For years I wondered what the purpose of Israeli- Palestinian dialogue groups was. A year and a half after taking part in the Olive Tree program, a group of a dozen Israeli and Palestinian students who met every week during three years of undergraduate studies at the City University in London, I think that I understand at least some of the implications and benefits of such groups.
The insights in this article are essentially the result of my participation in the Olive Tree program, led by Prof. Rosemary Hollis and other dialogue groups I was and am involved in, such as those of Seeds of Peace. What I have written here does not reflect all of the outcomes of dialogue, nor is it a prescription of "do's and don'ts" for this or that dialogue group. Instead, these are a few insights that seem noteworthy within the social and political reality in Israel. Also, my thoughts do not reflect the views of the other participants in the various dialogues that they shared with me in the process, although they definitely are the product of thinking together in these groups over the years, and therefore not the products solely of my own personal thoughts. Prof. Hollis is one of the unique and special women who have influenced me. I had the privilege to be her student, and the time I spent with her and the group has contributed much to who I am today. I would also like to mention Farhat Agbariah and Danny Danko from Seeds of Peace, who are currently mentoring me in a course for leading dialogue groups. Their constant readiness to guide and lead Palestinian-Israeli groups is inspiring, and proves that, even in times when the political reality poses obstacles to the existence of these groups, their importance is actually growing.
The Israeli Reality in 2013
This is not the place to elaborate on the situation in Israel in 2013, but in brief: Israel just experienced an election in which the Palestinian issue was almost entirely missing from the campaign discourse. The Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza returned the topic to the agenda, but only in a security context. The Labor Party, which led efforts to conclude the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and an attempt to reach a peace agreement at Camp David in 2000, avoided mentioning any matter related to Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Labor Party embraced the greatest civil struggle in the history of the country - for social justice. This struggle downplays any mention of issues related to the Palestinians. In addition, an examination of the issues that the parties chose to focus on during the elections shows a general disregard for issues connected to the Palestinians. The party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which joined the election campaign very late and placed the diplomatic process at the top of its campaign, did not do so in a context that relates direclty to the Palestinians. It can be said that it was the right-wing parties that were preoccupied with the Palestinians, with the various parties sharpening their policy positions and competing for the most extreme positions toward the Palestinians. The Jewish Home Party, led by Naftali Bennet, one of the surprise "winners" of the elections, seeks to establish Bantustans for Palestinians by having Israel formally annex the West Bank Area C zone. This party received strong support from young secularists who do not understand the problem with creating these enclaves and their similarities to the Bantustans during the apartheid period in South Africa. A recently published survey by Blue White Future shows that, despite broad support in the general public for the two-state solution (62%), support among young people aged 18-29 is much lower (42%).
Given this socio-political reality, I think that the main significance of the dialogue groups for Israelis and Palestinians is that they build the capacity to encompass other groups in the society. Among other things, this fosters the ability to understand and relate to other groups as they are, without denial or misperception. This enables us to consider the existence, desires and interests of other groups. It also includes the ability to better understand the place from which the other's opinion stems.
Palestinians Defended My Right to Speak
I particularly remember a meeting that occurred shortly after Operation Cast Lead in 2009, while I was a student in the Olive Tree program. At a meeting led by a radical anti-Israeli group (I remember a quote from the person who led the team: "…and, during the Holocaust, 3 million Jews were murdered"), I wanted to say something. Despite my opposition to that military campaign, I felt that hatred of Israel in the debate hall was huge, onesided and one-dimensional, so I wanted to present another angle on Israel. In the hall the reality was painted in black and white, and I wanted a little gray content, a bit of color. When I began speaking, the crowd interrupted my words and dismissed them. Two Palestinians from Olive Tree were sitting in the room, including one whose house was demolished in Gaza as a result of the shelling by the Israeli Air Force. The other Palestinian stood up and defended my right to say these things. Moreover, she even validated some of the things I said. And she also said she felt that the people in the hall were "trying to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians," and that there was much value in what I was saying. It seems that it is easier to cancel out and ignore the other side, especially in extreme situations of violence.
