This weekend I encountered two very different, yet at the end compliant approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Friday, Tel Aviv´s Cinematheque screened “The Gatekeepers”, yesterday, on Shabbat, the “Minds of Peace” initiative met for another round of their negotiation processes on Kikar Habima.
The very well received film “The Gatekeepers” is a documentary about Israels Security Agency, or Shin Bet (standing for the two initial letters of the hebrew name of the organisation “Sherut haBitachon haKlali”). According to its website, Shin Bet is “the national organisation charged with the defence of the state of Israel, its institutions and its democratic governance, against the threats of terror, espionage, political subversion, and the exposure of state secrets”. The film is based on extensive interviews with six former Shin Bet heads, providing astonishing insights into the organisation and the security policy of the state of Israel over the last four decades. Having seen many other films made by critical Israeli filmmakers and engaging with Israel’s ‘security’ policies before, the brilliant work does not evoke much additional consternation; sadly, one is already toughened. However, giving some of the most powerful ex-security officials of Israel a voice and relating what they say to actual incidents, is an incredible achievement of the film. What probably stroke me most about the film was that it showed that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, actually maintain very close relations on these levels. Both know their opponents pretty well, regardless if “peace negotiations” are ongoing or not. This obvious normality of knowing the other side´s leading figures, even by their first names and talking to them in person while having a coffee, shows the absurdity of the conflict which leaves both sides suffering and has been paralysing two peoples and a whole region for decades. Listening to these – now – quite thoughtful men, gives the impression that a solution is definitely possible and that they´d know very well how to achieve it. Therefore, the English title of the film is well chosen and, coming back to the blog´s theme, refers to the conflict as a border, a border with gates, for which some people are holding the keys in their hands.
The scene changes now from the cinema-screen to the “stage” of Kikar Habima in the Centre of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In a sandpit on Habima square, a group of people that gathered around a long table, discussing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict caught my attention. As I found out in the course of the event, these negotiations are taking place regularly and are organised by an organisation called “Minds of Peace”. These negotiations are constructed like a role-play but taken very seriously and participants are not random people but genuine representatives of the two sides, even if not official ones. In addition, the public is also invited to come and discuss the attached issues.
Not knowing first what this was all about, I got attracted by the scenery. There were adults, obviously very different according to their outer appearance, sitting around a table in a sandpit, surrounded by others who were eagerly listening, and next to them a handful of children playing in the sand. With the knowledge of what this actually was about, of course, the scenery made perfect sense. The sandpit, where normally kids get to know each other, test their boundaries, fight about tools, make friends and learn that the other needs to have their place as well; or where kids fight so much that the strong finally owns the place and the only solution for the weak is retreat.
Back to the negotiation table, the discussions were tough and when the developed agreement, following the two days of negotiations, was read out aloud, several protests were made and points had to be renegotiated. The result, of course, has no official political meaning as these are private people, but that they come together and engage in mock-up negotiations is very positive and a vivid example of engagement. It´s been a fantastic moment to witness, and the spirit of the event persuaded all the people around to applaud at the end and the two delegations shook hands and posed for the obligatory picture.
For me, these two absorbing moments profoundly touch upon questions of democracy and transparency. Increasingly pushed back, using security as an excuse, they are certainly not limited to the state of Israel, but practised by other states that also pretend being democratic around the world. What is especially intriguing to me is that after their retirement, politicians and other representatives of official posts often adopt a very different stance as during their tenure. The former heads of Shin Bet have definitely done so in the “Gatekeepers”. As an attentive listener, one constantly hears talk about constraints, internal and external pressure, complex political situations, and so on and so forth. I wonder where these pressures and mysterious constraints come from, if power emanates from the people, as the alleged democracies in the world pretend it would. Whose interests result in such complex situations? To my understanding “Minds of Peace” is picking up on this and therefore is a great example of real democratic power. People, who are actually affected by the prolonged situation on very different ends, are coming together to discuss options and possibilities, even if they occupy quite different positions. This ties in with Balibar´s claim that every public space is a political space, but not every political space (Levant!?) is already a public space, but has to be made so by the people. That is what “Minds of Peace” does, making space public.
Maybe it would be indeed better to let ordinary people negotiate as it is them experiencing the consequences on a daily basis and not politicians and officials who are under the command of dubious, intransparent interests; maybe they would be the better gatekeepers in the borderland, even before they retire.
 Balibar, E 2009, Europe as borderland, in: Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27(2), p 192
All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013