There are many impediments to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including historical and current experiences, claims and counter-claims, the lack of trust, contradictory ideological and religious convictions, and the unwillingness to make painful compromises.
The one critical impediment that has not been addressed and continues to impede resolutions to the conflicting issues is the perception that each side hold for the other and continuing public narratives that reinforce that perception.
While changing perceptions may not by itself solve every discordant issue—Jerusalem, refugees, national security, etc.—it will dramatically contribute to finding solutions. Thus, unless we mitigate misperceptions about each other, it will be nearly impossible to find a mutually acceptable and lasting solution.
The negative perception that has been formed over decades of conflict was nurtured by public narratives promulgated by officials, biased media, schools and other public forums. Both sides have become fixated on what they want to achieve regardless of the other’s rights, wishes, and national aspirations.
Although a majority of Israelis and Palestinians have a good idea about the contours of a peace agreement, they resist change because a) they completely distrust each other, and b) they are still struggling to define their nationhood, as that sense remains relatively in its infancy.
This state of mind makes it increasingly difficult for officials on both sides to come to grips with reality and seek resolutions to any of the incompatible issues before changing the perception of their respective publics.
To that end they must first strive to change their public discourse, demonstrate that negotiated agreement is possible, and convey that the options to resolve the contentious issues are limited while recognizing the inevitability of coexistence.
Obviously changing public perception takes many forms. Ideally it should start with officials on both sides. Yet, having been locked into public postures that reject each other’s, which appears irreconcilable, it becomes impossible for politicians to change their public narrative without serious political repercussions.
Moreover, the lack of courageous and visionary leadership on both sides makes it extremely difficult to change course, especially in the absence of powerful internal peace movements and external political pressure, which can provide the leaders the political cover they need.
Thus, to prompt both internal and external pressure to bridge the psychological gap and alter the perception of each other, a serious change in the public narrative becomes central and urgent.
Such a change can occur, in large measure, through public dialogues between noted Israelis and Palestinians in particular, along with other Jews and Muslims, by establishing forums, where they can publicly and freely air out the obstacles that keep Israelis and Palestinians apart.
In the same setting they should discuss the commonalities they enjoy, why their destiny is intertwined, and why they need each other to coexist peacefully.
The participants: Pre-requisites
In each of these forums, the participants’ only agenda must be to promote peace, and they should present (not representing) as objectively as possible the views of Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, and other Arabs and Muslims.
What would qualify these individuals is their varied academic and personal experiences, respect in their field, thorough knowledge of the conflicting issue, status as independent thinkers, holding no formal position in their respective governments, and committed to finding peaceful solution in the context of coexistence.
For example: in addressing the future of Jerusalem, the participants should especially include religious scholars, imams, rabbis and priests representing all three monotheistic religions, and historians with a focus on the Middle East.
They all have to agree in principle that Jerusalem must serve as the capital of two states, without which peace may never be achieved. Although that solution may well be inevitable, still debating other possibilities is critical if for no other reason but to demonstrate why other options are not likely to work.
The same thing can be said about the Palestinian refugees; nearly any informed person, Israeli and Palestinian alike, knows that Israel cannot and will not accept the right of return while remaining a Jewish state.
The question is how to explain to the Palestinian public that the right of return can be implemented by facilitating the return of the refugees to their homeland–the West Bank and Gaza-or resettle and accept compensation.
On national security concerns, the participants should have a background in security, such as former high ranking military officers with experience in peacekeeping, and scholars specializing in security matters.
Although there are many qualified individuals who would shy away from participating in these public enclaves, fearing criticism or even retribution, there are as many courageous and willing individuals who would be eager to contribute to these efforts.
These open discussions will allow, over time, many noteworthy individuals to come out in the open and provide such forums increasing visibility, credibility and outreach.
Separate forums will discuss specific contentious issues and need not be held simultaneously and certainly not with the same participants.
Ideally these enclaves would occur frequently, every two-three weeks and feature a maximum of twenty participants in a roundtable format (3-4 hours) at a minimal cost.
This would allow all participants ample opportunity to speak and the public to hear and discern different perspectives and engender creative approaches to complex problems, dictated by the inevitability of coexistence.
Even though the solutions may be obvious, they still require a fresh approach as to how they can be achieved and disabuse both Israelis and Palestinians of the notion that they can have it all and foster a new mindset receptive to the changing conditions and the reality they face.
Given the plethora of modern mass communication tools, such dialogues could have, over time, a significant impact on the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ public opinion and how they view each other in the long term.
These forums could initially be held in cities that attract public attention such as Washington, D.C., New York, Tel Aviv and even in Ramallah, and later expand to include other cities in Europe and key Arab states.
This entire concept is made possible today more than any other time before because of the revolution in communications that provides multiple ways by which information can be disseminated to millions within minutes.
The means of disseminating should include but not be limited to printed materials, live webcasts, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Certainly there are certain television networks, including PBS, C-SPAN, and al-Hurra, or even Al Jazeera who might also be interested in airing such enclaves.
These forums should be revisited in a variety of ways including redistribution through new and interested media outlets, think tanks dedicated to Israeli-Arab peace, and similar organizations, thereby expanding the scope of dissemination as the forums progress.
Indeed, unless there are consistent follow-ups and concerted efforts to promote both the concept and the content of deliberation in these forums, the net result will not match the efforts made.
In particular, think tanks could share with their members and websites both the concept and content of these deliberations. As the proceedings become available, the general public will be more engaged further increasing the overall profile of the deliberations.
Such continuing efforts would provide new openings to change public perceptions, prepare the public to compromise and offer the leaders the political cover they need to make peace that of necessity would entail mutually painful concessions.
____________ Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. email@example.com Web: www.alonben-meir.com