RIP, Oslo

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By Khaled Diab

The “peace of the brave” has given way to the peace of the grave. It’s time to abandon Oslo in favour of a civil rights struggle for equality.

The hoped-for "peace of the brave" has morphed into the peace of the grave. Image: White House

The hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave.
Image: White House

Tuesday 13 October 2015

It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, on 13 September 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand”.

“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time. “We know a difficult road lies ahead. Every peace has its enemies.”

Yet two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process also gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”

So what went wrong over the past 22 years?

One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.

However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership – and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned, with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.

But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.

Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month, by an Israeli extremist before he could fulfil his newfound potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.

Palestinian extremists, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Binyamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.

It was around this time that Hamas and the Israeli right began their longstanding anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict, which was the main aim of their violence, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.

This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.

The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trappings of statehood even without a state, many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise, as well as to undermine its Palestinian enemies.

Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as: “It’s a frozen conflict and we pay for the freezer,” reflecting the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.

Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.

This might explain why Mahmoud Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.

“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly on to the old paradigm.

Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and to persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal – its people.

The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a non-violent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 October 2015.

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Spring of hope amid winter of despair

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By Khaled Diab

For Palestinians in Israel, the recent race for the Knesset was both the worst of elections and the best.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Monday 30 March 2015

It was the worst of elections. It was the best of elections. It was the winter of despair but also the spring of hope.

Such is the nature of Israel’s highly fractured and divided political landscape that election night can deliver a number of winners, as well as multiple losers.

Leftist Jews in Tel Aviv and elsewhere wandered around dazed and shell-shocked by the news that Binyamin Netanyahu had not only survived but that Likud had put a six seat lead between it and its nearest rival, the Zionist Union, despite what the polls had forecast.

Although Palestinians shared the left’s revulsion towards Netanyahu’s Velcro grip on power, compounded by the fear of what further damage a strong far-right alliance could cause them, Arab voters in Israel were also in high spirits.

In fact, there was jubilation in Nazareth and other Arab towns and villages at the news that a coalition of Arab (and progressive Jewish) parties had made the unprecedented achievement of finishing third in the elections.

Less than two months after it was formed, the Joint List – an unlikely and once-improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish progressive leftists and Islamists – had managed the previously unimaginable and become the Jewish state’s third-largest party.

This apparent unity in Arab political ranks spurred Palestinians in Israel, who had grown increasingly disillusioned and apathetic towards the political process in recent elections, to go out and vote, including many who had never done so before.

For example, Tamer Nafar of the socially aware and politically active Palestinian hip-hop band DAM recorded a pre-election video in which he raps about having never voted in his life, until now.

Some voters hoped that the Joint List would put Arabs on Israel’s political radar and force their Jewish compatriots to notice them. “I want Israelis to realise … that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East,” one voter asserted.

And the Joint List has certainly succeeded in putting Arabs on the Knesset’s map. “I’m delighted with their performance,” Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and activist, told me. “They ran an honest, democratic campaign, unlike Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu’s bid for re-election raised eyebrows and drew accusations of scare-mongering and racism, both from Jews and Arabs. In addition to his well-rehearsed and repeated warnings about the imminent and “existential threat” from notional Iranian nukes – which he has been rehashing at the American Congress since 1996 – Netanyahu talked, like a paranoid Middle Eastern despot, of an unholy alliance of foreigners and leftists out to unseat him.

Moreover, when polls forecasted that Likud was falling behind, Netanyahu sought to galvanise the party’s traditional but increasingly apathetic support base by tapping into its deepest prejudices, fears and anxieties. “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls,” he warned ominously, in one of the election’s ugliest moments. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

This contrasts sharply with the measured, inclusive campaign spearheaded by the Joint List’s leader and perhaps Israel’s fastest-rising political star, Ayman Odeh. With his background in the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, he has moved the Arab coalition he heads away from identity politics and towards questions of universal social and economic justice.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” he insists. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

With Arabs being the most under-privileged segment of Israeli society, they are the focus of a 10-year programme devised by Odeh to narrow inequalities. “It’s a win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society,” he explained. Taking a leaf out of Martin Luther King’s civil rights handbook, Odeh even plans a march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of this programme.

Odeh’s Joint List also intends to champion the cause of their Palestinian compatriots in the occupied territories. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” he said. “And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.”

But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not holding their breaths for any improvements to their lot. While many praise the Joint List and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even endorsed it, Palestinians generally doubt the Arab coalition can overcome the ultranationalist, rightwing juggernaut.

Despite this, there is a line of thinking among Palestinian activists that the ideological honesty of a hard-right government may make life worse for them but it will work out better in the long term because it will lead to more international isolation for Israel and will prompt more countries to view it as a pariah.

“[This is] a much better outcome than the so-called leftwing government that disguises itself as a lamb with the cover of the international community, yet perpetuates the status quo and continued colony building in ‪‎Palestine,” one Jerusalemite said, reflecting this sentiment.

