It still takes two to tango

24 March 2010 - 00:07 By Benjamin Pogrund

The Big Read: Peace in the Middle East was in sight in October 1997. It was a good time to come to Jerusalem, as I did then, to start a centre to foster dialogue in this city of division and passion. But the peace hopes have not been fulfilled. Instead, it's been a roller-coaster ride with hope rising and falling. At the moment, it's not clear whether the region is heading up or down.

Twelve years ago, the promise of the Oslo Accords, which had been agreed between Israelis and Palestinians four years earlier, was strong: Palestinians had accepted the reality of Israel's existence and Israel had accepted the reality of a Palestinian state-to-come. Many problems had to be resolved for a two-state solution: borders, Jerusalem as a capital for both peoples, Palestinian refugees, settlements, and security and access to holy sites. But everything was possible - so it seemed.

I came at the invitation of Rabbi Mickey Rosen, head of Yakar, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and learning community. We had got to know each other in London, from where he hailed, and we aimed to set up a Centre for Social Concern to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and Jews and Christians. We also wanted to tackle the discord among Jews in Israel caused by differences in background and in the practice of Judaism.

My South African experience was crucial. Mostly gained in 26 years as a journalist with the Rand Daily Mail, it wasn't, and isn't, the false apartheid comparison that some try to make. Instead, I draw two lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle:

ýMake contact, create trust: Despite the best apartheid efforts to keep whites and blacks separate, people climbed over the barriers and made friends. That was all-important when circumstances changed and negotiations began. In the same way, in Israel-Palestine, in the absence of visionary and brave leaders (on either side) we must develop personal ties;

ýNon-violence: In 1961, the ANC turned to armed resistance. But it also decided not to kill white civilians, for philosophical and strategic reasons. The policy was basically adhered to. So, again, when circumstances changed and negotiations began, whites did not fear being swept into the sea by the black majority and were willing to yield power. In contrast, Palestinian suicide-bombings and drive-by shootings, unknown in South Africa, have confirmed Jewish insecurities and fears, and have pushed most of them to the right. The violence has been counter-productive for achieving peace. So, too, is Israeli violence in its occupation of the West Bank.

These basic principles have been applied by the Centre for Social Concern through hundreds of public and private meetings in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Speakers from across the spectrum were brought in to debate and argue every conceivable subject. Nothing was beyond scrutiny and debate. Emotions often ran high; the only rule was that personal abuse was barred.

This is a small sampling of the subjects tackled in such meetings: "Facing fundamentalism in Islam and Judaism", "The Palestinian state: Do good fences make good neighbours?", "Is Israel's army losing its way?", "Zionism: Hope and reality", "Must journalists be loyal to the government?", "Business ethics as a challenge to Judaism", "Reflections on Jonah", "Yiddish in Russia", "Why has my child left Judaism?", "How top foreign reporters view Israel", and "Is apartheid relevant to us?"

Many on both sides were eager to know about each other.

We ran seminars with Palestinian organisations, including one on an issue much argued over by Jews and Arabs: "Who got here first?" But we added a subtext that took the argument to another level: "And does it matter?"

We hired buses and took groups of Israelis to tour Palestinian areas - with a Palestinian guide and explanatory meetings included - and bused Palestinians to Israeli areas with an Israeli guide.

Unfortunately, the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) of October 2000 ended these close encounters. Since then, it has been difficult - even more than under apartheid - to maintain personal contact. There has been too much killing and too many threats. Security is the reason, and the excuse. Israel does not let its citizens cross into Palestinian territory without permission, and severely restricts Palestinian entry to Israel. Scheduling meetings in Jerusalem with Palestinian speakers is difficult because it is usually uncertain until the lat minute whether permission will be given. It is dismaying that Israelis and Palestinians are denied easy access to one other.

Despite these problems, we successfully ran a project with a Palestinian organisation to study shared Jewish and Arab experiences from their different perspectives. This led to the publication of a book, Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, containing 14 academic papers and discussions.

We were able, even during the tense times and a growing gulf, and with Palestinians increasingly saying "no" to "normalcy", to do a follow-up project; its fruits will be seen in a second volume, to be published this year.

Speaking about the Centre for Social Concern, Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, said: "The idea behind Yakar [the synagogue and community] is contrary to the nature of Jerusalem, a city with so many tensions, between seculars and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), Jews and Arabs."

The centre, he notes, was "trying to build bridges and, though building bridges in such a city can be frustrating, it is very much needed. If we had 20 Yakars all over the city, Jerusalem would be a very different city."

Oslo failed to bring peace because each side undermined it: Palestinians resorted to violence and Israel continued to build settlements on the West Bank. Suspicion, fear, hatred and rejection now dominate.

There's a chance at the moment for a breakthrough, with Washington pressing for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though, at first, they will be through an American intermediary, George Mitchell. But there's no time to lose: as Israel goes on expanding its settlements on the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem, each new house reduces the chance of creating a viable and independent Palestinian state.

Such housing, earlier this month, put the US in conflict with Israel, though good relations have been restored. It now remains to be seen whether President Barack Obama has the will, and the political strength, to bring settlement expansion to a complete halt. While tensions were high, some Palestinian leaders, those of Hamas among them, tried to ride the tiger with inflammatory claims that the al-Aqsa mosque was under threat by Israel. That was so obviously baseless opstokery that few people responded to it.

The way out is through two states. If that prospect were destroyed, the future would indeed be bleak because it would mean continued Israeli occupation - and continuing Palestinian resistance. That would put Jews and Arabs beyond dialogue.

  • Pogrund is a former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail. He now lives in Jerusalem and was a founder director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern