A path to peace in Israel-Gaza conflict

The new Arab democracies such as Egypt present a different dynamic to help resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, such as the current violence over Gaza. New models for peaceful mediation are needed.

Israeli soldiers walk in a field outside the northern Gaza Strip Nov. 19.

The violence seems the same. For nearly a week, Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired rockets into Israel while Israeli forces have also struck Gaza. But what makes this latest conflict different from past ones is how it might end.

The Arab awakening has created a new possibility of dialogue for the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Newly democratic Arab states such as Egypt have elected moderate Islamists who, while more anti-Israel in their ideology than their dictatorial predecessors, are being forced to address pressing needs at home. They’re even forced to deal with radical, often violent Islamists who oppose them.

In Egypt, political compromise is now the norm for balancing competing interests. This dynamic of give-and-take, so necessary in a democracy, could prove useful for an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

The Middle East doesn’t have many models for mediation, especially between Israel and Arabs. Historical and religious animosities run deep. Personal ties are weak. Trust in any negotiation is often missing.

As democracy advances in the region, however, it opens prospects for peace. Dictators who once could use conflict with Israel to hold onto power are disappearing. More Arabs have a voice in the affairs of state, bringing hope of a deeper discussion about the differences between nations. Democracies as a rule, after all, don’t go to war with each other.

As Hillary Rodham Clinton once said about achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the hard work doesn’t begin or end at the negotiating table, it “begins in our hearts, in our homes, and in our communities.”

Perhaps the best model for Arab-Jewish reconciliation is a town in Israel dedicated to showing that the two nationalities can live together in a democratic way. It’s called Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, or the Hebrew and Arabic words for “oasis of peace.” (One in 6 Israelis is Arab.)

Formed more than three decades ago, the town has thrived with dozens of Jewish and Arab/Palestinian families living side by side in coexistence. They share a bilingual school and an ecumenical place to worship, and most of all, they’ve learned how to handle their respective fears during the many eruptions of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

As one of its community newsletters stated, “The families who live here have one objective in common – to prove that Jews and Arabs who dare to challenge the status quo of mutual fear can live together in peace.” (The town has a long waiting list for new families.)

The town also hosts a popular School for Peace, which has trained tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs to come to grips with each other’s “realities” through rigorous, guided dialogue. The school, like the town, is built on the premise that both Jews and Arabs have claims to land and neither side is going to win in a conflict. The only choice is to work out a peace.

Hamas and Israel will soon come to that same conclusion, at least in the form of another cease-fire. And Egypt, as a new democracy, will play a critical part. Permanent peace may be far off, but at least with the ongoing Arab Spring and in models of peace like one Israeli town, the roots of peace can grow.

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