Six years ago, I received an invitation to participate in an event on peace-building in the Middle East at the University of California, Los Angeles. The seminar had been organized by a local lawyer, Josef Avesar, along with academics at UCLA to find a novel way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea was taken from other historic territorial conflicts and rivalries – to establish an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation – analogous to the cantons of Switzerland uniting or indeed the articles of confederation of the United States, as noted by Amherst College political scientist Ronald Tiersky in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year. However, unlike earlier efforts, this idea was to be implemented from the grassroots using the internet as a platform to recruit candidates for a “virtual parliament,” while the policy-makers remained deadlocked. In six years, Mr. Avesar has been determined despite all odds and has managed to get over 700 Israelis and Palestinians (including in Gaza) to run in a virtual election which will be held on December 12, 2012. Those who may dismiss this as a gimmick should note that even a willingness to run in an election of this kind poses peril to the candidates but they are willing to do so because they see this as the most tangible effort to “think outside the box” and move beyond the stagnation of one-state/ two-state fixes.
Last week, the New York Times published a full-page advertisement regarding the IPC and its election plan. Yet the level of suspicion, cynicism and contempt on all sides remains intense. There is still deep-rooted suspicion of even those of us who aspire for peace. As a board member of the IPC and as a Pakistani-American, I often hear from both Arabs and Israelis that such initiatives are merely a means of social-climbing or prize-fishing. Often we get labelled as “sell-outs” or “conspirators” or for those who like to offer a patronizing pat on the back, simply dismissed as “well-intentioned idealists.”
In my visit to Israel in 2010 on an invitation from Tel Aviv University and the U.S. embassy, I was alarmed to find how much the narrative of peace-building has eroded – to use an environmental metaphor. There is an uneasy calm, and a surprisingly sanguine sense of security, which many Israelis voiced to me across the political spectrum. Efforts such as the Israeli Palestinian Confederation are thus seen as an attempt to disrupt this calm. Yet, the reality remains that the status quo is untenable in the long-run. The Arab Spring and its aftermath reminds us that the magma of misery that many feel in the Middle East cannot be contained simply by higher walls and military security strategies. Initiatives such as the IPC deserve our attention because they urge us to consider hybridity in conflict resolution strategies – a pathway between the polarization of hard versus soft strategies.
Another path to peace which deserves more attention is to get Israelis and Palestinians to study together and develop an epistemic community on fields such as environmental science. Such an approach is best exemplified by The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel. Environmental factors will ultimately define the quality of life in the regions for all ethnicities and political persuasion – particularly within Israel’s political landscape which has become more atomized in recent years. The administration of Arava noted that it is more difficult for Arava to recruit West Bank Jewish settlers to study with Palestinians than it is for them to recruit Palestinians to study with Israelis. During my visit to the Arava Institute in January, 2010 I met a young Jewish-American student who told me how his brother had chided him for being a bleeding heart for wanting to study with Palestinians.
I share this somber example with you because any celebration of peace-building and environmental stewardship must remain grounded in “reality checks.” The willingness of the Arava Institute to challenge Israeli law concerning the lack of access of Palestinians to educational institutions in Israel is an important example of their bold willingness to engage on these matters. As with the 700+ election-runners in the IPC virtual parliament, it is heartening to see Israelis and Palestinian students willing to endure the scorn of many of their friends for studying at the Arava Institute – the yearning for peace is high and regrettably gets eclipsed by the cacophony of radicals.
Additional initiatives such as Friends of the Earth – Middle East or the University of the Middle East Project, must be supported no matter how bleak the prospects for peace may seem. Peace-building is a generational struggle and a responsibility that incrementally falls on us all. The success of the IPC in my view remains in the process of cognitive change which it is fostering. The December 12, 2012 virtual election will be a momentous achievement even if it’s symbolic. All those willing to engage and embrace a democratic mechanism through this novel idea deserve to be congratulated and supported.