Even in a tinderbox, kids go to school, families work to put food on the table, people fall in love. The rhythms of daily life are universal. Yet the subtext to almost every encounter and conversation is the bitter dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over land and identity. This mood was heightened even more during my visit, which took place less than a month before the Israeli election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces corruption charges and a stiff challenge from Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff with the Israeli Defense Forces. “Conflict has been the most permanent resident in this region,” said Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a large Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem surrounded by several Arab villages. There is no physical barrier separating the Jews from their Arab neighbors here. While there is tension, Revivi and Muslim leaders in the area have open dialogue. “We believe in building bridges, not fences,” Revivi said during a discussion with our delegation of journalists over lunch in the settlement. But much of that cooperation has to be done carefully behind closed doors, he noted; when there are public expressions of goodwill and common ground, what Revivi described as “a small, loud, and sometimes violent minority” on both sides denounce them as betrayals.
Part of the challenge in creating a context for dialogue, according to Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is that Israeli society is structured in a way that doesn’t easily facilitate interactions between different groups. “People live generally segregated lives here and that’s exacerbated by the educational system,” Rosen said. Ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jews and modern Orthodox Jews have separate educational systems. Arabs are part of the mainstream secular system of education in Israel, but because ethnic and religious communities voluntarily self-segregate, there are few if any interreligious or even religious-secular encounters. In addition, all marriages in Israel are under the purview of religious authorities, and there is no state-recognized intermarriage. If you’re a Jew and want to marry a Christian or Muslim, you have to travel outside of the country. Rosen, who founded Rabbis for Human Rights three decades ago, has played a leading role in spurring interreligious efforts here and abroad. “We have to resist the zero-sum game where anything that is bad for the Palestinians is good for Israelis, and anything that is bad for Israelis is good for the Palestinians,” he said.
In Ramallah, I found reasons to be both sanguine and doubtful about whether that kind of breakthrough is possible. Home base for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization until Arafat’s death in 2004, this historically Arab Christian town in the central West Bank is now ostensibly led by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, elected after Arafat’s death, is deeply unpopular and viewed as an authoritarian figure leading a corrupt government where there is no free press and the judiciary doesn’t function, according to a briefing we received from Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. In a recent poll the center found that 60 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign as leader of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas is also regarded by many as an impediment to a united Palestine, given his tense relationship with Gaza, controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group that also functions as a political party. These divisions are exacerbated by the economic and humanitarian fallout from the Trump administration’s ending of assistance to Palestinians. The decision to terminate American funding to a United Nations agency that supports millions of Palestinian refugees is also a component of the administration’s plan to achieve what Trump has boasted will be the “deal of the century”—a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. His son-in-law Jared Kushner is spearheading that effort, and pushing Palestinian leaders to drop demands for the right of refugees to return to Israeli-controlled land.
American cuts in aid also threaten essential programs that help non-governmental organizations develop ties between Israelis and Palestinians, people-to-people exchanges that can change hearts and minds—the lynchpin of any lasting peace. U.S. policy decisions, and the state of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-controlled Gaza, make it hard to feel hopeful about positive change.
A visit to a high-tech firm in Ramallah buoyed my spirits some. It pointed to the prospect of how a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis, tired of the status quo, could shift the narrative. In a glass-enclosed conference room I met Tareq Maayah, the CEO of EXALT Technologies, a software-development center specializing in web services and mobile apps. Most of the firm’s clients are in Israel, though the startup also has major clients in the United States. “On the human level things work,” Maayah said, referencing how ordinary Palestinians and Israelis want to get along. The shared language of technology and business is helping to break down some barriers, but challenges remain. The Israeli government polices what kind of technology Palestinians can import. Maayah also expresses frustration with the hardline politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which he believes have made peace prospects and normalization more challenging. EXALT has been a part of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, launched in 2008 as a nonprofit by Israeli business leaders and economic organizations that work to enhance bilateral trade and investments between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Along with a bottom-line profit motive, the goal is to create social networks and mutual trust among people. “It’s the politics that are difficult,” Maayah acknowledged. “The problem is when you’re living in crisis you think in terms of survival and you don’t see the big picture or the long term.”