Infusing the Negotiations With Purpose and Legitimacy

09/29/2010 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Darya Shaikh Acting CEO, OneVoice Movement
  • John Lyndon Executive Director, OneVoice Europe; Blogger on Middle East

Our trip to Israel and Palestine in August coincided with the announcement that direct negotiations would resume in Washington, D.C., in September. The live press conference by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell, with Arabic voiceover translation, played on our taxi's radio in the middle of Ramadan traffic in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Cynicism washed over our taxi driver Hitham's face. He rolled his eyes at every word he heard. Though young in age, he'd heard all this before and like so many others, had his hopes dashed, seen promises broken, and resentment fester.

The following evening, we were in Tel Aviv, enjoying dinner with OneVoice Israel's youth leaders. On their faces, we saw the very same cynicism at the mere mention of direct talks. They too were old enough not to hope too much.

While some international news reports have expressed measured optimism at the resumption of direct negotiations, the feeling on both the Israeli and Palestinian street remained cautious at best and cynical for most. The message: Talks are meaningless without sustained and real progress that can be seen and felt by the people living the conflict.

This lack of faith is borne out of the countless failures of previous direct talks. There is a sense on the Palestinian street of being "blackmailed" into entering these talks; in Israel, hope for success is apathetic at best. The most common question we heard from both sides: "What will be different this time around?"

It's important to realize that negotiations for negotiations sake will not only stall progress and reinforce the toxic status quo, but also will do irreparable damage to the already frail two-state solution. It took 20 months to get each side to sit down again. If these talks merely amount to posturing and fail, reviving them yet again could take years. It is imperative that both negotiating teams realize that they could be playing with the very last reserves of their respective peoples' faith in this process and in each other.

Infusing the negotiations with purpose and legitimacy requires unprecedented commitment by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to go beyond talk of compromises, to actually make compromises. Hope cannot be created out of mistrust; it must be built and earned.

Do not waste our time, Mr. Netanyahu, if you continue to say you support the two-state solution, while at the same time insisting on settlement expansion in the West Bank and maintaining Jerusalem as the undivided and eternal capital of Israel.

Do not waste our time, Mr. Abbas, if you continue to say you support the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state, while at the same time insisting that all Palestinian refugees must be allowed to return to the state of Israel.

The burden of ensuring that the direct talks succeed does not fall on the leaders alone. The people on the ground must be a part of the solution. Israelis and Palestinians must make a giant leap -- not simply accepting a deal but, rather, demanding one. For too long, both peoples have been treated as passengers in this process. It is time for them to rise up as the guiding force and the voice of expectation and conscience, weighing heavily on their leaders' minds as they sit around the negotiating table.

Resuming negotiations may seem like a success in its own right to policymakers in Washington, D.C., London, or Brussels, but the people on the ground, whose lives and futures are hanging in the balance, are not as easily impressed. There will have to be bravery, compromise, leadership, and, above all, results.

OneVoice is in the final stages of launching an ambitious project called "Imagine 2018." Using videos and other media, Israelis and Palestinians will share their visions of the year 2018. There will be positive visions, depicting a Middle East where peace has been secured, and negative visions, illustrating the result of eight more years of this toxic status quo -- or worse.

Both futures are entirely possible, yet incredibly different. This multiplatform campaign can actually serve as a constant reminder of the crossroads lying before these leaders as they meet face-to-face to discuss the intertwined futures of their respective peoples.

The choices, and consequences, are clear.

Darya Shaikh is executive director of the PeaceWorks Foundation and chief operating officer of OneVoice. John Lyndon is executive director of OneVoice Europe. In 2010, OneVoice is focusing on the need to instill urgency into the peace process by launching Imagine 2018, a multiplatform campaign that depicts visions by Israelis and Palestinians of 2018 if a peace agreement is signed versus maintaining the status quo or worse. To learn more, visit http://www.onevoicemovement.org.