I recently heard from an Egyptian friend that after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination she and all her classmates in their school in Alexandria stood in a moment of silence in his memory. Another Palestinian friend told me that she remembers the joy and celebration that took over the house as they drew pictures of peace with doves and Israeli and Palestinian flags to celebrate the return of then-Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat from Washington, DC after the Oslo Accords were signed. I also remember myself at the age of 13 sitting on the floor in the school corridor with my classmates, all glued to the TV screen as we watched those famous images on the White House lawn. That evening I wrote in my diary: "Peace has arrived I'm so happy."
But peace did not arrive. We all know how the story continues…with lost hope, lost opportunities, loss of lives. While this period from the early 1990s until today seems like yet another chapter in an ongoing hundred-year-old conflict, for people my age these developments are what we know as the only reality. It is what shaped our worldview and molded our political perception, through the experiences we had in school, the army, what we fought for politically and the type of discussions we were engaged in. The 20 years that have passed since the signing of the Oslo Accords have not brought about a more peace-loving generation as many had hoped; perhaps, on the contrary, they have created a very disillusioned, skeptical, pessimistic generation.
Take Nibal, for example. In answer to my question about whether the two-state solution was a desirable end in her eyes, Nibal, a woman more or less my age from the Palestinian village of Nabi Salah, answered, "Of course not. Why would I agree to a situation where I cannot go with my children to the sea?" Given the reality of her life since she was born, the Oslo Accords, which represent the two-state solution only brought checkpoints and separation. It is very different from the image I have in my mind for the two-state solution of open borders and peaceful co-existence.
Coming of Age with Rabin's Assassination and the Second Intifada
For a thirty-something-year-old Israeli, the experiences of the conflict since he or she became politically conscious are: great hope that quickly shifted to lack of trust, rounds of negotiations with no real end, suicide bombings, Rabin's assassination, the second intifada, the ever-growing policy of separation and military reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the second war in Lebanon, the violent conflict with Gaza, hundreds of thousands of rockets, Israeli military air strikes and, eventually, some calm in recent years . In the same way that the Oslo process for Nibal means less freedom, for Israelis it means terror, rocket attacks and more exposure to an Arab world that hates and does not accept Israel.
These developments, I will argue, left Israeli youth (those who grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s) with a fear of peace, not because it is an unknown that holds uncertainty and possible deterioration - on the contrary, because they feel that they had a taste of it and were not happy with what they got. In understanding the effect of the past 20 years on the mindset of Israelis, especially the young, one should focus on two realities; the rollercoaster in and out of hope and the ever-escalating reality on the ground. I will focus below on three unique experiences that are fundamental in shaping the perception that young Israelis have about peace.
Do We Have a Partner for Peace?
Losing something you have is more painful than losing something you can only dream of. In the early 1990s peace with Palestinians felt within reach; when the hope turned into painful disappointment, people felt as if they had been slapped in the face, losing trust in their leaders, the process and the other side.
Rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have not eliminated the deep fears that lie at the heart of the conflict, the questions of Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state and Israeli recognition of its responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and lack of independence. In fact, they only heightened them. While leaders talk behind closed doors, actions on the ground, mainly settlements and violence, progressed and leaders' rhetoric became more and more disconnected from reality.
Israeli leaders played a decisive role in crafting the way the public understood the failed negotiations. Of the greatest magnitude is the idea that there is "no partner" for peace on the Palestinian side. This notion was born following failed attempts to reach a peace agreement while violence continued and is based on the Israeli historical narrative and collective memory. Building on entrenched Israeli fears, the "no partner" claim provides an opportunity for leaders to increase public distrust of the peace process and Palestinian intentions, thus reducing public pressure and enabling them to evade responsibility for the absence of peace.
Israeli yearning for peace is a constant element in public opinion. When assuming the position of prime minister, Israeli leaders are immediately expected to make progress toward peace. As politicians, however, their goal is often to stay in power. Where public expectations meet political survival, a dilemma arises: To promote peace a leader must make concessions, exposing a weak side, while to stay in power he or she needs to show strong leadership and uncompromising stands and provide the people with a sense of security. In light of growing Israeli support for the two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the "no partner" claim assists Israeli leaders in maintaining the status quo which appears to provide security for Israelis.
