By John Lyndon*
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the lives of people far beyond the narrow strip of land that both sides are fighting over. It dominates the international agenda, preoccupying diplomats and statesmen from around the world, most of whom probably wish that this problem would just go away.
It is a very real electoral issue in America, where President Barack Obama's Israel policy seems to carry more political weight than many key domestic priorities. Even at a civil society level, events in far-away Israel and Palestine polarize communities, university campuses and sometimes even families.
Everyone, it seems wants this solved urgently; not just for the benefit of the people living between the river and the sea, but also so that the toxic consequences felt far further afield can be halted and rolled back.
OneVoice recently led a delegation of American and British business leaders and philanthropists, including actor Jason Alexander, on a week-long tour of Israel and the West Bank. We visited Sderot, where children live under the constant threat of rocket fire, overlooking Gaza, where many more children live under an ever-present threat of attack, a crippling Israeli siege and a repressive Hamas government. In Qalqilya, we met people whose lives had been torn asunder by settlement expansion and land annexation. Everywhere we went, we spoke to people who were tired, frustrated and fearful, longing for an end to a conflict that never fails to impinge on their lives each and every day.
Our delegation very quickly felt a collective sense of urgency and a genuine willingness to play an active role in bringing this about. In many of the meetings we held with political leaders, however, there was a marked disconnect between the realities faced by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians and the words, deeds and demeanor of their leaders.
The rationale for an urgent move toward a two-state solution is well known and compelling. The potential fruits of such an agreement would be shared equally in both societies just as the fallout of continued occupation may well be. So then why did it appear as though many of the leaders were more interested in talking about problems rather than solutions?
In separate meetings with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, we heard about how close both sides had come to finalizing a deal in 2008. Yet Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told us that "the time is not right; not on our side, not on their side, and - if I can go above my pay grade for a moment - not in the US either." Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon spent the best part of an hour telling the delegates all of the reasons why Israel should be cautious, move slowly, and wait and see how events play out.
"The world is in a hurry. We are not in a hurry." These words were uttered a few years ago by senior Hamas official Abu Bakr Nofal. It is easy to imagine them being spoken privately by most of the men and women currently in charge in both Israel and Palestine.
Time, however, is not on the side of the two-state solution, nor is it the ally of the moderate voices that hope to bring about such a solution. The political gravity within both societies is increasingly tilted in favor of hardliners, who seem to be actively engaged in a race to the bottom.
In Israel, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, representing the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, outflanks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forcing him to bring his government (already the most right-wing in Israel's history) further to the right in order to placate his base. Similarly, Hamas wins a tactical victory through violence, so President Mahmoud Abbas feels like he needs to harden his rhetoric in order to regain legitimacy.
The tragedy is that each party is doing this at the expense of their potential partner. Domestic legitimacy is increasingly becoming a bilateral zero-sum game, and recent events illustrate this all too acutely. The Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal may have empowered Netanyahu, but it also boosted Hamas at the expense of Palestinian moderates. Similarly, whilst the Palestinian UN declaration buoyed President Abbas' domestic position, it was - rightly or wrongly - seen as mud in the eye to many of the voices in Israel urging for a resumption of negotiations.
Waiting in the wings in both societies are those that hope to benefit from the status quo persisting, and the evaporation of what little trust remains.
In Israel, the nationalists, who want to step up settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, know that political polarization and time are the ingredients necessary to do so.
In Palestine, Hamas has long-preached a strategy of gradualism and steadfastness, seeing demography and a gradual sapping of Israel's strength as the best route to success. These twin agendas - each driven by a particularly racist brand of religious nationalism - are irreconcilable, and they set the entire region on a collision course in which compromise is impossible and tragedy is certain.
There is still time for the moderate camps in both societies to wrestle the agenda back from the hardliners, and to agree on a deal that ends this conflict and results in two states at peace with one another.
But in order for that to happen, the leaders must recognize the same disturbing reality and unsettling future that their citizens, international onlookers and everyone concerned with this conflict feels intensely. If they seem incapable or unwilling to do this on their own, then those very same citizens and international supporters, OneVoice's key constituencies, need to mobilize to make sure that the leadership feels the conflict as acutely as they do and wants an agreement just as urgently.
*Follow John Lyndon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnlyndon1