As I was packing up to return from a visit to Israel and Palestine, the shooting of two Israeli policemen close to the Haram Al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, took place. The killings, carried out by three Israeli Palestinians, was an audacious crossing of multiple red lines. It exposes once more that the general calm in many parts of Israel and Palestine is no more than a very thin veneer that can barely hide a constantly perilous situation. If anyone needed evidence of the complexity and volatility of the situation, the killing of Arab Druze members of the Israeli security forces by other Palestinians, who are citizens of Israel, in one of the holiest sites to Muslims and Jews, provides ample such evidence.
Though engaging in conversation with dozens of people from both sides of the conflict and from different walks of life left me with grave concerns, it also gave me a reason for somewhat cautious optimism. Despite the lack of any serious peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and consequently no horizon for an agreement to end the conflict, most people still support a two-state solution. Sadly, there is no clear path to get there, and there is an obvious distrust between the two peoples, especially regarding their commitment to peaceful coexistence. They have even considerably less trust in their own leadership. Both leaderships lost any credibility in the eyes of their populace for being self-serving, assaulting civil society, and repressing freedom of speech and other basic human rights. It is also clear that under the current leadership a final-status agreement is as remote as ever.
The Israeli government under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to enter into the kind of peace negotiations that might lead to an agreement, whereas the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is in the twilight of his presidency with no clear succession on the horizon. Both societies are deeply fragmented, and in the case of the Palestinians the separation from Gaza and the deep-seated animosity between the Fatah and Hamas movements are leading to political paralysis, weakening their ability to govern, and compromising their bargaining power.
The deepening of the occupation of the West Bank continues, and the misery of the Gazan people as a result of the blockade imposed on them, have no end in sight, while the enlargement of settlements is unchecked. The Israeli military presence is noticeable everywhere and operating freely, even in areas that should be under the Palestinian Authority’s full control.
The Israeli occupation has tangible and visible manifestations, but also psychological and concealed ones. Separate roads for settlers, long queues at checkpoints and a lack of access to natural resources have an obvious physical impact on the quality of life for Palestinians, but at the same time it is a constant reminder for Palestinians that they are not in control of their own lives.
There are strong cores among youths, business people and civil society that are determined enough to exhaust any avenue to prevent another 50 years of occupation and further violence and bloodshed.
I also could not detect much hope that US President Donald Trump and his envoys are capable of becoming honest and successful brokers, or that the international community has enough desire or attention span to help the sides or lean on them to advance the cause of peace.
Given the above, what is the source of my cautious optimism in the midst of this bleak picture?
Notwithstanding this rather disheartening situation, there are vibrant civil societies on both sides that are working tirelessly and against the odds to promote peace, coexistence and human rights. There are joint ventures in the high-tech sector that create jobs that are better paid and are less affected by movement restrictions imposed on Palestinians by the occupation. Talking for instance to a group of bereaved families from both sides of the conflict, who in spite of losing loved ones are traveling together up and down the country to promote the urgent need for peace, was inspirational.
Above all — and despite years of harsh occupation, failed peace negotiations, outbursts of violence and a fear-induced atmosphere — a substantial majority on both sides still believe that the way forward is reaching an agreement based on a two-state solution. They might lack trust that the other side is as keen as they are on reaching a peaceful solution, but given the right incentives and the right leadership this is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Bearing in mind that this conflict is at least a century old, with countless violent encounters and at least 24 years of failed negotiations, it is nothing short of a small miracle that there is any traction for non-violent dialogue between the two communities. Yet there are plenty who are devoted to doing exactly this.
In the near future, dialogue might not become more concentrated on a final-status agreement that deals with all the core issues of this conflict, such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees or the future of Jewish settlements.
Instead, there is enough openness to discuss measures that will make life more livable, but not at the expense of a process leading to a Palestinian state that grants all Palestinians political and civil rights.
The wonderful people whom I met earlier this month instilled in me the belief that there are strong cores among youths, business people and civil society that are determined and flexible enough to exhaust any avenue to prevent another 50 years of occupation and further violence and bloodshed.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.