Peace Talks? Palestinians & Israelis Are Skeptical

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jordan this week, in another effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It is already his sixth trip to the region, (his last trip was only two weeks ago), signaling he means business.

So far this trip, Kerry has met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and won Arab League backing for his effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. At a Wednesday news conference after meetings with the Arab League and Abbas, Kerry claimed that the Israelis and Palestinians are narrowing gaps that have prevented them from restarting talks in the past.

The politicians Kerry has been meeting with seem enthusiastic, but what's less clear are the opinions ordinary Israeli and Palestinian citizens have about these renewed efforts.

Bustle interviewed four citizens individually — two Israeli and two Palestinian — to find out how they feel. Let's introduce them first:

Yehuda HaKohen, 33, is an Israeli alternative peace activist and history teacher at several Jerusalem institutions.

Sam Bahour, 48, is a Palestinian-American business development consultant living in the West Bank. He serves as a policy advisor of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

Nir Kalfa, 35, is an Israeli member of the local Garin Torani (Torah outreach community) as well as the Reut-Sderot Association, a non-profit that works within his city's community.

Eilda Zaghmout, 32, was born and raised in Jordan, but moved with her family to live in Palestine in 1999.

What was your first reaction to hearing that Kerry was trying to revive peace talks?

Yehuda: When Western governments say “peace talks” what they really mean is talks towards partitioning this country into two states — whether or not such a partition will actually bring peace or improve the lives of people living here. Kerry is just another in a long line of foreign diplomats aggressively pushing this agenda.

Sam: These efforts by the U.S. aren’t anything new, except for the acknowledgement that the situation is becoming increasingly urgent. If the two-state solution is lost, then we’re in for a very different reality on the ground; moving from a nation-state struggle for Palestinians to a civil rights struggle.

Eilda: What we should remember is that peace talks are only means and not ends to reaching a just peace for all humans living on this land.

Nir: The media here in Israel is very pro-peace talks and eager to blame our government, but I think the people are holding another opinion: I think we’ve seen this movie before. We have faced these scenarios before. I don’t see a peace agreement happening. It’s not a conflict based on territories, like if we would give them Judea and Samaria we would get back to the 1967 borderline, and peace would come, and everything would be okay. It’s deeper than that. It’s more complicated; it’s fundamental; it’s religious.

Is this a good move on the part of the U.S.?

Sam: The U.S.’s official role, the Jewish community’s role in it, and the Palestinians’ commitment to non-violence are three components that, (if they are are dealt with constructively), I think can help the situation. What will not help is what Kerry's officials said before the end of his last trip — that if there is no decision on restarting peace talks within two weeks he will walk away from the peace process. Israel might like the idea that if they just hold out a little longer, the U.S. will lose interest.

Yehuda: The United States obviously has an agenda for the Middle East, and I doubt that agenda includes what is best for Jews or Palestinians. The only reason the two-state solution is pushed as aggressively as it is must be due to a perception in Washington that the partition of our country will somehow advance what America’s ruling class perceives to be its interests. Otherwise, I doubt so much energy and so many resources would be invested in something so destructive.

What should the United States do?

Sam: The U.S. needs to decide if it wants to be a mediator or if it wants to be Israel’s attorney in the negotiations. Some of the people who were at Camp David actually said exactly that — that the U.S. was kind of acting in the posture of Israel’s attorney. That doesn’t work. I’m hoping they choose mediator, but mediator and being on Israel’s side are two very different things.

Yehuda: I would welcome America treating us like an independent country capable of deciding our own policies. I come from the perspective that powerful countries shouldn’t bully weaker countries. That’s imperialism. And Western imperialism in the Middle East is really what created this conflict to begin with. The only people really capable to making genuine peace are the Jews and Palestinians on the ground who have to live together.

What is the likelihood of progress, do you think?

Nir: I don’t think these issues will ever be resolved. Netanyahu can’t act unilaterally because he has the coalition to think about, and inside the Likud party it’s very right-wing. They won’t give Netanyahu the space he needs to promote a serious peace process. Also, don’t forget we have Hamas ruling the Gaza strip and the PLO controlling the West Bank. So even if we got a peace agreement with the West Bank, they wouldn’t accept it in Gaza.

Eilda: I don’t feel much progress will be achieved as long as such initiatives are coming at times when mutual trust and respect are missing between Palestinians and Israelis on a leadership level and a national level. The peace process seems to be coming from top to bottom without touching the basic issues and involving more grassroots activists, women, and young voices. It feels as if we are adding more band-aids to the wounds instead of cleaning the wound first, and then adding the band-aids.

Yehuda: If the objective is peace between Jews and Palestinians, I think the likelihood of progress resulting from Kerry’s efforts is close to zero. But I’m not convinced Kerry, or any of his predecessors, push the two-state solution because they think it will actually bring peace. It’s difficult for me to accept that such powerful and otherwise intelligent people could be so blind and ignorant on this front. There must be something else at play.

Can the U.S. be a mediator?

Yehuda: It can’t. Jews and Palestinians need to come together and work out our own issues without foreign intervention.

Sam: I think the U.S. needs to pull out the tools that they have in their toolbox that they’ve been hesitant to use thus far. One of those tools is a financial tool. The 4 billion-plus dollars the U.S. gives Israel every year can be used to coax Israel to coming in line with international law. The arms that the U.S. continues to supply to Israel — regardless of how they use them — can also be start to be called into question.

And note, I’m not asking the U.S. to turn against Israel. Almost just the opposite. I’m saying that if the U.S. loves Israel then this is the time where it stops and says “Israel, we can’t let you drive drunk on power,” and it forces its ally to align with international law.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to share?

Nir: I haven’t mentioned another factor, in terms of security. You saw what happened when we left the Gaza strip in 2005 during the disengagement. We left them everything — we left them infrastructure, houses, greenhouses, you name it, and they could have built a paradise there, and they could have flourished in the magnificent beaches they have, but they chose the contrary. They chose to educate their kids to kill Jews, and they chose to launch missiles, and this is my concern. Me, I’m religious, I believe this is my land, and it is my right to build wherever I want...I want to make sure I keep my interests, keep my security. Will they accept Israel as a Jewish state? Are they willing to declare an end to the conflict? This is very essential and crucial to any future agreement.

Sam: Israelis must decide what game they want to play. If it is the "divine" game, that God gave them this land, well, that's a never-ending game, since we don't believe God was a real estate agent. If it is the "might is right" game, well, that promotes each side to more violence, another never-ending game. Palestinians have accepted the game that the entire international community has chosen; international law. The question is, can Israel uphold its obligations as a member state in the United Nations by falling in line with the requirements thereof?