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Mediation Perspectives: Ending Dialogue to End the Israel-Palestine Conflict?

John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu. Image: US State Department/Wikimedia

After more than two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that have failed to bring peace, few words are as reviled among Palestinians as “normalization.” “Anti-normalization”is a widespread response: many Palestinians refuse to cooperate with Israelis, arguing that joint activities have merely given cover to Israel’s ongoing military occupation of their land and society for decades. Peace and reconciliation activities, they feel, create a false image of equality that does not reflect reality and contributes to their ongoing oppression.

Citing “Anti-normalization,” many Palestinians have thus disengaged from peace activities in the past. Several academic and conflict-resolution conferences between Israelis and Palestinians have been canceled after activists pressured the Palestinian owners of the East Jerusalem hotels hosting the events. An extreme case occurred when the leader of Zochrot, a small Israeli NGO that supports the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948, was invited to speak in Ramallah. Although his advocacy for the return of Palestinians is considered treasonous in Israel, anti-normalizers pressured his Palestinian host and the event was canceled.

Why boycott peace activists? Why do the proponents of anti-normalization insist that only cutting contact can end the conflict? Is their approach working?

Why?

It was not always like this. After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, a vibrant peacecommunity kicked into action, supported by a torrent of international donor funds. Elaborate co-existence frameworks –summer camps, sports teams, youth magazines, and joint intellectual and educational activities were established to entrench the paradigm of peace based on two equal nation-states.

But although the Oslo accords were lauded as a breakthrough, they actually contained no agreement about the final peace settlement. Instead, they established a timetable for future negotiations, a Declaration of Principles (“DoP”) for phased Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and interim measures towards Palestinian self-rule, all predicated on fulfillment of previous stages.

As it turned out, neither side lived up to its obligations. Waves of violence and further rounds of negotiation followed, but a final status accord was never achieved. A second Palestinian rebellion broke out in 2000. Israel tightened restrictions on Palestinian movement, employment and land contiguity to unprecedented levels and the Israeli military temporarily re-occupied cities in the West Bank. Israel continued to build settlements and appropriate land.

By the mid-2000s the Intifada had subsided, but the Palestinian situation was worse than ever. Suddenly many Palestinians saw the whole process of negotiations, agreements, failed implementation, and then failed further negotiations as a sham, an Israeli strategy to convince them and the world that it was committed to a two-state resolution while deepening its grip on Palestinian land where the state was to be established. On this view, the “peace industry” as it has derisively become known (by both sides) was key to maintaining the deception of Israel’s ‘commitment to peace.’

Rejecting the idea that this state of affairs – negotiation, oppression and appropriation –was “normal”became a political cry with great emotional resonance. It was an expression of the Palestinian experience of betrayal, a statement that the conflict was not symmetrical, and a rejection of joint activities that appeared to hold both sides equally responsible for making peace. Palestinians seethed at the expectation of “reconciliation” when they were (and are) still living under suffocating military rule.

BDS, anti-normalization in practice

In 2005, Palestinian civil society activists released a formal call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), starting a movement with three stated goals: ending military occupation, fulfilling Palestinian rights, and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. BDS crafted guidelines for boycotting Israeli institutions, businesses, and cultural and academic endeavors.

The general guidance was to refuse projects with anyone representing an Israeli institution, or any joint activity for coexistence. The idea of coexistence was to be replaced by “co-resistance” to the occupation; activities devoted to the latter are not considered normalization.

It is harder to set or apply formal guidelines to personal interactions. The implementation of anti-normalization has been uneven, and even some Palestinians are critical. Some feel that the guidelines for acceptable interactions with individuals are not clear enough. Others think there should be different expectations for “48 Palestinians” – citizens of Israel who must interact with Israeli institutions in order to live. Some say over-zealous implementation – a blanket ban on any activity with any Israeli person or body, or pressuring and condemning Palestinians who choose to – is hypocritical and misguided. One Palestinian said that if someone in Gaza or Hebron – where the effects of occupation are particularly harsh – wants his or her voice heard in an Israeli media outlet, he or she should not be judged.

The debate among Palestinians is lively, but it can also be coercive. Pressure to anti-normalize can mean demonstrations and public campaigns against normalizers.

Co-resistance?

In practice, one specific policy has become the litmus test of acceptable cooperation: Palestinian right of return for refugees to sovereign Israel (within the “Green Line”). When boycott advocates talk of “granting Palestinian rights,”this is what they mean.

Hardly any Israelis support that position. To them it means flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians and the end of the Jewish state – nothing less than an existential threat.

The result has been fewer Palestinians cooperating with Israeli partners for conflict-resolution initiatives, either because they are committed to anti-normalization or because they do not wish to risk a public backlash. The idea of conflict resolution itself, in the anti-normalization mindset, seems to leave many Palestinians cold: first they insist on rights, then they can take equal responsibility for resolving the conflict.

But even Israeli human rights workers fighting occupation-related violations find it harder to get Palestinian perspectives on their experiences, which the organizations try to address inside Israel.

Impact, achievement, progress?

How can the success of such a tactic be measured? Obviously, the overall goals stated by the BDS movement have not yet been achieved; following yet another devastating war this summer, they may be further away than ever.

Some Palestinian activists say the boycott and anti-normalization movement has had many successes. BDS has certainly grown into a formidable public force both locally but especially internationally: businesses, governments and celebrities from abroad have either addressed or actively participated in some form of boycott. Activists believe that this kind of pressure on Israel is the only way change will come, since diplomacy and violence have not worked.

While boycott can create clear economic and political pressure, what contribution does anti-normalization at the personal level make? The greatest problem in Israel regarding the conflict is apathy; the Palestinian tactic of refusing personal interaction with the few peace or human rights activists left has little chance of stirring up sentiments en masse, and no chance of raising support for Palestinian right of return.

The “anti-normalization” concept highlights the limitations of dialogue, negotiation and mediation in protracted conflicts, particularly asymmetrical ones. Dialogue generally seeks to create understanding and trust; but what happens when deeper understanding creates less and less trust? Dialogue may help with peacebuilding, but can peace be built before it is made?

In this case, the failures of both track one and track two negotiations (such as that which sparked the Oslo process) led to the rejection of people-to-people dialogue. And at present, the relevant stakeholders in the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have little interest in or incentive to pursue yet another round of American-mediated negotiations. Yet ongoing violence is a devastating reminder of the desperate need for change.

A sort of parallel unilateralism seems to be filling the gap left by the failures of bilateralism. Israel continues to deepen its occupation regardless of Palestinian needs; Palestinians are undertaking diplomatic and pressure tactics to change that reality. For the foreseeable future, boycott and anti-normalization trends can be expected to grow.

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion researcher and a political consultant focused on conflict and post-conflict societies. She lives in Tel Aviv, and writes regularly for +972 Magazine (972mag.com).

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.


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