The importance of the Bitterlemons obituary

Each of the key players perceives peace as desirable but not at any price. This is the message of the exchanges of views aired in Bitterlemons over the years. We still need to enable discourse that is ‘equal and fair’. 

Rosemary Hollis
31 August 2012

Bitterlemons is a web magazine founded in November 2001, that grew to encompass four different publications and two virtual books, iPad and iPhone apps. The weekly magazine presented Israeli and Palestinian views on a selected topic, including those by founders Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and Ghassan Khatib, now director of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center. 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 Middle East and beyond, welcoming writers from nearly every country in the region. In 2002-3, bitterlemons.org was published in Arabic and Hebrew.

Funders, led by the European Union, supported the readiness of an Israeli and a Palestinian to undertake a task which did not aspire “to make ‘virtual’ peace and never presented a ‘bitterlemons plan’”, but sought to debate their differences in one space and raise the level of dialogue. Until now, except for holidays, they have never missed an edition. Everything published in the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications will remain available at bitterlemons.net. It is an invaluable resource. But, as the founding editors have explained, eleven years later the project is now closing...

The obituary for Bitterlemons published this week by its two founders and co-editors, Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib, provides an important commentary on the fundamentals and trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beyond providing an opportunity to pay tribute to Alpher and Khatib for their exemplary contribution to our understanding of the nature of the conflict, their farewell to the Bitterlemons e-magazines raises several points that warrant further consideration.

Here I wish to address four of these. First is Alpher’s assessment that ‘there is no peace process and no prospect of one’; and second, related to this, Khatib’s contention that the prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict has been overtaken by a slide toward a ‘one-state’ option tantamount to ‘an apartheid Israel’. Third is Khatib’s lament that ‘Palestinians are rarely heard on their own terms’, given the pressure on them to respond instead to both Israeli concerns and ‘western-derived’ questions; and fourth is Alpher’s depiction of ‘donor fatigue’.

Over the last several years, it has been common for those of us engaged in the academic study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to place the term ‘peace process’ in quotes, to convey a measure of irony about a diplomatic drama that is patently not moving the contending parties closer to a peace agreement. During the 1990s a clear connection could be discerned between ‘the process’  ̶  internationally mediated and managed negotiations, agreement on specific steps to be taken by the contending parties and implementation on the ground  ̶  and the goal of peace.

As of the turn of the century, however, the process collapsed in the course of the second Palestinian Intifada and Israeli counter-measures. For a decade, the international donor community kept up the mantra that the ‘peace process’ must be put back on track – but the momentum shifted from direct Israeli-Palestinian engagement in that process to a series of external initiatives, in which all endorsed the objective of a two-state solution to the conflict in theory but ‘the facts on the ground’ (another catch phrase beloved of Middle East watchers) kept accumulating in a way that eroded belief in the possibility of that solution.

US and European stakeholders in the peace process have proved unable to come up with an alternative formula to the two-state solution in part because, for all its drawbacks, it appears the most logical and principled compromise solution to the conflict. Also, because they and even the UN have formally endorsed this as a just and appropriate way forward, no one wants to concede defeat in the face of practical obstacles to realising their vision.

As the experience of the Obama administration has demonstrated, any would-be champion of peace prepared to contemplate forcing a compromise solution on the Israelis and Palestinians faces the prospect of losing political capital at home as well as opposition on the ground. Also, given the situation in the region today, even the two-state solution as broadly envisaged, would be no guarantee of an end to conflict unless and until all the stakeholders  ̶  local, regional and international  ̶  saw it as in their best interests.

As it is, for almost all the key players, peace per se is not an overriding priority. Each perceives peace as desirable but not at any price. This is the message of the exchanges of views aired in Bitterlemons over the years. The co-editors are right to celebrate their achievement in ‘enriching our understanding of Middle East conflicts and developments’. Yet herein lies a lesson that is not sufficiently appreciated, certainly among western policymakers and observers who, as Khatib indicates, still insist on asking questions derived more from their own needs and wishes than a full appreciation of the situation on the ground.

If only they were different

In connection with my own work with Israelis and Palestinians over the years, latterly with those studying for undergraduate degrees at City University London, I constantly encounter an almost wilful desire among western observers to impute to the conflicting parties views and positions which they do not necessarily hold. At the policy level, westerners constantly call on the parties to change or adapt their views – in the belief that therein lies the answer to resolving the conflict. Such thinking resembles a truism that simply avoids the issue.

No doubt the conflict could be resolved if either or both the Israelis and Palestinians changed who they are or at least how they see the other. Yet, as Bitterlemons has demonstrated over the years, being understood for who they are and how they see things is crucially important to both. And indeed, alongside the conflict over territory, Jerusalem and refugees, sits a passionate attachment to their separate narratives, their national identities and cultures.

It is in the nature of this particular conflict, but also others, that both the Israelis and Palestinians define their respective identities, interests and worldviews through reference to ‘the other’. Their national stories are intertwined and in their respective belief systems they share a common heritage too. Through Bitterlemons, interlocutors from both sides have been able to disagree about issues of substance but agree to be heard in parallel.

If the drift toward a one-state solution depicted by Khatib as Israeli apartheid continues, Israel will come under increasing pressure, both internally and externally, to define what sort of system it is and explain this in relation to its oft-repeated boast that it is the only real democracy in the region. For their part the Palestinian advocates of a one-state solution will need to explain how they will define national identity and its meaning for all those in the mix.

Donor fatigue

As noted by Alpher, the goal of Bitterlemons was not to forge agreement, but to let all sides of an argument be heard. And in Khatib’s view, the Palestinians are more often expected to be reactive as opposed to airing their own views for what they are. In this connection it is cause for concern that the donors who have funded Bitterlemons and other ‘track II’ endeavours, have tired of supporting such undertakings because they see them as failing to end the conflict or even mitigating extremism.

The fault in this respect does not lie with track II exercises. The problem is misplaced expectations  ̶  a prevalent assumption that if you put conflicting parties together they will end up agreeing and if they do not, either the exercise is of little use or has actually failed. We learn from the Bitterlemons obituary that this disappointment is one of the explanations for donor fatigue.

Another explanation, we learn, is the unwillingness of donors to persist in the face of the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against ‘normalization’. Yet both campaigns carry an important message for the donors.

The efforts of Israeli right-wingers to curtail the operations of NGOs in receipt of western donor support speak of a fear of criticism and a desire to dominate the discourse. To concede to this is to fly in the face of the democratic principles that Israel boasts and the donors claim to want to promote.

The Palestinian anti-normalization campaign meanwhile, risks equating all contact with the enemy with acceptance of or even capitulation to the occupation. It buys into the same illogic as espoused by the donor community – namely that simply by engaging with the enemy contending parties will end up agreeing. In my experience this is completely untrue and in fact it is empowering for Palestinians to have a chance to explain who they are and what their red lines are and why, and to do so with the very people who thus far have been denying them their aspirations.

As explained by members of both parties to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland – when they hear each other out, in a setting that allows both free speech and safety from retribution – they learn that neither party has the monopoly on truth. Instead the reality they live with is the presence of at least two narratives and neither can eliminate or deny the other.

It is to be hoped that the closure of the Bitterlemons two-weekly e-magazines will not herald the end of all attempts to enable discourse that is ‘equal and fair’. Let the people speak! And let leaders in the donor community reflect on why they consider an endeavour that fosters a deeper understanding of the conflict is somehow superfluous in the quest for peace.

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