Hussein Ibish
NOW Lebanon (Blog)
February 8, 2011 - 1:00am

Since its inception in 2003, the American Task Force on Palestine, where I am a senior research fellow, has been trying to help lay the groundwork for an American alliance for a two-state solution. Such an alliance would bring Jewish-American supporters of Israel and their allies, and Arab-American supporters of Palestine and their allies, together to pursue the mutual interests of both peoples – and of course of the United States itself – in a stable peace agreement.

This project involves trying to break down decades of mutual suspicion on the basis of support for a common goal, albeit one the two communities may embrace for very different reasons. A great irony of the situation is that a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they want a two-state solution, but they also say they believe the other side is lying. This is a key factor in preventing a resolution of the long-standing, dangerous Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Unfortunately, but predictably, this attitude of mutual suspicion also reflects itself in the dynamics between Jewish- and Arab-Americans. They can and should be able to come together on the grounds that peace is vital for the United States, as well as for their friends and relatives in the Middle East. While it is striking how persistent mistrust and rivalries can trump simple logic and clear interests, ATFP welcomed the announcement of the (unfortunately brief) resumption of direct negotiations in early fall with a joint statement with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (an umbrella group representing a large swathe of Jewish-American organizations).

More work to define this apparently obvious but maddeningly elusive common ground will be required to overcome current differences of opinion and deeply-ingrained suspicions, and bring Jewish- and Arab-Americans together to work toward a goal that most of them profess to passionately believe in.

It was with this agenda in mind that I recently undertook an interesting and fruitful experiment with The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a pro-Israel Jewish-American journalist of note. We wanted to see how much we could agree on, coming from very different perspectives, and understanding that diplomacy is, for now, stalemated. More importantly, cognizant of the political realities and constraints leaders on both sides face, we wanted to see what realistic unilateral gestures we could suggest to the parties.

The result was a lengthy op-ed in The New York Times pushing back against the idea that the peace process is permanently dead and suggesting a number of practicable and some more poetic unilateral gestures that would help improve the atmosphere.

Inevitably, the article produced considerable negative reaction from the pro-Israel far-right and the pro-Palestine ultra-left, both of which seemed to take exception to the very notion of a lengthy article being co-authored by a Jewish-American supporter of Israel and an Arab-American supporter of Palestine. And, of course, the extremes on both sides vehemently rejected much of the content of what we had to say.

It is important to note that since the commentary was jointly authored, its content was negotiated between us. In other words, what we argued was not what either Goldberg or I would have written the same way on our own. Rather, the text was one in which we both had input and were ultimately willing to sign off on together.

This was perhaps the most important virtue of the entire exercise, even though the suggestions we made were serious, and would certainly improve the situation if implemented, even partially. I was optimistic, but not entirely sure, that we would be able to agree to a text that includes so much detail and so many evaluations that were sure to meet with angry rejection from people in our own communities. In the event, it proved surprisingly straightforward.

The essence of a positive unilateral action is that it has a salutary impact on the atmosphere overall, but is also manifestly in the interest of the parties undertaking them. Our suggestion that the Palestinian Authority follow through on Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s declaration last August that the public education system in the West Bank should be used to combat fanaticism – and that the international community help the Palestinians do that – would undoubtedly improve Israeli perceptions of the Palestinian Authority, but would also, and perhaps more significantly, be good for Palestinian society. The same applies to urging Israel to dismantle unauthorized outposts and extremely provocative settlements.

The irony, of course, is that we co-authored and negotiated the text of an article that restricted itself to plausible, unilateral gestures by the two parties in parallel. This was implicit recognition that there is no substitute for the common ground that can be achieved by negotiating –whether a text between two authors or a treaty between two peoples. It makes no sense for Arab- and Jewish-Americans who say they want a two-state solution to maintain each other at arm’s length when they could and should be cooperating to finalize one.


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