace that has weakened the peace camps in both neighbouring societies.
During the two-day seminar, professor Tamar Hermann, Dean of Academic Studies at the Open University in Israel, who conducts monthly opinion polls on Israeli positions regarding the peace process, presented figures that show that in 10 or 20 years, there won’t be a population in Israel receptive of peace ideas. She said some 70 percent of Orthdox Jews in Israel identified themselves as right-wing, and noted that the Orthodox community is growing fast as a proportion of the population.
The poll also showed that only 12 percent perceived an escalation of the Palestinian resistence as a threat. Hermann, a political scientist, said that “making peace with their Palestinian neighbours was not the prime goal of the Jews in Israel.”
Palestinian writer Hassan Khader, another participant in the Seville conference said the Israeli state of denial was harming the Jews. “Does it really serve the Israeli interests to defeat the Palestinians? In the 1967 war, they won the war, but forty years later it showed it was one of their worst traps.”
Palestinians have been increasingly disillusioned with peace as Palestinian negotiators conduct frequent sessions of negotiations with their Israeli counterparts without progress. The Palestinians have seen their lands confiscated for more settlements and walls and fences constructed around the Gaza Strip and West Bank that have isolated them from the rest of the world.
The only Israelis many Palestinians know are the soldiers at checkpoints or armed settlers attacking farmers harvesting their land in the West Bank. One secular Israeli politician said: “The extreme settlers are forming militias. They’re armed and claim they represent God, yet we don’t confront them. We say they’re a small group.But they will turn into a Hezbollah and eventually they will turn against us. We still can’t see this.”
The younger generation in Israel, which has come to adulthood since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, is less supportive of peace since the images they have seen were of exploding buses and have never visited the Palestinian areas, Hermann said.
Gadi Baltiansky, director of the Israeli branch of the Geneva Initiative said time was running out and people must feel a sense of urgency to make dramatic decisions about peace.But as time is running out, there is a state of limbo. The Palestinians are divided as never before and may go to elections next year when President Mahmoud Abbas’ term ends. Israel too is heading for elections in February.
The mood among the activists is one of alarm.
“If two governments will be elected in both sides which are anti-peace … then unfortunately we are heading towards a tragedy. I can hope rationalism will win,” said Ron Pundak, one of the Israelis closely involved in the Oslo peace process.