Leadership on the Palestinian and Israeli Streets

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Perspective

by

Hady Amr

Once again the “Arab Street” has proven to be wiser than its leaders. In this case I’m referring to the Palestinian part of the Arab Street. And incidentally, the “Jewish Street” seems to be commensurately ahead of its leaders as well.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the nightly news, a recently released poll commissioned by American non-profit Search for Common Ground shows that a remarkable 72% Palestinians are willing to embrace non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation as part of a process that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state; an identical proportion, 72% of Israeli Jews, would accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders if Palestinians would stop using violence.

If there is such a substantial constituency for peace on both sides, why are we seemingly further away than ever from finding a solution?

The answer may be that about one third of those Israelis and Palestinians who expressed support for peace do so only conditionally.  Many would be willing to make the concessions necessary for peace, only in the context of a cessation of hostilities from the other side.  The poll shows that this “conditional constituency for peace” is still voting for fear-in the form of Ariel Sharon and suicide bombings.  They continue to support their side hitting back-through military means-until the other side stops first.

So, how did we get to where we are today?  The problem is that the incremental approach-years of “confidence building measures”-was tried, and it failed. Nearly a decade after the Oslo peace accords were signed on the White House lawn, Israeli-Palestinian confrontations are claiming more lives and causing more suffering than in any time in at least fifty years.  The horror-and theatre-of violent military acts hardens positions on both sides of this divide, both among the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, and among their respective global Jewish and Arab communities.

Some emphasize that the burden lies on the Palestinians, and that it is up to them to undertake a non-violent approach. I disagree.  The burden lies on all of us, Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Arab, and just about everyone who can influence the thinking of people and leaders, including Europeans and Americans whose foreign policies play powerful roles in allowing the conflict to continue.

I don’t know what Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat is thinking in the remnants of his office that have survived Israeli attack, but since negotiations broke down completely two years ago, leadership has not been his strong-point, his strategy seems to be political survival. Similarly, if Ariel Sharon has any strategic vision, it’s his own reelection campaign; the more the cycle of violence continues, the more-this poll shows-Israelis support a tougher crack down on Palestinian civilians and thereby strengthening support for Sharon and his hard-line policies.

As such, community leaders in Israel and Palestine need to bypass their elected executives and undertake direct action in forceful but non-violent way, to demonstrate to the “conditional constituency for peace” that they mean business.

A particular imbalance in the process is the remarkable blind-spot of Israelis for the ongoing, significant, non-violent protests by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  A suicide bombing that kills only a few speaks louder than thousands of hours of Palestinian non-violent protest.

80% of Palestinians follow closely the news of the various creative non-violent forms of resistance underway in the West Bank and Gaza.  But less than 10% of Israelis, living only a few miles away, seem to have completely missed the messages that large numbers of Palestinians-over half according to the poll-have participated in recent non violent forms of resistance.

The real question is why. Why have Israelis failed to see that Palestinians, on a regular basis, on an ongoing basis, have been loudly engaging in non-violent protests against the occupation?  Furthermore, why have Palestinians failed to see that suicide bombings undertaken by a desperate few drown out the voice of the non-violent majority?

Those who want to blame others may say that the answer may have a lot to do with media bias-and it may indeed. But it may have even more to do with leadership. Lack of it at the top; the need for its advancement at the bottom.  Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians can no longer afford to wait for Yasir Arafat, Ariel Sharon or anyone in their cabinets to forge a solution.

Those in fledgling leadership positions among the half of Palestinians that have participated in non-violent protest need to multiply their efforts. They must also go to great lengths to stamp out attacks by others against Israeli civilians lest those attacks de-legitimize their principled non-violent message that peace is possible if the Israelis would just get off their backs.  Similarly, fledgling leaders among the 65% of Israelis who believe that their army should “show restraint so as to encourage a shift toward non-violent forms of (Palestinian) protest,” need to step to the fore, before the Palestinian constituency for peace is crushed under the weight of a severe military occupation. Waiting for the other side to act first is a sure recipe for disaster.

Hady Amr

was formerly the National Director of Ethnic American Outreach for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and served in former President Bill Clinton’s Department of Defense at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Amr is currently an independent consultant who divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Arab world. He contributed

was formerly the National Director of Ethnic American Outreach for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and served in former President Bill Clinton’s Department of Defense at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Amr is currently an independent consultant who divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Arab world. He contributed

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