Israel-Palestine Clarity on the F-Train from Brooklyn

Popular sentiments in the U.S. and the Middle East have started to play a more significant role in determining what happens in this conflict that is almost a century old.

Moments of sudden clarity in political developments can strike anywhere and at any time, as I experienced in relation to the Palestine-Israel conflict while riding the F-train subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan Tuesday morning. Three separate stories I read in the press during that subway ride explain the sudden clarity I experienced on this complex and stubborn conflict; it essentially told me that popular sentiments in the U.S. and the Middle East have started to play a more significant role in determining what happens in this conflict that is almost a century old, while reducing the power of small groups of politicians or special interest lobbies that tend to work in the shadows and behind the scenes.

The most striking of the three news stories I read was on the front page of Brooklyn’s weekly Park Slope Courier community newspaper. It was about an incident at a meeting of the Park Slope Food Co-op that saw a confrontation between supporters and opponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement to oppose Israeli subjugation and exploitation of Palestinians living under occupation. The details of what happened are not the main issue here (four pro-Israel coop members disrupted speakers supporting a motion to not sell products of the Soda Stream company, which has a plant in occupied Palestinian land; the four were expelled from the co-op, and the Soda Stream company gave them free products as a show of support for their move).

So what could it mean that a movement like BDS that was started ten years ago by a small group of Palestinian civil society activists reaches the front page of a local newspaper in a wealthy corner of a Brooklyn borough of New York City? I sensed that perhaps this marked a small turning point towards populist activism playing a role in the battle between Israeli and Palestinian forces that has been waged for so many decades without any signs of a fair settlement. This conflict will not be determined on the check-out lines of co-op supermarkets in Brooklyn rather than on political and military battlefields in Palestine/Israel. This does, perhaps, suggest that wider populist and civil forces on both sides will become engaged in this conflict and its resolution, which can only be a good thing.

The second story that caught my eye was a report from Israel that a group of former Israeli politicians, security officials, artists, and activists have organized a movement that wants the Israeli government to consult the Israeli people, via a national referendum, on the future of the Palestinian territories that are now occupied and colonized by Israel. This initiative has been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary next year of the 1967 June War, which saw Israel capture the West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

The “Decision at 50” group that launched this initiative includes leading “peace camp” Israelis who say that Israel must withdraw from the occupied lands and allow the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state for the sake of Israel’s own survival as a Jewish-majority democratic state. They include former security and diplomatic officials such as Ami Ayalon, Amram Mitzna, and Gilead Sher. They fear the alternative to a Palestinian state would be a binational Palestinian-Israeli state where Jews become a minority or they rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in an apartheid-style situation.

A referendum by the Israelis is a good idea, as a majority would almost certainly express the desire to end their occupation and colonization of Palestinians, and opt instead for a situation in which both people lived in secure peace with equal national rights, and justice for all. An even better idea would be if the Palestinian people also were offered the opportunity to express themselves on a negotiated permanent peace agreement that could be negotiated relatively quickly by officials who genuinely see both communities as having the right to equal and simultaneous national rights in the land they both covet.

The third news story that caught my attention Tuesday morning was a Washington Post report—presumably based on leaks— speculating whether U.S. President Barack Obama would launch a last-minute initiative to lay out the parameters for a permanent peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, also including Lebanese and Syrians who have some of their lands occupied by Israel. This has been a recurring speculation for the past 18 months or so, but it becomes all the more interesting when we witness Israelis and Palestinians from civil society engaging more directly in the issues at the heart of the conflict.

If Obama seriously is considering launching one more peace-making initiative, he would do well to do it in a way that taps into the sentiments of the majority of the populations on both sides of the conflict, rather than relying mainly on contacts with political leaders in Israel and Palestine who have proven chronically incapable of achieving a permanent peace that their people aspire to and deserve.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global