In Gaza, where the differences between most Israeli parties are hair-splittingly small, “people are not hopeful at all”, describes Majd Al Waheidi, a young journalist who rose to prominence during last summer’s war.

“[Ordinary] people in Gaza don’t really care or differentiate between Israeli parties… They say all of them are the same enemy who denies our rights and freedom,” she elaborates. “Maybe there’s a sense of frustration because Netanyahu has made it again but this frustration is only between intellectuals and experts who know the threat of Netanyahu on Gaza.”

Buttu is more upbeat. “I am under no illusions that the Joint List will be able to be miracle workers: the tide of racism is too high,” she says. “But they will push back and, as always, push for an end to Israel’s military rule, blockade over Gaza and colonisation of the West Bank.”

For the Joint List, the going will be both tough and unclear. “They face an uphill battle. They obviously won’t join any coalition, as they cannot be partners to the occupation but they will be front and centre in pushing back against the racist legislation,” adds Buttu.

On the other side of the aisle, even the Zionist Union is unlikely to reach out to the Joint List, even to block Netanyahu, if history is anything to go by, as no Arab party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition before.

The best hope for the Joint List having any parliamentary clout is a “national unity” government (President Reuven Rivlin’s preferred outcome), which would leave it in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition. But if Netanyahu succeeds in his determination to form a rightwing, ultra-nationalist coalition, this would place the Zionist Union at the helm of the opposition, putting the Joint List out in the cold or, at most, in a supporting role.

Regardless of whether it leads the opposition or not, some are convinced that the Joint List will have negligible influence on Israel’s politics. “[It] is going to have zero influence through parliament on Israeli domestic or foreign policies,” the prominent Israeli dissident New Historian Ilan Pappé told me.

Conversely, the Joint List is likely to have a profound impact on Palestinian politics, argues Pappé. “The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian representatives in the Knesset are formations based on a certain Palestinian strategic logic that adheres to the two-state  solution as the only way forward,” he maintains. “As the chances and prospects of such a solution seem to disappear daily, we are all in need of a new strategy.”

And this new strategy? A civil rights struggle which will deliver “a true ANC-kind of leadership to follow and be part of, for a better future,” believes Pappé.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 March 2015.

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Palestinian resistance: The gun or the olive branch?

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By Khaled Diab

The death and destruction inflicted by Israel’s assault on Gaza point to the futility of Palestinian armed resistance. Peaceful resistance is the way.

Gaza Day poster from 1969.  Source:

Gaza Day poster from 1969.

Sunday 27 July 2014

The war in Gaza has exacted a heavy human and humanitarian toll on the long-suffering civilian population there, especially for children and women. At least 925 Palestinians have been killed, of which at least 676 are civilians, including 206 children, according to UN figures.

The images of the suffering, anguish and pain have provoked an enormous sense of outrage, anger and despair amongst Palestinians outside the strip.

Hamas’s barrage of primitive and puny rockets may have been physically targeted at Israel but ideologically their intended recipient seems to be arch-rivals Fatah, and its negotiated approach to the conflict.

Arafat UNForty years ago, in 1974, Yasser Arafat stood before the UN General Assembly and declared: “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

During the intervening years, the PLO packed away its “freedom fighter’s gun” in favour of the peace process. However, the net result has been that the life of Palestinians today is worse than it was when there were no formal agreements between the two sides. Prior to Oslo, Palestinians had freedom of movement across all of Israel and Palestine and were not strangled in by settlements.

It is no wonder that the olive branch looks like it has fallen irretrievably out of the feeble hands of Mahmoud Abbas, whose gestures of peace remain unrequited by the Israelis and whose Palestinian Authority has, in many ways, become a security contractor for the Israeli occupation.

And there is a rising public sense here that armed struggle is inevitable. “Till we have a viable and independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian people have the right to resist the Israeli occupation and domination in any and all ways possible,” contends Imad Karam, a Gazan filmmaker and peace activist currently based in the UK.

“I really dislike Hamas but what they’re doing against Israel is the right thing,” a Jerusalemite friend told me, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

“Israel has got to feel that there is a cost to its actions. It needs to get some of the same sense of fear and anguish we feel,” another said.

Hamas’s rockets are a “symbolic and radical assertion of an indigenous people’s unbending will to live with dignity in their ancestral homeland,” described Susan Abulhawa, the Palestinian author of the critically acclaimed book Mornings in Jenin, in a public post on her Facebook page. “They are the minimal acts of self-defence of a people against whom unspeakable crimes have never ceased in 60 years.”

Palestine’s increasingly successful peaceful popular resistance movements have also been caught in the crossfire. “This is the most aggressive Israeli war and one which hit families hardest, but we have not seen in the past such Palestinian unity and support behind the resistance,” says Karam. “A sign would be the general mood in both Gaza and the West Bank which is one that is proud and supportive of the resistance and their achievements, despite the hefty cost.”

Some even mock and ridicule the very notion of peaceful resistance. Rana Baker, a London-based Gazan, asked mockingly, in an article for openDemocracy, whether Palestinians “should grab guitars, pianos, and white ribbons, look up at their oppressors flying over their heads in apaches and F16s, and sing a lullaby of peace”.

