In my May 13 column, “The next generation of peace advocates faces an even more difficult task,” I suggested that we may have missed the train on the two states solution. I called on interested Israelis and Palestinians (and others) to join me on a thought journey to discover and create alternatives to what we have known as the peace process for the past decades.
To my pleasant surprise more than 70 serious people answered the call from Israel, Palestine and other parts of the world, including members of the Diaspora communities. This week I am conducting Zoom calls with more than 50 of them to try to map out a plan of action for how, together, we can begin to ask the questions that we need to open up in order to determine if we can find solutions for making peace in this land that some call the Land of Israel and others call Palestine.
It is not a matter of one state or two states. It is rather much more complex than that. It is also not a matter of looking at and debating models that already exist which have supporters and opponents. The first questions begin with a recognition that we have to relate the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Jews have an historical, national, religious and emotional connection to all parts of the land, not just to the area known as inside of the Green Line. Palestinians, likewise, feel emotional, historical, national and religious connections to all parts of the land, and not only to the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Jaffa is as important to Palestinians and Shechem (Nablus) is to Israeli Jews.
Some of the insights that I have already gained after the first 20 Zoom calls include understanding that in order to open a serious and worthwhile discussion between Israelis and Palestinians, we must completely reject the idea of unilateralism.
No side can make decisions and take actions which have a direct (usually negative) impact on the other side. We must also totally reject occupation and control of civilian populations that are imposed on them by military regimes. Occupation and peace will never go hand in hand. Other guiding principles that I would point to at this early stage are that political outcome must ensure equality for everyone between the river and the sea. That means equal rights and equal opportunities. It means that people must have an opportunity to freely and regularly chose their own representatives in whatever form of governance is eventually agreed to and created.
It is essential that whatever form of agreement is reached, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs must be able to express their identity, assert and develop their culture, have control over their education, and express their religious identity, rights and obligations freely. Both sides must have the sense that whatever political system that develops allows for their national-religious-ethnic expressions within a territorial framework that enables them to have a sense of control over their destiny.
The political agreement must provide the ability to defend the security of the land and all of the people who reside here both from outside threats against the national security and from internal threats to personal security.
THE POLITICAL framework must provide the means for economic development, eradication of poverty, and social justice that provides a social security net and balances the gaps between different parts of the two societies. Freedom of movement seems to be a key principle for almost everyone I have spoken with so far.
I have no immediate plan for how to begin the discussion. I knew back in the late 1980s, when I first started organizing strategic thinking groups of Israelis and Palestinians, that the discussions began with the agreement that our starting point was two states for two peoples. We organized professionals around specific issues such as Jerusalem, borders, security, water, refugees, etc. Now we don’t have an agreed starting point for the discussion other than agreeing that we have failed to implement a viable two-states solution. We now have to open our minds and hearts to new possibilities. We must take into account the failures of the past two decades. But we should not limit our ability to imagine new visions of how Israelis and Palestinians can figure out how to live in the same piece of land in peace.
It is important and encouraging that we can also bring in members of the Israeli, Jewish and Palestinian diasporas into the discussions. One serious issue that we will have to look at is immigration policies.
We cannot ignore that one of the pillars of Zionism has been the Law of Return for Jews who wish to be citizens of the State of Israel. I am one of the beneficiaries of that law. We cannot ignore that millions of Palestinians around the world have a connection to the land of Palestine and view it as their homeland.
Like the Jews around the world, not all of the Palestinians outside of Palestine want to live in Palestine, but almost all of them, like the Jews, feel a deep emotional and national connection to their ancestral homeland. They must be included in the discussions about a vision for the future.
My sense is that it is important to include Jordanians in the thought journey as well – both Jordan Palestinians and Jordanian-Jordanians (as they are called). The Late King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Prince Hassan were among the first people in the region who spoke about various forms of confederations. Even Yasser Arafat spoke about a “Middle East Benelux” (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. In fact, in a conversation I held with Arafat about two months before his death, he once again raised this idea.
In several of my conversations so far, people suggested that we need to begin by searching for the underlying psychological needs of both peoples. Another person put it slightly differently: What do I feel most strong about?
In mediation language we speak about reaching agreement that I can live with. One Israeli I spoke with put it quite simply: Let’s begin the discussion by asking, “What do you want? What is your vision for how we can eventually live in peace?”
More insights and a lot more questions will come in the next weeks.
Gershon Baskin is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.