Tough Questions Are Asked
This does not mean that participation in a dialogue group brings the various opinions closer to each other. During the dialogue the participant asks himself tough questions that can undermine his self-identity. But self-identity becomes stronger after the participant undergoes this process, because he is not afraid to deal with questions and answers that clash with the historical narrative that he was educated in, and nevertheless he chooses to adhere to his unique identity. Similar to the process of academic study, which often breaks down myths about the historical narrative and ownership of "the truth," in the process of dialogue, participants learn to deal with the contradictions and conflicts of identity that exist within and between the narratives of the various groups. At the end of the process, it seems that the experience actually reinforces identity and does not weaken it. And with acceptance and better understanding of other groups, the participant gains the ability to understand and accept situations of disagreement and differences between various groups.
I should add that the ability to be inclusive that develops among participants in dialogue groups is not exclusively for those who are part of the group. There is a growing perception of a broader view of reality, which also affects the ability to include other groups that are not party to the process of dialogue. As a result of participation in a dialogue group, there develops among the participants a more general view of society, where each group has the political weight it deserves. I think this is the most meaningful aspect of dialogue groups. When one seriously examines various groups equally, which deal with a variety of topics such as identity, interests, needs and desires, there are certain clear implications for other groups in society, all of which have their respective political weight, interests and rights. Looking at it a bit simplistically, if a group of the "other" receives legitimacy and the right to exist, how can any other group be rejected?
A Moderating Influence and Personal Rapport
Moreover, one of the consequences arising from the ability to be inclusive is that dialogue groups have a moderating influence on their participants. Because participants understand that they have to include the "other side" in their deliberations, it is not possible for them to maintain an ideology that excludes or rejects the other. This is true not only for the other in the group, but also for other groups in society. Participants understand that they cannot ignore the other groups, so they choose political solutions accordingly.
A good example can be found in the relationship among university students in London, where the Olive Tree meetings were held. It seemed that the radical student groups at the university very much wanted to reach out to Israelis or Palestinians. Those groups, for bizarre reasons, have developed an obsessive interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they had no conscious interest on the "other" of the conflict (groups supportive of radical Islam or those who support Israel at any price or any action, for example). These groups made significant efforts to attract members of the Olive Tree program to their side because we were Israelis or Palestinians (each group and its preference). However, Olive Tree participants were not attracted to the extremist groups. The "Olive Tree" group contained within itself the other that the extremist groups sought to reject. Even when the divisions within Olive Tree were severe, and during periods when tensions ran high, there was recognition and understanding that the "other group" is part of reality.
In addition, it should be noted that the dialogue groups create personal rapport between participants. There are tremendous implications to joint learning within dialogue groups. But I do not want to expand here on the positive effects joint learning, such as breaking down stereotypes, learning not only from textbooks and gaining a deeper understanding of the other, for reasons of space; I want to focus on the difficulties that emerge when the parties find themselves in a violent conflict. There is no doubt that this is when the internalization of the need to respect human rights during a dangerous conflict is most needed. Only when one internalizes the fact that acts of violence endanger human life (including those of your own friends) should the use of force be considered. Otherwise, the decision to use force is made without regard for the value of human life. It is not necessary to know "the other" to identify with the other's pain and human suffering, but personal acquaintance certainly makes the reality more complex and difficult. You can compare this to support among Israeli citizens for a military operation. Such support requires an understanding by citizens that soldiers - who may be sons, friends, family members or even himself - may be harmed in the operation. In the context of dialogue groups, the life of the "enemy" also has a personal meaning, which leads to a greater difficulty in supporting clashes that harm human life. If you are Israeli, imagine for a moment once again the Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Imagine how afraid you were for the residents in the south and the Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were suffering from tremendous missile attacks. Imagine how you felt when you heard of the many casualties among the Palestinians. Now imagine how you would feel if throughout that period you had friends and family staying in the Gaza Strip.
Avoiding the Risks
There are real risks in creating a dialogue group. In my experience, there are some basic principles that will reduce the risks and create conditions for dialogue groups that allows inclusion of the other. I will focus on several principles that have to be maintained in order to reduce the risks and that I noticed are frequently missing from many dialogue groups.
First, it is important to avoid creating an illusion or to romanticize any given political situation. We must not let the participants believe in the ability of any one person to find a solution to the conflict, or alternatively, to improve the situation significantly. The reality is always stronger than any confrontation with it. Creating the illusion that participants can solve a long dispute that many others have failed to solve over many years will create a big disappointment when the dialogue group ends. It also will prevent the participants from coping honestly and directly with the complex reality as it is. As part the dialogue process the participants should look at and deal with all of the components of the conflict. This does not mean that the participants should give up on the realization of their political aspirations. But as the participants develop the ability to encompass all of the groups that are involved, it is important to know all the components that make up the reality.