Israeli Leaders Cultivated Fear and Lack of Hope
During the last decade Israeli leaders have taken part in cultivating this fear and lack of hope as evident in a quote from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu:
The root of the conflict was and remains the refusal [of Palestinians] to recognize the Jewish state. This is not a dispute about 1967, but on 1948, meaning the very existence of Israel…. We must stop beating ourselves and blaming ourselves, the reason there's no peace is that Palestinians refuse to recognize Israeli as the national homeland of the Jewish people.1
A tipping point that broke Israeli confidence in the peace process and trust in the other side were events that took place between the summer of 2000 and the winter of 2001 - namely the failure of the Camp David II peace talks and the eruption of the second intifada - and, moreover, the way these events were communicated to the Israeli public. In April 1999, 65 .8% of Israelis thought negotiations would bring peace. In February 2001, 10 months later, this figure had dropped to 29.1%, staying more or less at the same level to the present day, when only 31.4% of Israelis believe negotiations can lead to peace (according to a poll conducted in January 2011).2
Who Are We Fighting and Who Are We Protecting?
A wise man once told me that peace means two different things for Israelis and Palestinians. For Israelis, peace means security; for Palestinians, peace means freedom. Indeed, for Israelis security is a fundamental need that comes before all others. It is what motivates young Israelis to be willing to put their life at risk and join the army. For this reason, I believe that the most significant experience that has shaped how Israelis of this generation view the conflict and peace is the second intifada, which we experienced as youth fearing suicide bombings in our streets and as soldiers fighting in their streets.
It is hard to describe the effects that doing Israeli army service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has on an individual, let alone on an entire generation, but it is clear that the experience of my generation in the army is very different from that of the generations before us. Our fighting took place in populated areas among civilians and not in battlefields where soldiers face other soldiers. Since the early 1980s and mainly after the signing of the peace agreement with Egypt, Israel has been engaged more and more with what is called asymmetrical war - fighting terrorist groups and guerilla fighters instead of states. While our parents fought existential wars, ours were civil wars. While our parents lay in trenches, we stood in checkpoints examining women and children.
Under the occupation, combat soldiers today are required to perform duties that are more suitable to police officers; they are given missions to go into people's houses in the middle of the night to perform arrests or take over the house; and they are sent to keep order during demonstrations, patrol neighborhoods or even escort kids to school. In the fight against terrorism they take part in targeted killing. They do so and do not talk about it at home with their family and friends. There is a cycle of silence that serves all sides - don't ask, don't tell. So the soldiers are faced with these stories alone and many bear the scars. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the occupation corrupts, most of us understood well what he was talking about.
How does one, or a generation, cope with such orders? Well, first, you explain to yourself why these are necessary steps to safeguard Israel and you feel proud for doing the best you can. Then you blame the Palestinians for forcing you into this situation. Eventually, you blame your government for not doing a good enough job to prevent it. And if all these fail to hold, which often happens, you simply don't understand, so you say to yourself that there is simply nothing to do and move on to concentrate on building your personal life.
The second intifada, which was one of the core experiences of my generation, left it angry and frightened. The documentary Ariel Sharon and the Second Intifada detailed the decisions that were made during those days from Camp David II, Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, the Israeli elections, the siege on Arafat's headquarters at the Moqata and so on. It was screened on Israeli TV and sparked a lot of discussion. It was the first opportunity for some of my friends to share stories with me from that time. One of them said, "Looking back on it and understanding the way decisions were made, I really feel the government played with my life." When you think about it, this is what led, years later, to the summer of 2011 and the social justice demonstrations.
But the terms and conditions of military service in the West Bank and Gaza (before the disengagement) are not only about the relationship or lack thereof between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. It is also the situation of being caught between the Palestinians and the Israeli settlers. In the past 20 years under the smoke screen of the peace process, settlers tripled their number. The more settlers in the West Bank, the more violence, the more soldiers are ordered to act against Israeli citizens. This creates a rift within Israeli society and intensifies the feeling that withdrawal would be impossible because of the price.