Baker even justifies the targeting of civilians, which is a war crime, through the convoluted logic that “Palestinians fire rockets into what belongs to them in the first place.” In a show of dangerous self-deception, she even believes that armed resistance must continue “until Palestine is liberated, and by Palestine I mean historical Palestine.”

Such hardening maximalist nationalism in some Palestinian quarters is a product of disappointment and disillusionment at the failure of the peace process to deliver an independent state or even equality, only a state of segregation, settlements and walls.

But can armed struggle deliver justice for Palestinians where negotiations have failed? Judging by the long annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict, armed struggle has been a double-edged sword, with the edge facing the Palestinians digging much deeper and causing more pain.

In fact, in almost every military confrontation the Palestinians and Arabs have had with the Israelis, Israel has come out on top, with Palestinians paying a heavy price for the loss. Yet for advocates of the way of the gun such overwhelming evidence is ignored, or perhaps irrelevant.

“I remain convinced that there is no military solution to this conflict,” says Karam, recognising the futility of armed conflict in the Israeli-Palestinian context. “No matter how hard Israel hits our people, the Palestinian people will simply not give up until our legitimate demands for freedom are fulfilled, and no matter how far our rockets reach in Israel, they will not bring a solution to the conflict.”

'The sole solution'. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source:

‘The sole solution’. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source:

This is a lesson which Israel repeatedly refuses to learn, preferring the so-called “deterrence” of military brutality to the employment of soft power and the tackling of the underlying causes.

Karam still sees a future for unarmed Palestinian resistance, even in Gaza. “In my view, popular and non-violent resistance is the best way forward to achieve our national aspirations, alongside political negotiations,” he asserts. “However, it is difficult to apply this in Gaza which is blockaded and I don’t see an end to armed resistance from Gaza unless at least the blockade is lifted.”

Personally, I am convinced that non-violent resistance need not wait for a lifting of the blockade and, in fact, in a situation where Palestinians are seriously outgunned, peaceful protest can outsmart the Israeli military, leading to the lifting of the siege.

In fact, the most significant gains made by the Palestinian cause came through peaceful means. This is reflected in the first intifdada, when ordinary, humble, unarmed but dedicated Palestinians almost brought Israel to its knees. That the opportunities for peace and justice this threw up were manipulated in ill faith by too many Israeli leaders and squandered by the PLO does not detract from the power of popular, peaceful resistance.

Palestinian peace activist Sulaiman Khatib believes this apparent surge in support for armed struggle is passing and is fuelled by outrage and powerlessness at what is happening to the population of Gaza. “When people see all the images from Gaza, there is a shift in the balance between violent and non-violent struggle. But this is only temporary,” he told me.

“The large disparity in power in Gaza confirms my conviction that violence – or armed resistance – is not the way. The best way to change and combat the occupation is through non-violence.”

Khatib is the co-founder of Combatants for Peace, a group of ex-fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, who “decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace”.

This organisation didn’t get off to an easy birth. At the first-ever meeting of ex-Israeli and Palestinian combatants the air was thick with distrust, loathing, disagreement and, above all, fear. The Palestinians and Israelis were both paranoid that the meeting might be a trap.

Today, they are a well-organised and effective, if still relatively minor movement. In keeping with their ethos, they held a joint Arab-Jewish protest, albeit a small one, against the Gaza war. “We also need co-resistance,” emphasises Khatib.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Last week’s large peaceful protest in Qalandia is a clear sign that unarmed resistance has certainly not yet run its course in Palestine.

And it doesn’t end there. The Palestinian grassroots weave together a long and loose web of activists and groups who employ only peaceful means: from the likes of Bassem Tamimi, the school teacher who became an anti-settlement activist in Nabi Salih to Emad Burnat, the farmer who became an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to protest the Israeli wall in Bil’in.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated and extended version of an article which originally appeared in The National on 23 July 2014.

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Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount: Ground zero or common ground?

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By Khaled Diab

Jerusalem’s holiest site is again provoking tension and controversy. But could it also bridge the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians?

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline with majestic splendour. To the untrained eye, this architectural gem, which floats resplendently above the old city’s cacophony, seems like a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity, a retreat for meditation and introspection.

But this Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, or Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, has been anything but peaceful and has been the symbolic heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s religious fault line for much of the past century.

Even today it remains a major flash point. In fact, the 21st century got off to an inauspicious and bloody start when a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the site caused simmering tensions to overflow into the costly second intifada.

And these tensions show no sign of abating. Last week, a group of Jewish extremists – led by the messianic rabbi, Yehuda Glick, who is part of the tiny fringe movement which fantasises about building the Third Templestormed the complex.

More troubling than the lunatic fringe is the Knesset debate on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin.

This has not only led to clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, but has also prompted the Jordanian parliament to vote to expel the Israeli ambassador and recall its own if the Knesset takes further action.

