The diplomacy of good in the Middle East. Preventing a perpetual war for the next generations

by Gabriele Nissim

We, as Gariwo, have introduced a new concept for conflict resolution: the diplomacy of Good, that is the leading role of civil society in dealing with serious international crises. What states cannot do for reasons of realpolitik, or for serious lack of perspective, may instead be achieved through a bottom-up approach involving targeted actions of creative and responsible minorities.
If we look at the tragedy of the war in the Middle East, we will realise that there are serious gaps in the squares denouncing the conflict.

There is no relevant third-party political entity that has made peace and territorial compromise its raison d’être. On the public scene a dangerous contrast is taking place between uncritical supporters of Palestinians and Israelis’ reasons. The pro-Palestinian party does not say anything on the will for total annihilation of Israel by Hamas and the Iranian-funded Hezbollah, and indeed it often repeats its slogans as if the solution was the end of Israel. In turn, the pro-Israeli party is very often silent on the messianic extremism that would like to have a Jewish State from the Jordan to the sea in a manner mirroring that of Hamas.

There is much to be pondered on the fact that the pacifist movement, so ready to demand a surrender of the Ukrainians in front of Russia, out of fear of a war in Europe, is instead completely absent, or does not question the consequences of partisan cheering for the situation in the Middle East.

Backing the Palestinians without calling for the emergence of a non-violent leadership of the movement that can open up to dialogue, as on the other hand supporting Israel’s right to security without condemning the messianic currents that are now in power, only means working not only to carry on with this war, but also to lay the foundations of an endless war.

Regardless of what may happen in the coming days in Gaza (hopefully a cease-fire), nothing will change unless the chain of hatred is broken. Those who act in civil society cannot determine possible political solutions (two States, single State of Jews and Palestinians, federation between two States), but can work culturally to encourage and enhance all experiences of dialogue without which the conditions for peace will never exist in the Middle East.

Peoples who hate each other and do not understand each other’s reasons can never coexist and become friends. The prerequisite for peace and territorial compromise is only the discovery of common humanity and the renunciation of an idea of absolute justice. Each must renounce something by putting themselves in the other’s shoes.

Third parties have the task of acting as a bridge between the two “enemies” and should not pit Israeli and Palestinian flags against each other. What is needed is a third flag that picks up the colours of one and the other.

The first task, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, is to contribute to a new narrative.

Today, Israelis and Palestinians are divided by opposing narratives that are not only the result of prejudice and misunderstandings, they stem from negative experiences they have experienced directly. “Each side”, the Israeli historian argues, “fears that the other one wants to kill it or expel it as a national collective. Unfortunately, these are not irrational fears stemming from paranoia, they are reasonable fears based on recent memories and an analysis of the other side’s stated intentions”.

For Palestinian identity, the birth of Israel in 1948 meant Nakba and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homes. And in the decades that followed, Palestinians suffered additional massacres and expulsions, as it happened in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, where at the time of the occupation of Lebanon by Ariel Sharon’s troops, 800 to 3,000 Palestinians were murdered by the Lebanese Christian militia, allied with Israel, and in 1991, some 300 thousand were expelled from Kuwait. And daily reality has exacerbated traumas and fears, first with the constant expansion of the settlements in the territories and the ever more frequent talk of Greater Israel by Netanyahu’s coalition, and now, in the last few weeks, with the systematic destruction of Gaza, which has the same devastating effect on the Palestinians as Guernica had on Pablo Picasso’s mind.

The 34,000 victims of Israeli military response will not be forgotten.

For Palestinians, Zionists are those who want to drive them out of their land, even though the Zionism of its origins was secular, socialist and open to compromise, whereas after 1967 Six-Day War its identity gradually changed and became increasingly nationalist and annexationist. This is why it would be necessary to distinguish the different Zionisms in public debate.

For Israelis, on the other hand, Palestinians are those who could annihilate them after the Holocaust and thus end the existence of their State.

Indeed, all Israelis remember how Palestinians allied with Arabs tried to destroy their fledgling State in 1948, after recognition by the United Nations. And then they do not forget how after the wars of 1956 and 1967, Arab countries drove 800,000 Jews from their homes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where important communities lived, most of whom were forced to seek refuge in Israel.

And the trauma of Palestinian terrorism that struck hundreds of people shortly after the high hopes of Oslo talks is vivid in their memory, as is that of missiles that began to be fired by Hamas and Hezbollah after Sharon’s evacuation of Gaza and the end of the war in Lebanon.

And today, all Israeli citizens have seen in the terrible 7th October what they imagine their tragic future could be should they prove weaker, namely that pogroms and rapes would be repeated if Palestinians were not brought under strict control. It was then a trauma not to hear voices from the Arab world condemning these barbarities, and instead to see celebrations as if it were a victory for Palestinian resistance. And in international demonstrations against the siege of Gaza, hardly anyone mentioned this. The moral drawn from this is that any means is legitimate for the annihilation of the Jews in the Middle East.

Therefore, a common point exists in the mind of a Palestinian as well as of an Israeli. Each rightly believes that the other can drive them out or annihilate them and that therefore the only possible solution for their survival is to impose themselves in any way on their existential enemy. Thus the one and the other do not care about the sacrifice of human lives, from that of girls raped and murdered at Nowa music festival and in the kibbutzim of Be’eri and Kfar Aza, to women and children dying in Gaza in the military offensive to destroy Hamas.

How does one get out of this trap?

It is impossible to erase the past experienced by the protagonists of the conflict. Everyone will continue to live with their negative memories. But the very weight of this past of wars, griefs and trauma can be the starting point for a path of reconciliation. Does it make sense to continue living like this, feeding on hatred with hundreds of victims every year and new wars repeating themselves every five or six years?

Europeans built a peaceful and united European community from the rubble of the First and Second World Wars, precisely because they realised that continuous wars between their nationalisms were senseless.

Some great artists should show the endless list of clashes and victims since 1948, in a symbolic installation in the squares of Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and then explain that everything will continue to repeat itself in the same way if the two peoples do not accept a territorial compromise and return to diplomatic and non-violent dialogue.

Paradoxically, negative memory can become therapy, as it happened for Europeans. Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin understood it, who, after the tragedy of losing their daughters (Smadar Elhanan in a Palestinian terrorist attack and Abir Aramin by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier), decided to become friends and prove together how futile hatred is. A magnificent book, Apeirogon (Feltrinelli, 2022), was written about their tragic story by Colum McCann. But many others may follow their example if they reflected on the futility of bloodshed in a land that could host the two peoples instead. The idea of a land promised to both should eventually acquire new meaning in the 21st century. A shared land for peace and an end to grief.

But the construction of a positive narrative that can show the possibilities of a shared future can be even stronger.

It is a matter of publicising all forms of dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, from mixed marriages to scientific and artistic collaborations, from activities in hospitals to joint peace initiatives, as it has been happening for years in the Israeli Palestinian village of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. Those who experience this overcome their traumas and no longer see the other as a threat to their existence. It is the other possibility that takes shape in everyday life, regardless of politics, and that can lead to a positive path of emulation.

However, this path of dialogue in the Middle East largely depends on third parties, such as we Europeans, who can become a vehicle for conciliation. This is why demonstrations with opposing flags do not help, they lead to further rifts and divisions.

Everyone can be more sympathetic to one side. It will always be the Jews towards Israel and the Arabs towards the Palestinians. It is a human fact, before being political. But we must demand from the actors on the field the recognition of the other as an essential prerequisite for peace if we truly love the two peoples from different points of view. Love and solidarity that fuel perpetual war is not true love, it expresses a death drive.

This is what I saw in the squares with pain.

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

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