The Challenges and Benefits of Dialogue

Media coverage of the peace talks presently underway in Washington is generally pessimistic about the prospects of success. It tends to be depicted as formalized theatrics, with a “down-to-business” atmosphere, dark suits, hand-shaking, and canned speeches. Little, if anything, is truly inspiring. There are many political indicators that make the negotiations seem fruitless; the most apparent issues being Israel’s unwillingness to extend its freeze on settlement expansion past September and Hamas’ violent attempt to sabotage the peace talks.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have pledged to resolve the core issues of borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, settlements, and the rights of Palestinian refugees, with the ambitious expectation by the Obama administration that these issues can be resolved within a year. These pledges do little to sweep away the grey cloud hovering over the talks. There seems to be little will by either side to acknowledge the national narratives and aspirations of the other.

The overriding factor that makes this process appear unrealistic is the common knowledge that peace is not achieved by politicians signing treaties, which leads us to the fundamental question of what this abstract concept of peace really means. What is it, and what does it take to achieve it? It’s nothing tangible, it’s not a document. It’s an emotion – a feeling that comes and goes, like joy or sadness. It’s acceptance of all realities – what was, what is, what will be… a state of being with oneself and with others.

Politicians don’t create peace, the populace does. If there was sufficient space for members of Israeli and Palestinian civil society to meet, dialogue, and explore all thinkable solutions, perhaps they would be able to influence the leadership to reflect those values, rather than those of hatred and vengeance.

While there is little preventing politicians from meeting and making empty promises, there are many obstacles, physical, social and mental, both in Israel-Palestine and abroad, preventing average Israelis and Palestinians from meeting and engaging in productive dialogue. It’s this dialogue that’s so fragile, elusive, and threatened in the current Israeli-Palestinian situation. Threatened to the point that many have given up hope that dialogue is possible or worthwhile.

The mental walls are the first impediment to dialogue, and the furthest-reaching, as they affect not only those living in Israel-Palestine, but those abroad who are concerned with the conflict. These mental walls are built with blocks made out of fear, hatred, and prejudice – all the irrational, bigoted, and defeatist thoughts that keep people from succeeding in any situation, but especially in one involving a conflict between nations: “they’re not like us,” “they hate us,” “we can’t trust them,” “this is our land not theirs,” “we must teach them a lesson – we must take revenge,” “they don’t love their children like we love ours,” “they’re inhuman.” The biggest challenge to dialogue is the inner two-year old, having a tantrum, refusing to acknowledge anyone’s interests but one’s own.

For those living in Israel-Palestine, however, overcoming these personal, mental barriers is only the first hurdle to be cleared. There are also social barriers; those on both sides who attempt to unite in search of a just resolution are marginalized and punished. Israel increasingly criminalizes non-violent demonstrations, such as those held in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, where Palestinian and Israeli activists protest together against the separation barrier that has divided the village. Likewise, within Palestinian society, social deterrents against contact with Israelis persist.

Even those Israelis and Palestinians who want to meet each other, despite all the emotional, social and legal deterrents, encounter endless obstacles. These physical barriers to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians include, among other things, the separation wall, checkpoints, limits on travel between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and roads in the West Bank accessible only to Israelis.

Given that establishing dialogue is so difficult, it’s critical that when the opportunity presents itself, the dialogue is conducted in an effective way. The unique advantage of the human species our ability to speak, but speaking is useless unless coupled with the ability to listen. Listening, meanwhile, takes practice. It’s a skill that must be worked at constantly throughout life. There is a third component to true dialogue, too, namely the effective use of silence. Beyond speaking and listening, silence allows us time for thought and reflection.

Here in Montreal, I am a board member of an organization whose mission it is to bring members of communities affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together for dialogue. The Montreal Dialogue Group (MDG) frequently encounters many levels of frustration, as its members follow the discouraging developments in the land they care about so deeply. One key focus for the MDG is to get past the misconception that speaking is all there is to dialogue. For instance, one common problem is what’s called “reloading.” While one person talks, the other is thinking about the next point they want to make, thereby spending their time “reloading” their speech instead of listening.  

Another problem is when dialogue is treated as being synonymous with debate. In dialogue, the goal is not to win an argument or convince others. It’s about understanding where people are coming from, and understanding our own mental blocks that keep us from listening and genuinely caring about another person’s reality. Dialogue is only truly effective if all parties enter with the willingness to have their minds expanded, rather than a desire to change others’.

While the MDG is determined to make progress with its members located at a great distance from the conflict zone, the effort sometimes feels like it’s too little, too late. Nonetheless, dialogue has to begin somewhere, and it is a sensible approach to start with those whose only barriers are the personal, mental ones. In the process of nurturing dialogue in Montreal, the MDG can hopefully be a model for dialogue elsewhere, and continue to send messages of encouragement to Israelis and Palestinians who need it most.

Written by Ronit Milo, with contributions by Alex Weldon

6 September 2010

This is a personal statement and does not reflect an MDG position. It is nevertheless influenced by the practice of dialogue by the Montreal Dialogue Group.

Ronit Milo is a Montrealer and member of the Montreal Dialogue Group