It could also jeopardise Israeli-Jordanian ties. “If Israel wants to violate the peace treaty in this issue, the entire treaty, its articles, details and wording will be put on the table,” Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur cautioned. For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the notion of shared sovereignty as part of any eventual peace deal.

Nevertheless, it would do us well to recall that, for all Israel’s many failings, it is possibly, at least for now, the only conqueror of Jerusalem that has not converted the religious identity of the site, despite the best efforts of extremists.

Many in Israel, the Arab world and internationally fear the consequences of this “powder keg”. “Using religion as a pretext to impose sovereignty on historical places of worship threatens to plunge the entire region into great conflict and instability,” Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO’s spokeswoman, warned.

Given this widespread apprehension that this seismic shift in the Noble Sanctuary’s status could become the ground zero, or epicentre, of a region-wide conflict, many today will find it hard to conceive, or even believe, that there is historic evidence to suggest that Muslims and Jews once prayed together on the Temple Mount.

Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, Muhammad’s second successor, or caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Jews were not only permitted to return to Jerusalem, but that the Muslims allowed them to worship at their side on the Temple Mount,” wrote Francis E Peters, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

Some other historians agree. “We know that Omar welcomed the Jews back in Jerusalem, that he and the early caliphs allowed Jewish worship on the Temple Mount and that the Jews did not leave again as long as Islam held sway,” Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his comprehensive biography of Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and permitted Jews to worship there. One convert, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors.

It is even possible that the caliph allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

This permissiveness and interfaith interaction was in keeping with Omar’s attitude – as well as Muhammad’s – towards religion for the People of the Book. This was illustrated by the story of his refusal to pray in the Holy Sepulchre so that future Muslims would not use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – which they did on the actual spot where he prayed nearby, and in numerous other instances over the centuries.

This tradition of tolerance was continued by the Umayyads, who, despite having introduced the concept of royalty into hitherto egalitarian Islam, were arguably among the most pluralistic Muslim dynasties wherever they set up shop, including in Andalusia.

Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the founder of the dynasty and a born mover and shaker, was revered by local Jews. Despite his relentless expansionism, Muawiya was also famed for his belief in dialogue and compromise. “Even if but one hair is binding me to my fellow man, I don’t let it break,” he asserted.

When the Umayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik ibn Marwan built the Dome of the Rock, Jews were filled with elation. Some even believed that this Islamic shrine was the third temple. For a century, Jews had full access to this holiest of sites, until the reign of another Umar, the dogmatic Umar Ibn Abdel-Aziz.

Is it possible today, in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, for the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount to become a common ground, rather than a battleground, for Muslims and Jews?

Some religious Jews think so. “Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the late Rabbi Froman  told me. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Personally, I am sceptical that this religious edifice can work in isolation as a bridge to peace. This feeds into the illusion, or misconception, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one. While religious extremists do often exercise what I call the “God veto”, for both sides, excluding the fanatical fringes, the conflict is about worldly affairs.

It is in this frame that we must view the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. It is the entire conflict writ spiritual. This prime piece of sacred real estate contains many of the elements bedevilling the entire quest for a peaceful resolution: control of and sovereignty over the land, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Until these issues are resolved, it is highly unlikely that Muslims and Jews will find the necessary will to compromise to hammer out a formula for sharing this holiest of locations. Furthermore, it would be a grave, reckless and dangerous error for Israel to think it can unilaterally take action.

But what history can teach us, and what is often overlooked in the heat of conflict, is that Jews and Muslims were, for  many centuries, friends and allies and that they once stood side by side as brothers in faith on Jerusalem’s most hallowed ground.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2014.

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From peace now to peace how

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By Khaled Diab

As John Kerry’s efforts appear doomed, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists are left with an impossible challenge: peace how? Ask the people.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month,  Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinian negotiators are in open mutiny against Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic” Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And to me it is unclear just how Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race against space for the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new or imaginative to the table.

This has left peace activists contemplating peace how more than peace now. “Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” confesses Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”

“And Kerry has no Plan B,” she added for emphasis.

Sadiq co-organised the recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations, where the mood struck me as being similarly dour.

Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds – from secular types whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or colourful headscarves. There was even a man with a Moshe Dayan-style eye-patch.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. “Peace is too dear to be left to politicians,” as one speaker put it.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one major overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, the sabotaging of which, the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of  the motivation behind his Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis disastrously supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible… because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, side-lining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Baskin’s optimism that Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals which garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure which the majority on both sides vote for should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Nancy Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2014.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me, I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

On the whole, Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East. But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.


If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop him a line at


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Israel’s missed opportunities for peace

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By Khaled Diab

Israel has squandered so many opportunities for peace that its very identity as a ‘Jewish state’ is in jeopardy.

Monday 29 October 2012

It is 39 years since the 6th October/Yom Kippur war of 1973. After the peace talks in Geneva following the war, Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban, the ever-articulate founding father of Israeli diplomacy, quipped that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While there is indeed truth in Eban’s famous assertion (which I will explore in my next article), the Israeli fixation on this hypothesis, with its implication that there is no Arab “partner for peace”, and that the situation today is somehow inevitable, clearly overlooks the long annals of opportunities missed by…Israel.

