Repairing the trust deficit between Israelis and Palestinians
It was hardly big news when a recent survey revealed that distrust between Palestinians and Israelis had reached record levels, and that this lack of trust is the single most important factor in the absence of support for the peace process.
However, this predictable finding does not lessen the importance of one of the most comprehensive research efforts ever conducted on distrust and its sources in Israeli-Palestinian relations, by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Any hope for peace, coexistence and reconciliation will take root only when trust is rebuilt between the communities immersed in this conflict.
It is irrefutable that there can be no peaceful conclusion to a conflict in which 90 percent of one side — the Palestinians — and 79 percent of the other — Israel’s Jews — consider their opponents untrustworthy.
Even if a peace agreement were to be signed tomorrow, the chasm in trust between, and among, these communities means that much of the work to make it sustainable would entail confronting long-ingrained psychological barriers, as well as the tangible core issues of the conflict: Self-determination for both peoples, with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine; security for all; and a just and fair solution to the hardships of the Palestinian refugees — not to mention what is to be done with the Jewish settlements, which are a major source of distrust.
For the time being, however, there is no peace process to speak of. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett refuses to talk directly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and has publicly declared that a Palestinian state will not be established under his watch, although he has also promised not to annex occupied Palestinian territory.
Those who least believe in a peaceful solution are those who are exposed daily to the violence and other harsh realities of the conflict.
The Palestinian political system has deep divisions and is in complete disarray, while US President Joe Biden’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week, in which he referred fleetingly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was a noncommittal and pessimistic expression of his support for a two-state solution. “We’re a long way from that goal at this moment,” he declared.
It is exactly this kind of statement — and on the most important of international stages — that serves to erode hope and confidence in any genuine commitment by the international community to rally round a two-state solution. It is more than 73 years since the UN passed the partition plan resolution, and more than 54 years since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.
Just how long is the “long way” that Biden envisages until the goal is achieved? Or were his words a case of “not during my presidency,” and probably not during our lifetime?
This adds a further, international tier of distrust to the local levels, which, as the PCPSR’s findings demonstrate, have diverse roots. As a consequence, less than 50 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution, while proposals for a single, equal state or a two-state confederation have even less support.
Those who least believe in a peaceful solution are those who are exposed daily to the violence and other harsh realities of the conflict: They are suspicious of the other side and are less likely to support a two-state solution. And, as could only be expected, Palestinians whose freedom of movement is hindered by the separation barrier; those who suffer constant attacks by settlers; those who live in Area C under complete Israeli control, who are denied building permits and frequently see their homes demolished by the Israeli authorities — these people have lost all faith in anyone and anything.
Two elements crucial to restoring trust are good leadership and peace education. The sorry state of leadership between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is well documented. A large chunk of the population sees their own leaderships as fostering distrust, while vast majorities on both sides perceive the other side’s leadership as the cause of distrust.
In the tragic reality of one of the “forever wars” of our time, leaders are distrusted not only for being idle in resolving the conflict, but also for driving a wedge between elements of their own people as well as between Arabs and Jews. Their conduct is due both to a lack of intellectual capacity to perceive any peace beyond the conflict, and, worse, to their self-serving, vested political interests.
Without rectifying this leadership debacle, there is almost no passage out of the current impasse in the peace process and the outlook for the immediate future is that things will probably get worse.
However, the PCPSR’s survey also highlighted the importance of education, in its broadest sense. There is an understandable, though unhelpful, battle of historical narratives between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides are on a mission to prove that they have the sole rights to this piece of territory. For those who are advancing irreconcilable narratives, the conflict is a zero-sum game: They seek not only to establish their rights to the land, but also to deny entirely the rights of the other side.
For more than a century, these antagonists have prevented coexistence and reconciliation. Considering that the highest level of skepticism about peace is among the young, the urgency of developing curricula that deal with the harsh realities of the past without questioning each other’s right to live in security and prosper with full political, human and civil rights must become a priority.
There is a chicken-or-egg question in building trust. Is it more likely that a peace agreement will follow from a situation where mutual trust has been developed based on both sides recognizing each other’s right to self-determination, or is it a peace agreement that must come first and that will provide the major impetus for creating such a situation?
Mapping the sources of mutual distrust gives us at least the ingredients to work with in order to rectify the trust deficit. However, this will require painstaking effort and much goodwill, and can only begin with an improvement of conditions on the ground and the establishment of some political horizon for peace.
* Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.