As a self-designated foreign policy curator on Twitter (@slaughteram), I have a front row seat to the Israeli-Palestinian Twitter wars, which began with the Israeli Defense Force tweet warning Hamas commanders to lay low and Hamas, tweeting under @alqassambrigade, replying that Israel had “opened the gates of Hell on itself”.
Over the past week both sides have provided blow-by-blow Twitter updates on each missile and rocket fired and the damage done. More powerful and pervasive than the official tweets, however, has been the verbal and visual war unleashed on both sides, as Israelis, Palestinians and their respective supporters around the world posted pictures, blog accounts, news articles and opinions. Each detailed the blood and grief on the ground and ties it to a larger narrative of terrorism and indiscriminate rocket fire, from the Israeli perspective, and occupation, blockade and targeted killings in the Gaza Strip, from the Palestinian side.
Reading these streams allows us all to see the conflict through the radically different lenses that shape and distort reality on both sides; lenses ground from a mixture of history, politics and the manipulation of victimhood. It allows us to see how impossibly far apart Israelis and Palestinians are with regard to both the past and the present and underlines that the only hope for real peace is to fashion a credible and powerful vision of the future.
That vision is not going to come from the parties themselves – despite Wednesday’s welcome ceasefire. It has been an article of faith in Israel and the US that only the two sides – the Israelis and the Palestinians – can negotiate a peace settlement; that bystanders can help create the conditions for those negotiations but must not broker the terms of the settlement itself. Yet both sides continually find reasons not to negotiate and give endless justifications for why the stalemate is the other side’s fault.
In the end, too many politicians have more to gain from prolonging the present than committing to an uncertain future. Hamas leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of Gazans and the repeated levelling of houses, shops and infrastructure to bolster their position as the “true representative” of the Palestinian cause.
Their rivals in the Palestinian Authority have done their best to create a better life for the Palestinians in the West Bank, but will not risk their own precarious political position by sitting down to negotiate without preconditions. And the government of Benjamin Netanyahu benefits from the steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem that slowly make a genuine Palestinian state impossible, all the while convincing Israelis that they can literally wall themselves off from the oppression, discrimination and injustice flowing from decades of occupation and conflict.
It is time for the US, EU, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to agree on the outlines of a peace settlement that they could all could live with and put it forward as the basis for negotiations. The terms, which are already broadly known to anyone who has paid any attention to the peace process over the past decade, create two viable, secure and prosperous states that would be recognised and supported by all countries across the region. The vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis would accept such a settlement if they could see a tangible vision of a better future for themselves and their children and actually believed it could happen.
Governments across the Middle East now have a much greater stake in making that vision a reality. Whereas the political calculations of current Palestinian and Israeli leaders push against a deal, their Egyptian, Jordanian, Turkish, Qatari and Saudi counterparts are now operating on a different calculus. Particularly in Egypt, but to a lesser extent rippling throughout the region, newly empowered publics are demanding that they support the Palestinians in ways that could result in regional war if Israel were to push ahead with ground invasion of Gaza. Adding a wider Arab-Israeli hot war to the volatile politics and conflicts of the Arab awakenings and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a recipe for conflagration.
The stake of these governments in a definitive, durable peace is higher than it has been for decades.
The Arab awakening has also changed the picture for the US and to a lesser extent the EU. Many of the Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Bahrainis, Saudis and others that I follow on Twitter are reputable journalists, expert commentators and resistance figures demanding democracy and basic human rights from their governments. Their views are much harder to dismiss than the propaganda put out by Hamas and other Palestinian groups that deny Israel’s right to exist and openly support terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. Moreover, the pictures they send of a powerful Israel and a desperately poor and shattered Gaza are now echoed nightly by live reporting from Gaza by CNN and other mainstream news programmes. These images put an unavoidable human face on political abstractions.
It is time for a game-changer, of the kind that can only come from real political courage. President Barack Obama of the US and President Morsi of Egypt, perhaps joined by Catherine Ashton of the EU and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, must find the strength and independence to come together and reach a common position on the way forward, even in the face of vehement opposition from their allies and their publics.
Beyond Gaza and Israel, the killing continues in Syria, shattering the country and threatening sectarian fragmentation that will destabilise all five of its neighbours. Iran continues to enrich uranium and roil the region with its support for dictators and terrorists. Iraq faces an almost daily toll of violence on top of deep political dysfunction. Unrest simmers in Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds one of the most important keys to unlocking the iron cage of poverty, violence and political and religious manipulation that has imprisoned the people of the region for so long. This new round of conflict, as heart-wrenching and ugly as it is, creates an opportunity and even a catalyst to turn that key at last.
The writer is the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and former director of policy planning for the US state department