Eban seems to have wilfully turned a blind eye to one glaring example of this lack of engagement which occurred on his watch: Israel’s failure to avert that same all-out war in 1973, shattering the prospects for forging a lasting peace that its victory six years earlier had opened up.

Although that 1967 war ‘officially’ lasted just six days, it in reality continued in various forms for a further six years – until the next war of 1973. This period could have been an important window of opportunity, but the Israeli government, drunk on victory and convinced that it could have its cake and eat it, rejected peace plan after peace plan. Had Israel taken action back then to return the Arab territories conquered in 1967 in accordance with UN Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan, it could have avoided the drift to the current impasse in which hundreds of thousands of settlers live in occupied territory and millions of Palestinians live unhappily and in segregation under Israeli military rule.

Back to 1967. Those who subscribe to the received Israeli narrative will argue that Israel was dragged quivering into a fight for its very survival in June 1967, the state had no territorial designs at the time, and would have ceded the conquered territories had there been a true partner for peace.

There is no doubt that the Israeli public, exposed to a continuous barrage of bombastic radio broadcasts from Cairo promising to “put an end to the entire Zionist existence”, was terrified in the run up to the war – as those on the ground, including the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed. However, the Israeli military establishment, which had been meticulously preparing for just such a confrontation since at least 1956, was confident it could defeat the bellicose Arab paper tiger, whose roar was definitely worse than its bite.

Indeed, I disagree with those who believe that Israel was acting in self-defence. Evidence of this can, for example, be found in how Israel cold-shouldered an Egyptian invitation in 1965 for then Mossad chief Meir Amit to go to Cairo for a clandestine meeting with none other than Abdel-Hakim Amer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s vice-president and confidante who unbeknownst to himself stood on the threshold of infamy with his subsequent mishandling of the 1967 war.

Israeli, pointing to the famous “Three No’s” of the Khartoum Summit of 1967, allege that there was no Arab partner for peace at the time. But this reveals a severe misunderstanding of the changes defeat had brought to Arab politics. For instance, Nasser tried to contain Syrian rejectionism in Khartoum, agreed to the principles of Resolution 242 and signed Egypt up to the Rogers Plan shortly before his death. “Go and speak of… a comprehensive solution to the [Palestinian] problem and a comprehensive peace,” Nasser reportedly told King Hussein of Jordan in Khartoum.

Regardless of whether Israel’s conquest was premeditated or accidental, the fact remains that the appetite to hold on to conquered land has been stronger than the urge to exchange it for peace ever since, despite early warnings of the dire consequences of this for the Zionist enterprise from the likes of Uri Avnery and Amos Oz.

The ultimate irony implicit in such warnings against Israeli intransigence, or perhaps inertia, is the possibility, with the direction things are heading, that Israel may ‘succeed’ where the Arabs have failed: destroying the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state by its own hand, especially with the recent revelation that there are now more Arabs living under Israeli control than Jews.

Moreover, it was not just the sting of comprehensive defeat that was prodding Nasser to pursue a revisionist course.

Although it was Israel which initiated peace overtures with Egypt soon after the 1952 Free Officers coup, it was Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was then prime minister, who sustained and nurtured, along with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the secret channels which eventually led to a blueprint for a peaceful resolution. Nasser had early on showed remarkable restraint in his public pronouncements and admitted in private that eventual peace with Israel was inevitable – but this early willingness to seek out an accommodation fell prey to the pincer movement of Israel’s predatory hawks and Nasser’s disastrous ambition to lead the Arab world by following the loudest and most radical voices on the “Arab street”. Nasser’s clandestine partner for peace, Sharett, was ousted by David Ben-Gurion, also in 1955, who believed this Israeli dove – who, far more than any other Israeli leader, understood his Arab adversaries – was “raising a generation of cowards”.

Ben-Gurion’s fears provide significant insight into a major psychological barrier on the Israeli side. The long history of persecution endured by Jews had not only created a deep and painful trauma, it also helped fuel Israel’s obsession with might and courage as ends in their own right.

But it is not just a question of psychology. Israel’s failure to reach a resolution with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, has deep ideological roots. The elephant in the room which classical Zionism has ignored or dealt with myopically is the Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl himself seemed to expect the local Arabs would embrace the Zionist newcomers with open arms, because they would bring the gifts of science and progress with them. In the egalitarian, multicultural Utopia Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), an Arab character, Reshid Bey, expresses his gratitude that Jewish immigrants have helped modernise Arab villages and boost the value of Arab property.

Despite his early talk of Jewish-Arab class solidarity, Ben-Gurion was more realistic. “A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily,” he admitted to colleagues in the Mapai Political Committee in 1938. This could only be addressed, he believed, through a show of strength that would persuade Arabs to submit to Zionist hegemony.

