When Brokering Peace in Israel, Bias Prevents Progress

Dana Ettinger, JHU:

There is a French movie called “Une Bouteille à la Mer” (the English title is “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea”) that tells the story of a young woman living in Jerusalem who writes a message in a bottle and throws it into the Gaza Sea, where it’s found by a young man from Gaza. It’s a wonderful movie for a variety of reasons, but one of its most remarkable qualities is how it presents both sides of a decades-long conflict as human and legitimate without making judgments about who is in the right or the wrong.

Presenting both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as equally valid is a rare idea. There always seems to be a villain, be it Hamas, the Israeli Defense Force, the Palestinian Authority, the Knesset or John Kerry. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on so long, quests for justice or vengeance seem endless. Each new death sparks a new round of tit-for-tat with more heartbreak and tragedy as the only certain outcomes. It almost seems naive to ask, but why does each side insist on giving the other more reasons to hate? Every rocket launched into Israel by Hamas hardens the heart of another bereaved relative; every new settlement in the West Bank destroys the sympathy and hope of another new refugee. At this point, the bombings and retaliations are only adding gas to a fire that already has plenty of fuel. The only way to end the cycle of violence is to put forth a genuine effort toward finding a solution with which everyone can live, but it seems as if the parties involved have grown increasingly averse to putting forth such an effort.

Benjamin Netanyahu may be fresh off his successful reelection campaign, but he is also dealing with the fallout of some very provocative comments from his campaign in which he categorically denied the possibility of a two-state solution. In the United States, Congressional Republicans have been resolutely loyal to the American-Israeli partnership, and quick to vilify anyone who disagrees with their unwavering—perhaps blind—faith in the notion that Israel is always in the right. This kind of bias has a clear effect on what kind of policy the executive branch can get away with promoting.

The President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas has his own issues, namely his government’s inclusion of Hamas. The contention between Abbas and Hamas has several key points, but Abbas’ insistence on negotiation versus Hamas’ use of violence is critical for the peace process. As Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, points out, “for average Palestinians weighing the validity of these competing narratives against their everyday reality, the lack of progress in the on-again-off-again peace process, the continued Israeli settlement push — especially in Arab sections of Jerusalem — and the outright support among some members of the Israeli cabinet for annexation of the West Bank renders Hamas’ account about the futility of negotiations closer to the truth.” The clear bias in the United States government does not help matters, as it convinces Palestinians that they have no ally at the bargaining table. Further complicating the issue is the categorization of Hamas as a terrorist organization by the American and Israeli governments, which deters them from including Hamas in potential deals and reinforcing the Palestinians’ sense of isolation.

The United States’ self-appointed role as negotiator is thus called into question. Mediators should in theory be unbiased, and willing to give the concerns of both parties equal weight. With the leader of Israel and the American congressional majority firmly on one side, impartiality does not appear to be in abundance. It might, however, be more bountiful with the shifting views of American public.

Older Americans remember the days of Israel’s inception, and are much more likely to favor unequivocal support of Israeli policy. They see Israeli policy as fundamentally designed to protect the very existence of Israel, as a nation-state and as the Jewish homeland. Younger Americans, on the other hand, are more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. The settlements on the West Bank, the treatment of Arabs in Israel, and the hawkish attitude of the conservative parties are not viewed as protecting Israel’s existence so much as they are seen in the context of civil rights and discrimination. According to a July 2014 Pew study, 29 percent of 18-to-30-year-olds said Israel acted disproportionately in the recent flare-ups with Hamas and the Palestinians. The same percent of that age group blamed Israel for the conflict, compared to just 14 percent in respondents over 50. Younger Americans have grown up in a time that has seen a far higher death toll for Palestinians than Israelis, and thus view the Israeli claim of victimhood with suspicion.

A new generation coming of age without a reflexive support of Israel might be a necessary component to brokering a longer lasting peace. People who see the validity of the concerns of both sides of the conflict will be more likely to work toward a solution that genuinely benefits everyone. Certainly, the majority of the work will fall on the shoulders of the leaders of Israel and Palestine—they must accept that compromise is necessary, and that no one will get everything they want. But in order for anyone to get anything they want, the desires of both sides must be accepted. American diplomats who utilize a more balanced approach and a constituency that supports that balanced approach might just have more success in finding a long-term solution.


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