Monday, April 19, 2010

Leaning how to talk to people

I saw an interesting article on BBC today about the [yes, small, but] growing non-violent protest movement among the Palestinians. Obviously there is still a very, very long way to go, but it's encouraging to see that some of the Palestinian leadership is starting to show up to these things.

Beit Jala is one of a growing number of Palestinian villages holding regular protests against Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Many end with Palestinian youths throwing stones and Israeli troops firing tear gas and sometimes rubber-coated bullets.

But organisers in Beit Jala, such as Ahmad Lazza of the Holy Land Trust who trains protesters in non-violent tactics, are determined to keep things peaceful.

This is partly out of personal belief, and partly about avoiding escalation with Israeli soldiers.

"You don't want him to feel threatened, because it is a very good excuse for him to shoot you," he says.

Protesters in the area have recently chained themselves to olive trees to protect them from Israeli bulldozers and rebuilt a destroyed garden on land cleared for the barrier - which Israel says is for security, but Palestinians see as a land grab.

...In the past, Mr Lazza says, Palestinians had a "bad impression" of non-violent resistance, which had become associated with pacifism and concessions to Israel.

But recently, he has seen "a big change".

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials have started attending protests, holding up regular demonstrations in the villages of Bilin and Naalin as models of "popular resistance", and calling on Palestinians to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This month PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad defied Israeli rules and ploughed a furrow on West Bank land controlled by the military, as well as citing the Indian independence and American black civil rights struggles.

All I can say is, more power to them. Anything to support a moderate center (or even less-crazy radicals) makes me happy. And I think the Palestinians could actually stand to take a page from the settler movement, who, incidents of violence aside, have generally tended to try to turn retaliatory action in a positive direction, such as building settlements on the sites of terror attacks, named after terror victims. (Of course, it's easier when you're the ones in charge.)

Ok, so the article was cool, but what was particularly intriguing was the mention of a Gandhi:

Rajmohan Gandhi spoke passionately about his grandfather's belief in non-violent struggle to a packed hall, urging Palestinians to appeal to the principles of justice in Judaism.
Reading this, I started feeling a sense of deja-vu. Then I remembered what it was. Back in 2005, we heard from another one of Gandhi's grandsons. Except he was, shall we say, a bit more of a jackass. The best account I found was here.

For many readers the posting’s parenthetical remark about a culture of violence in which “Israel and the Jews are the biggest players” was the most offensive line in the essay. Also troubling to many readers was Gandhi’s assertion that Nazi murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews “was the result of the warped mind of an individual.” To reduce a profound historical question—what enables genocide in the context of war?—to a psychological formula seems facile at best.

It seems to me that these two stories are connected. Part of the dilemma of the Middle East boondoggle is that there are competing narratives, and competing ideologies, but also that lots of people can't figure out exactly what they want peace to look like. But, at the same time, not only do the Palestinians and Israelis need to figure out how to talk to each other, but other players, even those with good intentions, also need to avoid talking down to them. You need to treat people with respect and appeal to their humanity and values, like Rajmohan Gandhi suggests, as opposed to slapping them down, like Arun.

The secret behind the paradox that an electorate that overwhelmingly supports the two-state solution votes for right-wing politicians is very simple: it is fear. This is why so far only Ariel Sharon, who had enormous popular support, has been able to confront the settlers and to move out of Gaza. He could do it because Israelis blindly believed (rightly or not) that he would keep them safe, even in the heydays of the second intifada: his image was the combination of the fierce warrior and the caring shepherd.

Netanyahu does not have the same aura, and his political situation is precarious. He may have genuinely endorsed the two-state solution, but he doesn't have the means to push on with it. His main coalition partners are competing with each other for right-wing credentials. This leaves Netanyahu the possibility of teaming up with the centrist Kadima party, and to form a new center-right government with the explicit agenda of pursuing the peace process. But his own Likud party is largely composed of genuine right-wingers who do not believe in the two-state solution, and many of them may defect if Netanyahu chooses to drop his right-wing coalition partners.

Because Netanyahu is a weak leader, he needs the pretext of external pressure to move on - and in this Obama seems to be succeeding. The current crisis has created a remarkable storm: all Israelis understand that the support and friendship of the U.S. is a matter of life and death.

But here is Obama's main mistake so far: only 18 percent of Israelis believe that he is friendly towards Israel. Having a Seder at the White House has not succeeded in convincing them otherwise. Up to this point Obama has distributed carrots and sticks unequally: he has tried to reach the hearts of the Islamic world while taking a confrontational stance towards Israel.

Unfortunately, I feel like this has a lot of truth in it. Personally I do not think Obama is anti-Israel, and I think a lot of the rhetoric about his "terrible treatment" of Bibi is one-sided, misinformed (check the timeline) and fairly melodramatic. I also share Obama's frustration with the sense that Israel (as well as the Palestinians) is trying to sabotage talks before they even get to the table. But it does not do him any good to have his relationship with Bibi become the story. He needs to show that he cares about Israel, and that while he does want to nudge them where everyone knows they need to go, that he also isn't viewing the situation from the position of "I'm the leader, you all follow me." That will lead him nowhere good. Just ask Arun.

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