Like Zionist leaders before and after him, including Herzl, Ben-Gurion was also convinced that the support of the great powers, or a great power, was more important than reaching any kind of agreement or accommodation with the local Palestinian population.

That can help explain Israel’s long refusal to recognise or deal with the PLO, despite Egyptian attempts dating back to the 1970s to persuade Israel to enter into talks and despite the Palestinian National Council (PNC) shifting the focus of its national charter away from armed struggle and towards a phased political solution. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, expressed his desire to keep the Palestinian question in “the refrigerator” – and by the time he took it out of the fridge, it was perhaps already too late to thaw it as Israel did not possess the willpower to reverse the too many facts on the ground it had established in the meantime.

Even after having reached peace with Egypt and despite the Camp David accords stipulating that “Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”, Israel still refused to countenance dealing with Arafat and his comrades.

Even after Yasser Arafat had, during the first intifada, persuaded the PNC to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, and to accept all relevant UN resolutions dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel still refused to play ball. “The PNC declaration is an additional attempt at disinformation, a jumble of illusions, meant to mislead world public opinion,” was the Israeli cabinet’s harsh verdict of the historic 1988 declaration. But as the faulty Oslo Accords a few years later clearly demonstrated, the PLO’s willingness to recognise Israel was not an illusion but very real.

Israel is repeating a similar series of errors with its refusal to deal with Hamas and its inhumane blockade on Gaza, which is bound to fuel grievances for long years to come and is clearly against Israel’s own self-interest. Even PA president Mahmoud Abbas, one of the architects of the two-state solution, is seen as beyond the pale in many Israeli circles today.

And so the endless, impossible, rhetorical search for a “suitable” partner for peace continues fruitlessly.

Although Eban’s assertion about missed opportunities is the one that has lodged in the Israeli popular psyche, another of his quotes is a far more apt description of Israel and Zionism’s approach to the Palestinians and wider Arab context: “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, we do not seem to have reached this vital juncture in history yet.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 October 2012.

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Settlers for Palestine

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By Khaled Diab

Israeli settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to peace, but could settlers also help build a Palestinian state?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.

It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.

Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.

Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.

Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.

This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.

In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.

The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.

I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”

Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.

Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”

“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”

But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.

Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.

In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”

The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.

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The ‘non-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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By Khaled Diab

With the two-state solution relegated to the dustbin of history, the time has arrived to consider equal citizenship for Palestinians and Israelis.

Thursday 4 October 2012

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has sincerely flattered none other than himself. When he surreally pulled out the cartoon bomb to illustrate the apparent threat from the alleged Iranian programme to build a nuclear weapon, he succeeded in becoming a parody of himself, triggering a proliferation of viral caricatures, such as the one mocking him as a “Looney Tunes” villain.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was just as two-dimensional, casting Iran and its presumed allies in the role of the ultimate bloodthirsty, suicidal enemy bent on destroying civilisation as we know it.

“At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world,” he claimed rather implausibly, given that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Iranian regime, despite its ill-informed and dangerous grandstanding, is developing a nuclear weapons programme, that it would be successful even if it were pursuing one, or that it would actually be stupid and suicidal enough to deploy said WMD. Meanwhile, Israel, despite its policy of ambiguity, is widely understood to sit on the Middle East’s only known nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu drew “red lines” all over the General Assembly, while conveniently overlooking the far more significant green line, upon which the future of his country truly rests. In fact, judging by the evasive passing reference to negotiations and “mutual compromise”, Bibi seems to rate Iran’s non-existent nukes as a greater threat to Israel than the ticking time bomb of the unresolved Palestinian question.

Cold-shouldered by Netanyahu and facing mounting unrest among his own people, PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued, for want of more imaginative ideas, his disastrous quest for UN recognition, as if the non-membership of a non-state would somehow help the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

“There can only be one understanding of the Israeli government’s actions,” Abu Mazen told the assembly, suggesting that “the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution”.

Judging by Israel’s deeds, which have left no more space to negotiate over, it seems safe to conclude that the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing beside Israel on the pre-1967 borders lies somewhere in the dustbin of history. While the Israeli leadership is content to “manage the conflict”, the PA is powerless to breathe new life into a defunct process.

So, what’s the answer? According to Abbas, a “new approach” is required. However, the new approach he outlined sounded suspiciously like the old one: that the ineffective and ineffectual international community can somehow be prevailed upon finally to rise from its lethargy and force Israel to commit to the pre-1967 borders.

He mentioned but did not elaborate on a far more promising and powerful track. “Our people are also determined to continue peaceful popular resistance, consistent with international humanitarian law, against the occupation and the settlements and for the sake of freedom, independence and peace,” Abbas concluded.

Personally, I believe we need to take this “new approach” to its logical conclusion. Rather than continue the decades-old futile efforts to accommodate two conflicting nationalisms in such a tiny space, it is high time for everyone involved to recognise that all attempts to partition and repartition this land simply have not worked and are unlikely to in the future.

Instead of fixating on borders and territory, as if soil is so much thicker than blood, the focus must shift to the people, whom for too many generations have been sacrificed in the cause of this holy land, as if it has more rights than they do.