The third fundamental outcome of 20 years of a failed peace process is the issue of the price. For many years the equation for peace was simple - Israel gives territories and receives peace in exchange. The argument therefore surrounded the question of whether the Palestinians will settle for 22 percent of historic Palestine, or whether that will only be a step on the road toward expanding until there is no more Israel. As highlighted through the "no partner" claim, the issue of trust between the sides is fundamental in progressing toward peace. Additionally, trust in the process itself and in the ability of the leaders to do what is necessary to close the deal is needed.
In November 1995, something happened that brought me to write in my diary, "Peace is dead." It would change the Israeli political landscape forever, halt the peace process and remain deep within our political identity and consciousness. Our beloved prime minister, who was my generation's grandfather, was murdered by one of our own. He who promised us hope, to move us away from bloodshed and toward peace, away from violence and towards democracy, was no more, and something of that hope died with him. Rabin's assassination was the scariest moment in the history of Israel. It was no longer about an outside fear but about the fear of internal war between brothers. It highlighted the risk involved in changing the status quo, in promoting peace and striving for a different reality. It also showed the length to which those who are against an agreement would go.
The disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was another important experience. On one hand, it showed that evacuation was possible, but on the other it planted difficult scenes in our heads, again making the possibility of civil war within Israel ever so present. To many, it really started to feel that it was simply not worth it.
Another element that added flame to the fire of distrust in the peace process was the growing tension within Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinian minority, a group that until the second intifada was invisible to many. In the wake on October 2000, the bond between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and those living in the West Bank and Gaza was evident as never before through the demonstrations that took place in Israel in support of the Palestinian struggle. The violent measures that were taken by the police against these demonstrations resulted in 13 killed and served to break the hope of Palestinian Israelis of my generation of being treated equally under Israeli Jewish majority rule. It also complicated the situation for Israelis. Before then one could separate a peace that requires drawing borders between Israel and Palestine from the internal debate around the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. After 2000 the separation was no longer possible, which made things more complicated and reduced trust in the possibility of the peace process to really bring peace to Israel. Hopes that the Palestinian citizens of Israel will serve as bridge between Israelis and Palestinian have greatly diminished.
To Conclude - "Yes We Can"
We should not overlook some positive developments that the peace process has brought for the young generation. For one, my generation is less troubled than previous generations wereby the question of whether Palestinians exist as a people or not. It also seems that the general public has come to terms with the equation of two states for two peoples and is more concerned today with how to get there. And the global context has changed, as the international community became aware of terms and facts like the 1967 borders, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, settlements, President Mahmoud Abbas or Qassam rockets. It no longer sees Israel as a small and mighty country and no longer sees the Palestinians as mere terrorists. For these reasons and more, for those who grew up post-Oslo, the Palestinian national aspiration was part of the reality along with the Palestinian Authority and its president. It was no longer an issue of "a people with no land arriving in a land with no people," but a question of what we do with these people and how can we live together in peace.
Young Israelis want to be part of the big world. They grow up on American TV and fast food; they travel great distances after their army service and prepare themselves for doing business in international markets. They are also aware of the unique situation that Israel is in. They understand that since the Oslo Accords until the recent vote in the UN for non-member observer state status for Palestine, Israel is considered more and more as a state that occupies another state. But they don't need the outside world to tell them what they know from their experience in the army. The question really is how long this can last before something will have to give. Given the security situation in Israel, it currently seems to Israelis that the status quo is maintainable.
Israel today is like a boy who knows he must end his relationship with a girl but is afraid of the consequences of being left alone and perhaps without better options. It's the moment when one needs a good friend to serve as a mirror and tell the boy the truth: "This relationship is not good for you. You can get out of it. I will help you overcome."
U.S. President Barack Obama made a smart decision giving his public speech to a room of young Israelis in March 2013. His speech was even smarter, laying out reality as it is, providing hope and a genuine sense of understanding. I am sure it touched the hearts of many young Israelis to start thinking: "Yes we can."
1 May 16, 2011: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0.7340.L-4069558.00.html (in Hebrew)
2Peace and War index: http://www.peaceindex.org