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Give Peace a (Last) Chance

Posted: 03/ 7/11 09:36 AM ET

As President Obama has said, recent events in the Middle East present both a challenge and an opportunity for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For Israel, the opportunity might well be the last chance to beat the demographic and democratic clocks for a two-state solution. For the Palestinians, the urgency to stem the tide of misery among its people, certainly in Gaza, has never been greater. Unfortunately, every major effort at peacemaking to date -- at Oslo, Wye, Camp David, Taba, Geneva, all twenty-six proposals and counting -- have simply been co-opted by the conflict; criticized, politicized, used to polarize and mobilize spoilers, and have largely contributed to peace fatigue.

Mercifully, the resolution of other seemingly intractable conflicts offers Israel-Palestine a ray of hope and a way forward, particularly in light of the change currently taking place in the region. In South Africa, Mozambique, Liberia, and Northern Ireland, we witnessed conflicts that were locked in violent cycles for decades, even generations, where multiple good-faith attempts at peacemaking failed, and where, eventually, peace emerged.

Why? Here are a few facts.

Destabilization. In a study by Paul Diehl and Gary Goetz, of the approximately 850 enduring conflicts that occurred throughout the world between 1816 to 1992, over three-quarters of them were found to have ended within ten years of a major political shock (e.g. world war, regime change, transitions to democracy). Events such as those erupting in North Africa and the Middle East today create optimal conditions for dramatic realignment of sociopolitical systems. However, the effects of such destabilization are often not immediately apparent and do not ensure radical change; it is a necessary but insufficient condition for peace.

De-linking. Today the Middle East conflict operates across several interrelated levels in Israel-Palestine and beyond, including the large canvas of Arab and Jewish communities operating outside of the region. Research has shown that the de-linking of conflicts that have become enmeshed is strongly associated with the termination phase of most enduring rivalries. For instance, the Arab-Israeli conflict became less severe in the 1970s and 1980s, as other rivalries began to delink, including Jordan's choice not to take part in the 1973 war and Egypt making peace with Israel.

Alternatives. The emergence of sustainable peace requires the presence of stable alternatives to war. Beyond a negotiated agreement, it requires the establishment of attitudes, relationships, policies and structures that promote constructive ways of relating. One reason the Egyptian-Israeli peace may come under threat now is that it relies too heavily on geopolitical interests of governments, and not enough on cooperation between various segments of the Israeli and Egyptian populations. The enduring peace in post-Apartheid South Africa is due, in part, to the more integrated communities there, which sprung from a multitude of interethnic initiatives that took root in the aftermath of the settlement.

Today, Israel-Palestine and their respective international advocacy groups can use these factors to steer the region toward peace. A peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians will go a long way to strengthen the secular or pluralistic elements within the populations clamoring for change in the region, which will be crucial for the survival of both nations. As widely noted, the two most powerful forces propelling the destabilizing democracy movements in the Middle East are youth and technology. And while the older, more established American-Jewish and Arab diaspora communities have become more vigorously opposed to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, the younger, more secular and progressive generations of Arabs and Jews outside of Israel-Palestinian are de-linking; distancing themselves from their respective establishments and less identified with the status quo of the stalemated conflict. If this younger generation can link-up with their counterparts and youthful members of both Diasporas through Internet social networks, they may further de-link themselves from the intractability of the conflict and push both governments towards reconciliation.

To the extent that this combination of grassroots leadership, youth and technology succeeds, it can provide a sense of viable alternatives; the third factor required for sustainable peace. The importance of the diaspora communities to their respective homelands, financially and culturally, can be leveraged to encourage and inspire the formation of on-going intercommunal relationships between Palestinian and Israeli youth. As President Obama put it after the fall of Mubarak, "And above all, we saw a new generation emerge -- a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears." Now is the time to inspire the Israeli and Palestinian youth to join their peers elsewhere and give peace one more chance.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University, co-editor of The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice and author of the forthcoming book: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. Alon Gratch, PhD is a New York based clinical psychologist and an author. He is currently working on his third book, The Israeli Mind: The Israeli National Character and How it's Shaping Our World.