Prioritising the people will necessitate transforming the Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement, in which Palestinians deploy all the tools of peaceful resistance at their disposal, and Israeli sympathisers force emancipation platforms on their political parties. In this context, the “land for peace” formula will be replaced by a “rights for peace” one in which full emancipation will be the central demand.

We need to form a Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestinians to pursue the various civil rights Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are currently denied, deprived of or have restricted access to. These include the freedom to travel and to work everywhere, not just in Palestine but also in Israel, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints, the dismantling of the wall, and the opening up of Israeli-only settlements to Palestinians.

But, first and foremost, all 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must seek full Israeli citizenship. For differing reasons, this bold proposal is bound to be anathema both to Palestinians and Israelis, as it will be seen to be sounding the death knell on their dreams.

For Israelis, it sounds suspiciously like the one-state solution which, to the minds of many, though there are a growing number of supporters, spells the demise of the century-long Zionist dream and the end of the Jewish state. For many Palestinians, though more of them support the one-state option than in Israel, the idea of becoming Israelis is tantamount not only to admitting the death of their beloved Palestine but to asking for the privilege to drive the final nail into the coffin.

Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, rather than the glaring realities on the ground: that Palestinians and Israelis are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.

To my mind, despite all the poetry of the land that has marked the Palestinian struggle, “Palestine” is far more than its olive and orange groves, it is, above all else, the sum total of its people. What better way is there to preserve what’s left than to protect the right of the Palestinians to continue to live there in full equality?

Likewise, it is the Israeli people who make Israel Jewish and so emancipating the millions of disenfranchised Palestinians will not make the state any less Jewish than it is today – only fairer and more just. Moreover, if maintaining a clear Jewish majority is truly the overarching aim of the Zionist project, then Israel should have allowed the emergence of an independent Palestine many years ago.

Personally, I am an advocate of a single, bi-national federation of Israel-Palestine because it allows both sides to have unfettered access to the land they hold so dear, while preserving their social and cultural identities and rights through, for example, elected community governments, one representing Jews and one representing Arabs wherever they may live on the land (and perhaps a third representing those anti-nationalists who wish to be defined as neither). Above this, an elected federal government would be responsible for common issues, such as the economy, defence, foreign relations and water resources.

But what I am proposing here is not a one-state solution per se. If anything, you could say it is the ‘non-state solution’, i.e. it is an ideologically neutral means of improving the reality on the ground.

Once everyone is emancipated, then the real work begins and a true conversation of equals can take place to determine democratically the future of the two peoples: whether they will continue together in a single, democratic state or opt for a magnanimous divorce brokered, not by outsiders, but one people to another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2012.

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Learning about the Holocaust… in Arabic

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By Khaled Diab

A joint trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial provides Palestinians and Israelis with lessons in tragedy, pain and mutual respect.

Monday 24 September 2012

Participants learn about the Holocaust in Arabic… and Hebrew. Photo: Dara Frank

“Please excuse my broken Arabic,” our guide, Yehuda Yarin, told the mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis who had come to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, to learn more about the Holocaust as part of a three-day, self-financed joint trip (Tiyul-Rihla) which had taken them to Acre, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Yarin, whose ‘day job’ is to guide groups of Jews and Israelis in Poland, including to Auschwitz, has the distinction of being Yad Vashem’s only Arabic-language guide. “I first studied Arabic many years ago, at high school. But, you know, at high school, the level is not very good,” he told me. “Later, I started to learn, ya’ani, logha ameya [colloquial Arabic].”

When the new Yad Vashem – the largest Holocaust museum in the world and Israel’s second most popular tourist site – was opened in 2005, the odd Arabic-speaking group would come to visit, and Yarin, who had begun working as a guide there, was asked to show them around.

Since then, Yarin has guided Palestinians, both from the West Bank and Israel, as well as the occasional visitors from further afield, such as Egypt. “Some of them know nothing. Some of them never heard about the Holocaust. Some of them know the history. It depends,” he notes.

Although Yarin is at pains to emphasise that he doesn’t know what his Arab visitors “think in their hearts”, he is generally impressed by the level of interest they exhibit and their inquisitiveness. “I’m glad when they ask questions,” he confesses.

With the help of Arabic-speaking Israelis and Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in the group, Yarin attempted to convey the magnitude and mindlessness of the one-sided slaughter to his audience.

He said that the Holocaust was unique among modern mass killings because it was completely ideological and was not an extreme manifestation of a political conflict – over territory or competing nationalisms – as other attempted exterminations were. “The Jews were not the enemies of the German people and they represented no threat to Hitler,” he explained.

Although in terms of Jewish history the Holocaust is unique, sadly, the annals of 20th century butchery are filled with genocides, classicides and other mass murders of defenceless groups.

Inside the sombre and sober pyramid-shaped, zigzagging galleries of the museum, the Tiyul-Rihla group of seven Israelis and six Palestinians, who had come on this three-day excursion which was organised by volunteers and largely paid for by the participants, wandered through Nazism’s hall of shame, starting with the rise of Hitler, through the Warsaw ghetto, to the horrors of the “Final Solution” and its death camps.

