I have dedicated the past several years of my life to identifying the most promising young Israeli and Palestinian leaders and providing them with a platform through which they can build trust. In 2014, I started Our Generation Speaks, a fellowship program and incubator where emerging Israeli and Palestinian leaders build shared prosperity, values, and trust through entrepreneurship. Our model is simple: We find the best and the brightest, bring them to Brandeis University and MassChallenge for three months, and help them build social-impact startups and meaningful relationships. In the long term, they will build on the trust they created to advance their communities and our shared region. In the meantime, our graduates are creating jobs in the Middle East and inspiring others to do the same. The good news: It works. The bad news: It takes time, and we don’t have enough of it.
Twelve-and-a-half million Israelis and Palestinians live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, divided almost half in half. They can be organized in one state, two states, or in three states (one state to the Israelis, another to the Palestinians, and a third one to Israelis and Palestinians who don’t agree with the two-state solution). The one-state solution will be the end of Israel as we know it, since this binational state cannot be both democratic and retain its Jewish character at the same time (Jews would in fact be in the minority). Support for the two-state solution suffered severe setbacks, in 1995, when an Israeli right-wing extremist shot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to death, and in 2000, when a Palestinian mob in Ramallah murdered two Israeli reserve soldiers and mutilated their bodies. After these gruesome events, the two-state solution is clinicially dead, albeit capable of resurrection. The three-state solution, meanwhile, is nothing more than comic relief.
Public opinion on both sides has become more polarized in recent years. Extreme voices and opinions dominate public discourse, while reason and substance are ignored and marginalized. Young Israelis and Palestinians agree about one thing in particular: We have a desperate need for better leadership.
And make no mistake, it is always about leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked in 2015 if Israel will always live by its sword. He did not hesitate for a second before he answered with one word: yes. We deserve better. Palestinians have not held national elections since 2005. They deserve better. Living by the sword is not a powerful vision.
Therefore, it is time for young Israelis and Palestinians to take matters into their own hands and introduce a new leadership. After 20 years, Netanyahu is still the prime minister, Palestinians still don’t have an airport, a passport, or a state, and the Middle East remains the playground of self-interested superpowers. Palestinians will not change the Israeli public opinion without partnering with the Israelis who are committed to ending the occupation. Interaction leads to trust. Trust leads to engagement. Engagement can end the conflict. And this engagement should be committed to three principles.
First, while the situation is not working for either side, it must be acknowledged that the conflict is not equal. There are two sides to this conflict; one of them — the Israeli side — is clearly more well-off than the other. In which terms? All of them: personal autonomy, freedom of movement, economic and financial and social opportunity. Israelis know it. Palestinians know it. There is a greater sense of urgency on the Palestinian side simply because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less burdensome to the Israelis than it is to the Palestinians. Israelis should respect that and be willing to make immediate sacrifices for the sake of long-term prosperity and tranquility. It is the stronger side that is expected to act with compassion toward the other side.
Second, it is time for my generation to speak up. We should get mobilized and organize all the relevant parties and like-minded organizations under one tent. Young leaders should be on the front lines of each meaningful social process that is taking place in our region. Whether we build a new party or join an existing one, whether we harness the business community or the civic society organizations. Whatever it is, it begins with action. As is, the future of the region’s youth is being determined by a generation weary from past negotiations and by leaders who have lost hope for change. It is time to grow up, take responsibility for our own region, and reach some understandings. Each side would have to make sacrifices, but a lasting agreement would free up enormous resources, human and economic, for our generation and for our children. No young person should have to spend three years in the military and do reserve duty until the age of 40. Our generation pays and will pay the cost of the current situation, not just in shekels but also in time away from family, gaps in career, danger. We have no moral justification to sit on the bench and watch as older leaders fail us again and again.
A young Israeli leader can tell the settlers in the West Bank: My brothers and sisters, you were cheated by the Israeli government that sent you to occupy these lands many years ago. It seemed like the right thing at the time. Come back home. Somehow we will find compensation for you and a new start within the Israelis borders, which we will also define once and for all. A young Palestinian leader can tell the older generations: You will never return to your old homes in Jaffa and Haifa, it is just not possible. You were wronged and should be compensated financially, but we cannot pursue this unrealistic dream of promises to older generations while we stifle newer ones.
Lastly, Israelis and Palestinian should trust no one else. There is not enough paper in Boston to record all the failures of the international community to bring the parties to a meaningful agreement. Solving this conflict should be the top priority of those who live in this troubled region every day. The Palestinians are interested in US-moderated peace talks to the same extent I am interested in seeing my dentist. The regional issues of Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, oil, all trump the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so, in the absence of priority attention by others, we need to deal with it. It begins with interaction. Then comes trust. Followed by engagement through public service, which remains the most effective platform to reach a large-scale change. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.Ohad Elhelo is founder and executive director of Our Generation Speaks. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.