Steps both sides could take towards peace
Even if the meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Defense Minister Benny Gantz was devoid of all peace process content, it was still a step in the right direction. This is true even if a majority of Palestinians and a large number of Israelis have voiced opinions against the meeting. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never come to an end without direct face-to-face engagement between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. After too many years of no direct contact, this is a positive change. The current Israeli government will not engage in any serious peace process. The divided Palestinian political house with a very unpopular leadership is also not prepared to engage at this time in a new set of negotiations. At some time in the future, both sides will have more stable and secure governments and perhaps at that time they may be willing to return to the table for serious talks on how to end the conflict and live in peace. Until that time, and in order to change the political environment that could possibly lead to the chance of a new peace process, there are many things that both sides could do to move us forward. Some of these things will be quite unpopular on both sides of the conflict; nonetheless, their acceptance and implementation could have positive impacts for both sides.
Steps that Israel could take…
The first and most important step would be a freeze on settlement building. This would not only be a change of the physical reality on the ground, but it would also be a positive step in the Israel-US relationship which is so important now, especially with Israeli hopes to influence US positions vis-à-vis Iran. A settlement freeze would be seen very positively in Washington and would be viewed in every Palestinian home that the Israeli government is indeed a government of change.
Along with the settlement freeze would be enabling Palestinians to use Palestinian-owned land in Area C (62% of the West Bank) for development projects such as housing and infrastructure — such as constructing high voltage electricity lines from areas where solar energy fields could be built to the Palestinian cities. New industrial areas, as well as leisure and tourism zones, could be developed in parts of Area C as well.
Economic steps are essential because of the very poor state of the Palestinian economy, which is so dependent on Israel for any chances of economic growth. Movement and access of people and goods is the first order of business. There have been hundreds of studies and millions of dollars spent on recommendations on how to jump start the Palestinian economy by the World Bank, the IMF, UNDP, think tanks, the Israeli Federation of Chambers of Commerce, and even within the IDF and the Office of the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories. Enabling easier and faster importing and exporting, without compromising on security is easy to do. Renewing the “trusted trader” policies for approved factories for door-to-door shipments, rather than back-to-back which doubles the costs of shipping within the country. Encouraging policies of getting Palestinian manufactured products into the Israeli market. Increasing the number of work permits particularly for the great needs of the Israeli construction sector and more importantly to employ the thousands of IT graduates from Palestinian universities in Israeli hi-tech companies.
There are many humanitarian steps that Israel could also enable, such as allowing the PA to issue identity papers for the tens of thousands of undocumented spouses living in the West Bank — mostly people of Palestinian origin who have married someone from the West Bank and are living there but without the Israeli granted legality of having residency status. The Gantz-Abbas meeting apparently produced an Israeli agreement for 5,000 permits for non-documented spouses to live in the West Bank, but there are reported to be more 30,000 such cases. Just imagine what it is like to live as an undocumented person in the West Bank with all of the checkpoints and limitations on free movement. I know several people from Gaza living in the West Bank without Israeli permission (which is against the Oslo Accords, which recognized the West Bank and Gaza as a unitary territory). They have not been able to see their families in Gaza in years, nor can they travel into Israel or outside of the West Bank. The control of the Palestinian population registry is one of the main forms of control used by the authorities.
Steps that Palestinians could take…
The first step I will mention will also be the most unpopular among Palestinians: Stop paying money to the families of Palestinians who have killed Israeli civilians. Killing Israeli civilians, non-combatants, is not resistance and is not legitimate. Killing Israeli civilians should not be supported by the PA or the Palestinian public, just as killing Palestinian civilians by Israel should not be supported by the government of Israel or the Israeli public. The payments made by the PA to the families of prisoners who killed Israeli civilians is a form of supporting the killing of those Israelis and it should not be done.
A significant shift by the PA demonstrating its desire for peace with Israel would be a revision of Palestinian school textbooks. So much has been written about this that I will not go into details. There are clear anti-peace with Israel messages in many of the Palestinian text books. Even if there are anti-peace messages in Israeli text books (and there are and they should be changed), it is important that the PA demonstrate the values of the society that should at least present a clear desire for peace with Israel.
I often listen to the Palestinian radio stations and watch Palestinian television. Often the very harsh pro-conflict with Israeli messages and clear support of militarism are very hard to watch. Unfortunately, there are too many vivid pictures of the use of violence by Israel against Palestinians that are brought into full view. The occupation is cruel, no doubt about that, but Palestinian media re-enforces the message that peace will never be possible and therefore the only message being transmitted is to meet force with force. This sustains the conflict and from my intimate contacts with Palestinian society sustains and breeds hatred. This is a conflict re-enforcing strategy which I don’t believe is really in the interest of Palestinian society.
The PA should also provide strong public support for Palestinian civil society to reengage with the peace camps within Israeli civil society. Almost all contacts between the two societies have been very limited for over a decade. That must change. There are many Israelis interested in contacts and engagement with Palestinians but the strong anti-normalization activists threaten and frighten Palestinians who are interested in engaging. The PA should make efforts to define what kind of engagement is legitimate and desirable and should take action to encourage it.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He is now directing The Holy Land Investment Bond.