The Eighth Biannual Meeting of the International Development Initiative (IDI) was held in Jerusalem from February 17 to February 19, 2012. This was the IDI’s first meeting in Israel.
With this meeting being held in Jerusalem, IDI members chose to devote considerable time to examining Israel-Palestinian issues specifically, as well as those issues within a larger Middle-Eastern context. Accordingly, prior to the meeting, IDI Chairs circulated the following questions among the IDI members:
- What does it mean to Israelis if there is a process this year (at the UN General Assembly) towards statehood for Palestinians? What does it mean to Palestinians?
- For Palestinians, is the process towards statehood primarily a positive development or does anything less than full recognition constitute a “humiliation”?
- For Israelis, what does the process require of them, politically and psychologically?
To facilitate discussion of these three questions, among other topics, the IDI organized its eighth meeting around two sets of presentations:
- First, before discussions started, Israeli Ambassador Reuven Merhav (Retd.) presented a review of Middle East history from late Ottoman times through the present. This primer provided historical context and illuminated themes and events which tended to repeat within and between the various groups operating within the region.
- Second, the IDI scheduled several guests from different areas of the region and facets of the conflict to enrich members’ understanding of realistic and psychological issues under discussion. Guests included:
- A Palestinian Arab from the West Bank who has for years been directly involved with the negotiations with Israelis.
- A Christian Palestinian psychologist.
- Two former Israeli ambassadors who remain closely involved with conflict issues.
- Two independent Israeli consultants working in organizational contexts to study and help to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
- What follows herein is NOT a full report of IDI discussions, but rather a synopsis of key observations.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, it did so with no negotiation. This may have been a missed opportunity. The primary aim to construct a wall between Israel and the West Bank was intended to decrease violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The IDI members noticed that the wall also functioned as a psychological border to allow the groups to retain their identities. The Israeli interpretation of the massive reduction of suicide bombings was that it was due to the increased security provided by the wall, but it also seems likely that it produced a number of important psychological developments within the Palestinian community. In the context of this decrease in violence and the retention of identity, the West Bank economy has shown signs of significant improvement. Furthermore, after the “Arab Spring” activities in some Arab countries, a third intifada did not take place in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood, post-Arab Spring, appears to be moderating. Further, Hamas has been developing politically, and has already given its “soft” support for negotiations. Palestinian negotiators in the West Bank want more outreach to Gaza in order to be more effective in communicating with Hamas in Gaza and increasing support for negotiations.
Thus, the IDI’s question: If this year Palestinian statehood discussion starts at the UN General Assembly, what changes for Israel? If Gaza and the West Bank become a state (it is clear that at first not a full member of the UN), does Israel fear an influx of refugees and the loss of control? But would statehood (even in its nascent form) create international law responsibilities for Palestinians that might be useful for peaceful movements? The tunnels under the Gaza border bring in a vast array of goods, but their existence also creates anxiety in Israel. If statehood proceeds, would the tunnels close up? If this were to happen, what are Israel’s security concerns?
What is changing is that Palestinians are exhibiting progress in giving up the victimized identity and asserting themselves as a large-group politically. They also try to change their image (including their self-image) in order to become “Partners” for a negotiation with Israel. This initiates an opportunity for new psychologically-informed negotiations under the guidance of a third party, negotiations that do not tell opposing groups what to do, but rather help them to negotiate realistically by attempting to remove psychological obstacles such as the re-activation of images of past historical events on both sides. The Jerusalem meeting gave the impression that starting a serious psycho-politically-informed negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians is more possible now.
There are security realities. But some of these security realities vie with psychological dangers that may or may not be legitimate. Opposing large groups need a third party to help parse the real from the psychological. Both the Palestinian guest and the Israeli ambassadors seemed excited about the possibility of a psychologically-informed third party to broker negotiations.
Israel’s security concerns are heightened. For example, it is strongly believed by many in Israel that Iran poses an existential threat. How much do external threats create a tendency to turn inward and how much are they needed to turn away from internal problems?
IDI members discussed Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel holds the belief that Iran does not yet have a bomb. Some Israelis stated that Iran would not use a nuclear bomb to attack Israel because doing so would kill all the Arab Palestinians. But this issue, and the responses it evokes, clearly needs further examination
Remarks by the Christian Arab guest:
“Israel is my home, but not my country,” said the Christian Palestinian guest in telling his personal story. People like this person do not know to whom they “belong.” Even a two-state solution is frightening, because Christians are the minority in any state. At the meeting, IDI members told this guest to hold onto his identity and remain a voice within the region. As one IDI member noted, “his group survival will be a symbol of peace in the Middle East.”
The Arab Spring and Turkey:
Some IDI members saw the “Arab Spring” as “The Arab awakening” and discussed the idea of “to what was the society ’awakening’”? Middle East leadership could be characterized in recent history as paternalistic, and people seem tired of the paternalist system. But with this awakening, there is absolute uncertainty about its result and whether those results will be “good” or “bad.” People might go back to past glories or traumas, old customs or belief systems, instead of forward.
What will be the Turkish role in the Arab world? The IDI members watched clips from a recent Turkish TV series and movies, all about the Ottoman Empire. These seemed to demonstrate a growing preoccupation with the glorious Ottoman past. More disturbing however was the violence presented in a positive way by the TV series. The leadership vacuum of the Arab Spring/awakening has created an advantageous position for Turkey, an opportunity for that country to fulfil the role of a regional influence. While Turkey is becoming a regional role model, the country may also face a possible frustration, once the Arab Spring finds its own leader(s). Because Turkey, ultimately, is not Arabic and Turkey’s secularism has not been accepted by the Arab countries.
Russia has experienced its own Spring (before the elections) with the ruling party surprised by the calls for democracy and huge demonstrations by youth and protesters against Putin. These were not prevented by the Russian government.
Russia is really “three countries”: the former communist country, the intellectual country, and the countryside. Intellectuals seem to be leading Russia’s Spring. They want old faces to disappear, and to create the chance for new faces. One difference between Tahrir Square and Russia is that the movement in Russia is not related to religion or ethnicity. Instead, it has an unemployment component but primarily a component related to the middle class no longer accepting being treated like children, without intelligence or agency. This is manifested across religious and ethnic sectors. It is not clear whether repression will come or not.
It was also noted that Syria is to Russia what Bahrain is to the US, in terms of geopolitical entanglements that constrain more appropriate positions. The main issue is that, contradicting the Western views of the fragility of Assad’s regime, it seems that a lot of minorities, partly fearing the “Arab Spring,” do support Assad, who with his army, has almost half of the population behind him. Together with Iranian support and the support of countries like Russia and China, the Assad regime seems unlikely to fall in the near future.