It was an awkward handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spent most of their lives waging war on one another. Now, to the world's surprise, they met in Washington to sign a secretly negotiated agreement to end the bloody conflict between their peoples. After emotional speeches, and with the gentle prompting of U.S. President Bill Clinton, the two leaders tentatively embraced hands. The audience of diplomats and journalists gathered to witness the ceremony erupted in spontaneous applause.
Hopes were so high then. The aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis for peace, security, justice and reconciliation seemed to be within reach. The hostile discourse of "terrorists" and "Zionist enemy" was replaced with "partners in peace." In a sign of the optimism of the times, Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Even as late as 1996, when I was living in the region, Israelis and Palestinians expressed to me their belief that peace was possible, despite the ominously poor progress in moving toward a final settlement.
Today, hope is but one of the many casualties of the conflict. Since September 2000, violence has engulfed the Holy Land. Israelis have suffered over sixty suicide bombings. Palestinians have suffered the daily trauma of continued Israeli military occupation. More than 1,600 Palestinians and 500 Israelis have been killed in the past nineteen months. Suicide bombings and Israeli military raids are ongoing.
How has it come to this? Given the complexity of the conflict, there are many answers to this question. Among the most important, however, are the faulty assumptions about trust that were built into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Oslo Accords (as the 1993 agreement is known) followed an incremental approach to conflict resolution. With such a long history of animosity, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to move slowly in the implementation of peace to allow time for mutual confidence to grow. The most difficult issues, including the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian statehood, were left for later "final status" negotiations.
Tragically, an approach that was designed to foster trust ended up providing the time and opportunity for opponents of peace to destroy it. Because the Oslo Accords only established a general framework for peace, negotiations on its specific details encountered inevitable obstacles. Palestinians grew increasingly frustrated at Israel's slow, limited and grudging turnover of territory. My everyday conversations with Arabs in Jordan and Jerusalem revealed creeping cynicism about Israel's continued buildup of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. Similarly, Israel's skepticism about Palestinian promises to accept the Jewish state as a friendly neighbor was amplified by mixed signals from the Palestinian leadership. The growing activism and popularity of Islamist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad was a source of grave concern to Israel.
Taking advantage of this frustration, rejectionists on both sides launched a violent assault on the peace process. Hamas and Islamic Jihad began a campaign of suicide bombings and murderous attacks on Israelis. Jewish fundamentalists assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and massacred Muslim worshippers in Hebron. The avowed (and paradoxically shared) goal of Muslim and Jewish radicals was to shred the delicate fabric of trust that was woven in Oslo.
They succeeded. In an atmosphere of recrimination, negotiating positions were hardened. Agreements were violated. Israel elected ultranationalist leader Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 who was openly hostile to the peace process. The Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 ended in a disappointing near miss for a final resolution. And when hard line politician (and current Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in September 2000, the tinderbox exploded. Suspicion, bitterness and rage have pushed aside moderation and empathy in mainstream Palestinian and Israeli societies. The well-intentioned negotiators of the Oslo Accords underestimated the fragility and vulnerability of trust. We are now witnessing the terrible consequences of its absence.
Learning by Doing:
Drury Students Negotiate The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
|December 10, 1994. From foreground: PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli foreign Minister Shimon peres, and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin hold up their medals and diplomas after receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.|
Why are they fighting in the Middle East? Who are Palestinians? What is the role of the US in the region? Students enter my course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict with many questions about the Middle East. They see the sensational images of bloodshed on television and wonder "haven't these people had enough?"
Because the issues are so complex, they can be difficult to grasp in the abstract. In order to make them more tangible, students in my course spend the semester preparing for a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Students are divided into Palestinian and Israeli delegations and assigned particular issue areas that are the actual subjects of dispute. So, for example, a student takes on the role of an Israeli negotiator on the status of Jerusalem. Another is the Palestinian negotiator on security cooperation. Other students will negotiate issues such as Palestinian refugees, water rights, and Jewish settlements. They prepare for their roles by researching the topics, writing policy papers, and meeting as a delegation to develop negotiating strategies.
It is remarkable to see the students "become" Israelis and Palestinians during the negotiations at the end of the semester. They invest a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy defending their sides' interests. Through the hands-on experience of trying to bridge the wide gaps that separate Israelis and Palestinians, students gain a deep understanding of the conflict and why it has proven so difficult to resolve.
Jeffrey A. VanDenBerg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science and chair of the department of history and political science.