Familiar with this horrendous chapter in history, the Israelis followed the commentary and exhibits mostly in rapt silence. For the young Palestinians who were being exposed to the full extent of Nazi atrocities for the first time, their attempts to grasp the enormity led them to ply our guide with a constant stream of questions.

“If the Jews were so assimilated and successful, why did the Germans turn against them?”

“Was Einstein Jewish?”

“Why did the Jews believe the lies about the Nazi death camps?”

“Why didn’t the Soviets help the Jews?”

“Why did the West refuse to take in the Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors?”

The personal stories showcased in the museum gave the whole experience a human face which the Palestinians visibly appreciated, while the section dedicated to the “Righteous among the Nations”, which chronicles non-Jews who protected Jews – including Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries – elicited the interest of both sides.

The Arabic being spoken by members of the group drew curious glances from Israeli visitors to the museum, who seemed to be trying to figure out what we were about. The passers-by included groups of young IDF recruits, apparently on motivational tours, who caused unarticulated yet visible stirrings of discomfort among the young Palestinian, whose only exposure to Israeli soldiers, though they are of a similar age, is as agents of the occupation.

Although some in the group had been to Yad Vashem before, experiencing it with this unusual group was an eye-opener. “It’s important to see something you think you know well through someone else’s eyes,” believes Dara Frank (22), an American-Israeli student who is currently working on a master’s in international relations at the Hebrew University, because it makes you “start questioning what you think you already know”.

“When it comes to the Holocaust, we only learn the basics about it at school, that Hitler slaughtered the Jews, so this trip has helped us acquire a lot of extra knowledge,” reflected Mohammed Mahareeq (23), who is originally from Hebron but works at a hotel in Ramallah and volunteers with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The idea that Palestinians study the Holocaust at school, visit Yad Vashem and display genuine interest in the tragedy that befell the Jews of Europe is likely to come as something of a surprise to many Israelis who see regular reports in the media of Arab and Muslim Holocaust denial.

One recent example was Hamas’s angry response following the visit to Auschwitz by Ziad al-Bandak, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Describing the Holocaust as an “alleged tragedy”, a Hamas spokesman said the visit was “unjustified and unhelpful”.

While Hamas’s outburst, as well as the relative availability of literature questioning the Holocaust in some Arab countries, prove that there are certainly Arabs who insultingly deny that this horrendous crime took place. But fixating on Holocaust deniers, as many segments of the Israeli media tend to do, distorts the reality and downplays the importance of the work of the likes of al-Bandak, who visited Auschwitz and expressed sympathy for the historic plight of his people’s enemy, and he did so during a period of heightened animosity and distrust between the two sides.

And he is not a lone wolf. Many Palestinians are aware of the historic tragedy that befell their Jewish neighbours, but are often muted in expressing their sympathy due to the bitterness of the conflict or out of a conviction that it will be used as a political weapon against them. “Many Palestinians feel that sympathising too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation,” Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University, was once quoted by the BBC as saying.

But there are those who point out that mutual sympathy is essential to building trust and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Determined to act on this conviction, one eccentric Palestinian-Israeli opened up his own tiny Arab Holocaust museum in Nazareth some years ago and tours the West Bank raising awareness about this dark chapter.

“When Palestinians learn about the Holocaust, they will understand the Jewish people better and can begin to develop a shared history,” Khaled Mahameed, the founder of the tiny museum he established with his own money, was quoted as saying.

And building understanding and compassion is exactly what the joint Tiyul/Rihla that brought these Palestinians and Israelis to Yad Vashem is about. “The idea behind the initiative is to expose each side to the other side’s narrative, and to have a very deep conversation about it,” explains Israeli journalist and activist Nir Boms, one of the originators of the idea.

“Personally, I think this trip is very interesting because it’s breaking down the walls between us: Israelis and Palestinians,” said Ibrahim Yassin, an activist and professional cook from East Jerusalem whose night job, as attested to by his hip hop look, is as a DJ.

There have been three join trips to date (two to Israel, one to the West Bank), and the participants brainstormed ideas for a fourth, to Palestine. The Palestinians wished to introduce the Israelis to al-Nakba (the Arabic for “The Catastrophe”), which is the term Palestinians use to describe perhaps the most defining trauma in their national experience: the exodus of up to three-quarters of Palestine’s Arab population, most of whom were not allowed to return following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

However, they lamented the absence of a museum chronicling this painful chapter of Palestinian history. Some Palestinians suggested that the Israelis should join them on a trip to a refugee camp to enable them to gain a deeper insight into what contemporary life is like for many Palestinians.

“I want to introduce our Jewish friends to the suffering of the Palestinians… Just as they told us about their suffering in detail from an Israeli perspective, I’d like them to hear all the details about our stories,” reflected Mutasem Halawani, a student of business management from Jerusalem. “This helps build an exchange of ideas and tolerance.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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