It is also very important that dialogue groups not strive to find an agreed-upon solution, or that the participants be led to think that if only they changed their position, the solution would be found. Dialogue groups are not meant to lead the way to a solution, and the group dynamics should not be based upon an assumption that "the truth" is known. To think that the conflict would be resolved if only the participants changed their positions is naïve. This approach does not respect the participants' desires, personal and political aspirations, beliefs or needs. The purpose of the group is to enable participants to express themselves fully to the group. As a result, the participants' attitudes become legitimate, and should be treated with respect.
Dialogue as a Learning Process
So, instead of seeing dialogue groups as a tool for reaching consensus, one must understand that the dialogue group is above all a learning group. There is no recipe that is known in advance. This process can evolve in many different and unique ways. Often there are groups that think that direct confrontation, a fight, brings out the best in the participants. I suggest we re-examine this thesis. In one of our Olive Tree projects each participant presented "his side's narrative" about a particular topic. Thus, we got to know the characteristics of the Israeli and Palestinian narratives without a fight. We experienced the various narratives, encompassed the contradictions and conflicts between them with the understanding that in most cases we could not bridge the gap between those narratives. Thus even those who think that it is possible to bridge the gaps in a historical conflict understood that identity is not just composed of historical facts, but also of feelings, beliefs and identities. Success, then, is not measured by the ability to convince the "other side" or by creating consensus. It also is not measured by the level of friendship that develops between the participants. Success is in the process of learning, developing mutual respect and the ability to look at reality as it is.
Moreover, it is important to remember that dialogue groups consist first and foremost of individuals. Each participant has a different identity, needs and aspirations - both personal and political. The group has to allow space for each participant to develop on an individual basis and allow the participants to deal with the dimension that contains the "true self" of each participant. A reference to each participant as an individual enables a confrontation with the contradictions and inner conflicts which might be easy to ignore. Participants are given the opportunity to relate to the contradictions and conflicts that exist in the narrative he was raised on, while providing a more human perspective of the other participants.
The group should undergo a process of building trust among the participants. This is not obvious; a framework must be created for this. The physical space must be secure, and one must, carefully and precisely, maintain the privilege of the participants to remain anonymous beyond the group. We used to say that "what is said in the room, stays in the room," and I think that is a good basis to allow for a frank and honest discussion. Only after trust is created can a process of dialogue really exist.
In addition, the time available for a dialogue group process should be sufficiently long to be beneficial for the participants. A short duration, as often occurs in certain groups, can be very harmful, since time is essential to enable a process to evolve. A short duration can hurt participants who remain with a belly full of feelings of frustration and anger. I appreciate the fact that the Olive Tree program lasted for three years, and that this was a very great privilege. It allowed us plenty of time to analyze and process the processes that we went through.
Finally, the role of the moderator is primarily to be responsive to the needs and desires of the group and participants. There is a need to listen to the group and to understand the issues which are to be explored and dealt with together. To ask that the group deal specifically with certain subjects can cause it to miss the really important things that are often below the surface. A good moderator shows that all of the participants' views are legitimate. From a place of authority, the moderator demonstrates that other opinions exist and that they have a right to be expressed.
Dialogue Groups Needed - Now More Than Ever
To summarize, dialogue groups are excellent, empowering and important tools for development and learning. However, that does not mean that dangers do not exist in such groups. If the principles outlined above are maintained, they may prevent at least some of those dangers. Of course there are a variety of additional meanings and outcomes of participation in dialogue groups which are not mentioned here. However, in view of the political situation in which we are entangled, the following seem particularly noteworthy: In addition to the exclusion of Palestinians from Israeli discourse, we are in a period in which Israeli organizations that encourage dialogue and peace are under unprecedented attack by politicians who call the groups traitors, terrorists or foreign agents. Even worse, there is an attempt to damage these organizations by exerting influence on their sources of funding. At the same time, we see that there is an antinormalization process taking place within Palestinian society, which seeks to deny any dialogue with the Israeli side. This is unfortunate, because by taking only some of the insights mentioned here into account, we will discover that dialogue groups empower their participants and give them a platform to express themselves. But perhaps more importantly, the current attempts at separation choose to look at an incomplete reality, while ignoring the rejecting the other. Now more than ever, it should be understood that dialogue groups do not lead to a particular and known political solution, but to a more encompassing perception which leads to a better ability to cope and a vision that fosters a deeper, more accurate and comprehensive view of reality and society.