An innovative Israeli-Palestinian collaboration offering regular analysis of middle-east affairs is ending regular publication after eleven years. Its co-editors, Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib, explain why.
Why we are closing
We are closing bitterlemons' two weekly e-magazines. The publications that you, our readers, have known for the past eleven years will, with this special edition, cease to exist. You deserve an explanation as to why this is happening. It is not disconnected from what is transpiring around us in the middle east and globally.
First, for those not wholly familiar with the details of our operation, here is a brief summary of what we have produced and published. From November 2001, bitterlemons.org presented a weekly web-magazine of Israeli and Palestinian views, including those of myself and Ghassan Khatib, on a selected topic. Beginning in July 2003, bitterlemons-international.org circulated a second weekly collection of analyses on a broader middle-east topic, written by commentators from throughout the region and beyond. By the by, in 2010-11 we briefly published bitterlemons-api.org, a series on the Arab Peace Initiative. In 2002-03, bitterlemons.org was published in Arabic and Hebrew.
We published two virtual books and created iPad and iPhone apps. We attracted hundreds of thousands of readers and witnessed our articles re-circulated by hundreds of web-based and print publications. We welcomed writers from nearly every country in the region. Everything we published will remain available at bitterlemons.net.
All of this cost money, received over the years from generous foundations, one individual, and donor countries, led first and foremost by the European Union. The donors welcomed our aspiration to involve the region's influential figures, along with interested parties from beyond the region, in a high-level and civilised discussion of our differences. They supported the readiness of an Israeli and a Palestinian to undertake this task.
You, the reader, were never asked to support us financially. Indeed, we never even asked you to identify yourself to us, on the assumption that reader anonymity would increase the circulation of a controversial publication produced by Israelis and Palestinians.
We never aspired to make "virtual" peace and never presented a "bitterlemons plan". Rather, we sought to debate our differences and raise the level of dialogue. Over the years, our internet and email publishing operation, based in Israel and Palestine, weathered an intifada, suicide-bombings and an Israeli invasion of the Palestinian Authority. Throughout, we never missed an edition except for holidays. Until recently.
We are ceasing publication for reasons involving fatigue - on a number of fronts. First, there is donor fatigue. Why, donors ask, should we continue to support a middle-east dialogue project that not only has not made peace, but cannot "prove" to our satisfaction - especially at a time of revolution and violence throughout the region - that it has indeed raised the level of civilised discussion? Why fight the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against "normalisation"?
These last two negative developments also reflect local fatigue. There is no peace process and no prospect of one. Informal "track II" dialogue - bitterlemons might be described as a "virtual" track II - is declining. Here and there, writers from the region who used to favour us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighbourhood.
Then there is the global economic slowdown. Even countries and philanthropic institutions not suffering from donor fatigue still have to deal with declining budgets for promoting activities like ours. Obviously, the donors have every right to do with their limited funds as they see fit. But they are nearly all tightening their supervision and review procedures to a point where the weight of bureaucracy simply overwhelms efforts to maintain even a totally transparent project like bitterlemons and to solicit additional funds.
After more than a decade, there is also fatigue at the production end. Even weekly electronic publications that don't require old-fashioned printers and distributors nevertheless need to recruit writers, edit their articles and meet deadlines.
It's time to move on. I, personally, do so with a sense of satisfaction regarding the completely unique Arab-Israel discussion format we developed and propagated for more than a decade. I learned endlessly from this endeavour. I believe we enriched the understanding of middle-east conflicts and developments among large numbers of people in the region and beyond. I hope others will continue this pursuit of better regional understanding.
I wish to thank our readers for their consistent support. And to thank Ghassan Khatib and the highly professional staff at and around the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in Ramallah for making our work together such a satisfying experience for more than a decade.
Finally, we're not completely going away. We hope in the near future to keep the bitterlemons label alive with important alternative activities. We'll keep you posted.
The arc of the pendulum
When Yossi Alpher and I sat in my Jerusalem office in the year 2000, discussing plans for the first bitterlemons web magazine, we never imagined that it would grow to encompass four different publications and two books, or that it would span twelve years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
That was before the second Palestinian uprising and its crushing losses, before the construction of Israel's wall and the blockade of Gaza that have physically divided us, before 9/11 that made villains of Arabs and Muslims in the west, before the population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank had finished doubling despite the peace accords. And, of course, it was before the Arab uprisings that are transforming the region at this very moment.
In the beginning of this project, my hope was that bitterlemons would provide a venue for the Palestinian voice to be heard. And to this day, I remain proud that we seem to have achieved this - that top international policymakers were able to read the opinions of Palestinians from many walks of life and political backgrounds and engage their ideas on this forum.
(In this regard, it remains a criticism of mine and others who observe the media that Palestinians are rarely heard on their own terms. Instead, they are presented responding to Israeli concerns and answering western-derived questions, as if Palestinians have no independent dreams or visions. We must all do better.)
Often in this project, we as editors have felt lucky. In the foreword to The Best of Bitterlemons compilation published in 2007, I noted that we rarely had trouble recruiting writers. Despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel's occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way. Still, we have been able to present the voices of security chiefs and political prisoners, military generals and farmers losing land, spokespersons for armed groups and peaceniks in an equal and fair manner - rather differently than the situation on the ground.
Nevertheless, this achievement is bittersweet as the scenery around us grows ever more dark and uncertain. Two decades after the signing of the declaration of principles that many hoped would usher in the creation of a Palestinian state and independence, freedom and security, Palestinians and Israelis are barely conversational. The structures created by those agreements have atrophied, corrupted by an increasing imbalance in the Palestinian relationship with Israel. Every day, there is new word of land confiscations, arrests, demolitions, and legislative manoeuvres to solidify Israel's control. Israel's political leaders are beholden to a tide of right-wing sentiment and Palestinian leaders are made to appear ever-smaller in their shrinking spheres of control.
We are now, it appears, at the lowest point in the arc of the pendulum, one that is swinging away from the two-state solution into a known unknown: an apartheid Israel. How this new "one-state" option will be transformed into a solution that provides freedom and security for all remains to be seen. We at bitterlemons are grateful to have been able to record over time the shift in this direction and hope the archive we have created will be useful to researchers for years to come.
And so, more than anything, we want to thank our readers and contributors (often one and the same) who shared their ideas with us and were not afraid to join this conversation. I personally would like to thank my co-editor Yossi Alpher for his tireless work on this shared project. The discussion will certainly continue - I am sure of this - until Palestinians achieve their freedom and self-determination by ending the Israeli occupation that started in 1967 and establishing an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza strip alongside Israel, thereby realising the international consensus over the two-state solution. Bitterlemons aspires to be a part of this, through new projects and platforms. But for now, we all wait with trepidation to see around the bend.