"Kissing Cousins" is an anecdotal term which refers to the diffusion in the post-Oslo period of programs (mostly labeled as "people-to-people" ventures) whose aim was to break the stereotypes prevalent between Israelis and Palestinians as a prelude to reconciliation. The assumption was that the Oslo Accords had resolved the main political hurdle of occupation and dispossession, and what remained belonged to the realm of psychology.
Historically, Jewish-Arab amity was a central theme in the work of the left, and almost exclusively of the left: anti-Zionist groups on the Jewish side, and socialist groups on the Palestinian side. Many people paid heavily for these internationalist positions, sometimes with their lives, and often became isolated and marginalized within their own communities. "Arab lover," "self-hating Jews" on the Israeli side, and "traitors" on the Palestinian side were common epithets. However, they kept the flame of coexistence and goodwill alive through the idea of a common homeland, bi-nationalism and, after 1948, the struggle for self-determination for Palestine. Within the Israeli political arena, the struggle for coexistence was, and continues to be, an important platform for equality for Arab citizens.

A Business Venture-Rapprochement

In the occupied territories, however, this situation was drastically reversed after the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement entered the arena of big business and high politics, now sponsored by the U.S. and the European powers. Official diplomatic meetings between the two sides were supplanted by "second track diplomacy" (informal meetings by strategy shapers) and more amorphous contacts between academics and politicians seeking the creation of new conditions for territorial compromise. The radical tradition was gradually forgotten and relegated to a historical footnote, as realpolitik set in as the dominant mode of thinking.
Those encounter groups soon evolved into full-fledged joint ventures. They included many Israelis and Palestinians looking for ways to break the heavy heritage of war and displacement, but they also attracted unemployed academics, fortune seekers, guilt-ridden Israeli liberals, and European donors involved in what became known as "people-to-people" projects. The few cases involving a genuine exchange of ideas and attempt at solidarity across the ethnic divide-such as Palisad [a group of critical social scientists] in Jerusalem, where scholars sought to critically investigate the roots of the conflict and its solution in a substantive manner-were submerged or marginalized by the existence of donor funding for "feel-good" enterprises.

'Genuine Brotherhood' of Another Kind

Real "joint ventures" between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, predated these people-to-people projects by a few years, mostly in the domain of the underworld. They involved drug-trafficking rackets, prostitution rings, and car thieves. Here genuine brotherhood (and a certain degree of sisterhood) prevailed. Religion and nationality were substantially ignored where the marginal and the ambitious on both sides of the Green Line joined in a partnership of money-making and merry-making.
The Paris Accords, signed in 1995, allowed this paradigm to be extended to actual business enterprises. Even though the ostensible aim was to allow for the freedom of movement of labor, services, and goods-somehow only the last category was recognized as pertaining to peace. In addition, it was only a one-way movement of Israeli goods into the occupied territories. After all, with the erection of checkpoints and barriers and permits, what goods could possibly be of interest to the Israeli side? The one commodity of relevance, cheap Palestinian labor, was soon blocked and replaced by even cheaper Thai and Filipino workers, and more desirable Russian professionals (who came as new immigrants), under the guise of security.

Conditioned Funding

For academics, the post-Oslo period was also a period of considerable liquidity in research funding. But it was a very selective form of availability. Not only were the themes of study designated by the donors (women's status, development, non-violence, Islamic movements, and studies of a logistical and technical nature), but the availability was often conditioned by the need to join forces with partners from the "other side." It got to a point where researchers had to invent an Israeli partner to do research on themes that were related to internal Palestinian development issues.
Some Israelis also received funding, but they, too, had to find suitable (often silent) Palestinian partners to undertake the joint project. This atmosphere was a bonanza for an army of unemployed-and sometimes unemployable-young scholars. Drawn in by the attractive enticements, serious scholars joined in, producing thick volumes of unreadable research based on impressive feasibility studies. The number of these institutions multiplied several times over, and their output, often cloning earlier research, grew to alarming proportions. A second generation of "kissing cousins" mutated into academia, generating a heap of theses and dissertations. What began as an idea evolved into an industry.

Trivialization Rather Than Rectification

These projects had two main victims. The first was the trivialization of the conception of Israeli rule as a colonial project, and the reduction of the subjugation of a native population to a matter of perception and recognition-a breaking of stereotypes-or, at best, to a conflict in need of a better understanding, and not the need for a rectification of inequity. A second victim was the integrity of scholarly activity and research, which now became contingent on political considerations and contrived partnership, whose aim was to sugar-coat the nature of the occupying power, and to assume that conflict resolution belongs to a "balanced perspective" and not to a struggle based on the critical examination of oppression.
There are salutary lessons to be derived from the fate of people-to-people projects. For social scientists, academics and political actors who maintain scholarly autonomy and integrity-and those who continue to believe in a humanistic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict- people-to-people is a warning that what sounds like a progressive project may camouflage what is essentially a dark and cynical agenda. Attacking stereotypes and breaking psychological barriers make sense only if addressed within a framework that also addresses inequity, injustice and dispossession. Otherwise it will be the equivalent of the Arab proverb: "Like pouring honey on death [to sweeten it]."