International rumour machines give us little hope that the current round of peace talks will fare any better than previous ones. Both sides are like reluctant horses being prodded and offered carrots by a US administration determined to wring some historical mileage for President Obama and American pride. Left to themselves, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would not now be engaged in face-to-face talks.
The “international community” (whatever that is) has decided that a two-state solution is the only way forward for peace between The two parties. Even most Israelis now say they believe that. But then the same number of Israelis also say that they don’t believe it’s going to happen! Palestinian leaders tell us in English that they want peace with Israel, yet in Arabic they continue to make their people hate the very ones they are supposed to be making this peace with.
So is there any hope at all? Yes there is.
There is hope when 100,000 ordinary Palestinians are happy to work in Israel, even in settlements. The billions of dollars thrown at the Palestinian Authority over the decades has never filtered down to the man in the street, who is left struggling in an economy dependant on international largesse. Israeli employers are prepared to pay decent wages to both Arabs and Jews, who work alongside one another in settlements and joint industrial parks like Barkan or Mishor Adumim.
There is hope when a Jewish Christian pastor and an Arab Christian pastor stand together in public on the same platform, despite opposition from their own kind and, for Arab Christians, death threats and persecution. Religion is frequently said to divide, but when true Christianity is found it unites people across even seemingly impossible barriers. While Jewish and Palestinian believers are seldom able to meet their leaders make real efforts to talk, to work and to pray together, majoring on the things that unite them and not the things that divide.
There is hope when an East Jerusalem Arab taxi driver reflects that education could bring peace between the two sides and when Palestinian parents send their children to Jewish schools so they will have a better chance later in life. Most East Jerusalemites know they are living in the best of two worlds. They have all the advantages of an Israeli ID card and the highest standard of living in the Arab world, while being able to shop cheaply in Ramallah, Jericho or Amman (many Palestinians still have Jordanian passports).
There is hope when you can ride from Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem to Pisgat Ze’ev or Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem, passing through both Jewish and Arab areas and travelling with Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox Jews and IDF soldiers without even a raised voice (it’s a bit like the London underground; no-one speaks!) or a quarrel. The Light Rail system has had an amazingly integrating effect on the city. East Jerusalem Arabs travel to West Jerusalem to shop or work and soldiers travel to and from their duties. And it only costs £1.50 per trip. In fact the highly popular trams just highlight how impossible it would be to divide a city that in reality doesn’t want to be divided (but that’s another story altogether).
There is hope when an Israel-Palestinian chamber of commerce exists! Private enterprise is by nature pragmatic; it goes where the profit is. Palestinian businessmen are driving one of the liveliest sectors of the Palestinian economy – trade with Israel! What price boycotts in Tesco or the Co-Op in Britain if Palestinian shops are selling Israeli, or even settlement, products. It drives the anti-normalisation people nuts!
I could go on, but I hope you get the picture. You may have noticed what all these examples have in common; they are all grass-roots situations. Presidents and officials pontificate and posture, lie to one another and to their own people, deal in hypocrisy and false hopes. Ordinary people just want a home to live in, a job so they can buy food and a school for their kids. Their ambitions and hopes run to providing for their next generation more than to seeing how many governments they can screw funds out of. Not that the grass roots of any society is perfect by any means, but they do tend to be pragmatic and live in reality.
In Jerusalem, the reality is that people will get on with each other if you let them. Selfish and corrupt self-serving leaders cause the divisions, not Ahmed and Yoni in their taxis and shops. Many people have forgotten what life was like before the first intifada and before Yasser Arafat seized control of things. Jews travelled to Arab markets and attended Arab weddings, Arabs did likewise with Jewish counterparts. It may not have been perfect, there wasn’t a Palestinian state, but peace was present because people were left to get on with life.
The hope lies at the bottom, not at the top!