This week, a group of undergraduates from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University concluded a 10-day visit in Israel. During their trip they met with people from right and left, Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, religious and non-religious Jews, settlers and others and, as future journalists, were exposed to the complexities of covering Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Middle East.
One of the highlights of the program was a simulation of a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At the Inter Disciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), the students, who turned out to be very knowledgeable about the conflict, assumed the roles of Israel, Palestine, the United States, the European Union and Iran, and played them with enthusiasm.
I was watching this simulation with great interest. After all, from the days of the Oslo Accords process two decades ago, we have seen negotiations, summits, U.S. secretaries of State in endless shuttles and what not, and still we are deadlocked. Might it be that these American students could come up with something new that we, the locals, haven’t thought of already?
What happened there really stunned me. The “Israelis” and the “Palestinians” set out to work right away. In separate meetings, the two delegations discussed among themselves the goal that they had wished to achieve at the end of the negotiations — a two-state solution, basically — and the tactics needed to accomplish that. Then they just met with each other, face to face, and started talking.
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Who was left out of the picture? The United States of America! That the hypothetical Iran, the European Union and the Arab League were “dismissed” by the Israelis and the Palestinians as a nuisance and hindrance to peace was one thing. To snub the United States, however, was something else. Indeed, the “Americans,” like a bull in a china shop, arrived at the height of the bilateral talks, disrupting the process and chanting their Pax Americana slogans.
No one was impressed.
The “Palestinians” never thought much of the “Americans” as honest brokers in the first place, because they felt they had always sided with the “Israelis.” The latter, bitter because of the deal President Obama had just cooked with Iran, felt that America had lost its sense of direction.
Anyway, the minute the loud “Americans” left, the direct talks resumed, and five minutes before deadline, in front of my wide open eyes, the “Israelis” and the “Palestinians” reached an agreement. It was based on the Clinton Parameters stipulated at the summit held at Camp David in 2000 (which, by the way, were rejected by Yasser Arafat):
▪ Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and cooperation.
▪ The big Jewish settlement blocks remain, in exchange for a land swap.
▪ The settlers living in the small Jewish settlements will have either to leave or become loyal citizens of the Palestinian state.
▪ A certain number of Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to Israel, while the rest will be resettled in Palestine.
▪ Negotiations about Jerusalem will commence after a period of 18 months of trust-building. Gaza was left aside for the same 18 months period, with the hope that eventually it will join.
As if this accomplishment weren’t impressive enough, just before the signing the “Arab League” delegates surprised us all with a remarkable offer: Why complicate things by resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel? Let the refugees settle in Palestine, and we will underwrite the costs. For this move, the students who played the Arab League won the award of the best team.
It is easy to dismiss this as an exercise in futility and attribute the success of the negotiations to the naiveté of the students, who are not bound by ideology, who don’t carry the burden of religion and are not scarred by the decades of bloody feud. Another explanation to the surprising success came from one of the male students (there were eight female and only two male students in the group): “Women’s voices are not as loud as those of the men. Therefore they have to listen to each other.”
Over in the real world, nothing is new. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just said that he was willing to go to Ramallah to negotiate. Was he serious? We can’t tell, because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t put him to test: He just ignored the gesture and went to the United Nations instead.
The Medill School of Journalism is named after Joseph Medill, a journalist and onetime mayor of Chicago. When in 1871 the great fire destroyed downtown Chicago, including Medill’s Tribune building, he published an editorial calling upon Chicagoans to “Cheer up,” predicting that the city “shall rise again.”
I hope that Israelis and Palestinians don’t wait until a great fire consumes them only to rise again later. I prefer the current Medill approach: The deal is on the table: Take it — you won’t get a better deal later.