younger israel and palestinian activists dream of a new peace
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A younger generation of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers want to be part of the dialogue about the “day after” the war, when Israelis and Palestinians are forced to grapple again with how to living side by side.

Though only 9 at the time, May Pundak knew that when her father was often away in the early 1990s, he was involved in some kind of mission for Israel, one so secret that she could not breathe a word about it to friends at school.

Her father, Ron Pundak, was in Norway conducting back-channel talks with Palestinians that resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords, the foundation for the two-state solution that has long anchored the peace process, and that President Biden recently invoked as the answer to the latest war.

Now 38 and a human rights lawyer, Ms. Pundak wants to revamp the Oslo-centered process, which has been mostly stalled for three decades. While she labels her plan a “two-state solution 2.0,” it is some ways a repudiation of the vision that her father and his generation had espoused.

“The two-state solution has become — and I say this with a broken heart — an empty shell,” Ms. Pundak said. “It started as a promise of freedom and liberation for Palestinians, but it has transformed into multiple systems of oppression, a lack of hope, lack of vision and lack of future.”

Across the line that divides Israel from the West Bank, the same frustration is palpable in Rana Salman, a 39-year-old Palestinian activist who shares Ms. Pundak’s dream of a political settlement. Her father once commuted to Jerusalem, where he worked as a hotel cook. Now, Ms. Salman said, her family was stranded in its hometown, Bethlehem, by Israeli military roadblocks erected after the war broke out.

Yet Ms. Salman is not giving up: She, too, hopes that out of the trauma of the Hamas attacks and Israel’s war in Gaza, a new peace process can be born — one that takes account of how much has changed since the 1990s.

“Whether we accept it or not, we’re living together,” Ms. Salman said. “We work together. We have mixed cities. We’re always stuck with one-state, two-state. There should be a third solution.”

Rana Salman, a Palestinian activist, has argued that Palestinians and Israelis must accept that they live side by side.Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Ms. Salman and Ms. Pundak are members of a younger generation of peacemakers who want to be part of the dialogue about the “day after,” when the guns go silent, and Israelis and Palestinians are forced to grapple again with how to live with each other. They acknowledge the hurdles to rearranging a diplomatic puzzle that has bedeviled world leaders and their envoys for decades. Even talking about peace at a time of scorched-earth war, they say, can seem fanciful.

But, Ms. Pundak said, “It’s crucial to have those conversations right now, as they affect immediately what happens in Gaza. The more civilians we kill in Gaza, the harder it’s going to be to get anywhere.” She is the Israeli chief executive of an organization, A Land for All, which has Israeli and Palestinian members.

Ms. Salman, the co-director of another group, Combatants for Peace, agreed. “For Israelis, this is the first time that they feel the same pain as Palestinians, since I would say, the Holocaust,” she said. “This is a huge test of whether people are really committed.”

Her group recently brought together Israeli and Palestinian members for a meeting that she said was anguished but inspiring.

Under the terms of the two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians would live in sovereign states, divided along the 1967 borders of Israel, before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Previous attempts to strike a deal have fallen apart over disputes about allocating land to the Palestinians, a problem that has deepened as Jewish settlements have proliferated across the West Bank, as well as other issues.

What has changed since the Oslo Accords, both women said, is the viability of a deal based on the principle of separating Israelis and Palestinians. With nearly two million Palestinians living as citizens in Israel and more than 500,000 settlers carving up the West Bank, they said the two peoples were irrevocably intertwined, each clinging to a vision of a homeland on land claimed by both.

The answer, Ms. Pundak said, was neither a single state nor a simple division into two. Instead, it would be two states, confederated in a shared homeland. Her model is the European Union, which, as she noted, was composed of countries, like France and Germany, which had been at war with each other not so long before the bloc began to come together.

“Eighty years ago, would you have expected German hipsters to live in France?” Ms. Pundak said. “But they do.”

To make such a confederation work, both sides would have to accept conditions, like the free movement of Israelis and Palestinians, the settlement of refugee claims and the authority of common institutions to handle issues like human rights, natural resources and economic cooperation. Palestinians living in Israel would vote in Palestinian elections; Israelis living in a future Palestine would vote in Israel.

Jerusalem would be a shared capital, she said, its holy sites managed by an international authority that included religious representatives.

Ms. Salman is a member of a younger generation of peacemakers who want to be part of the dialogue about the “day after” the war between Israel and Hamas.Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

After years in which the Israeli government’s attitude toward the peace process has ranged from neglect to hostility, it’s not hard to find skeptics for such ideas. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli-American lawyer, has built a career documenting what he calls the systematic expropriation by Israeli municipal authorities of swathes of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian capital would be located.

“In my 31 years of doing this,” he said, “I have concluded that Israelis and Palestinians do not aspire to share the same society.”

Still, Mr. Seidemann said, “I’m not telling May to stop doing what’s she doing.” He said it was vital for younger people to get involved in the peace process, to bring new energy and develop fresh ideas.

For her part, Ms. Pundak insisted that she was under no illusions about the hurdles to her proposals. But she said the time-tested pattern of senior Israeli officials working out the terms of a peace agreement, often with American counterparts but more recently without the Palestinians, was no longer tenable.

“If you have — sorry — 60-year-old white, male, Jewish generals trying to write down what a good solution looks like, and there are no Palestinians in the room, that just won’t cut it,” she said.

Ms. Salman said she was deeply skeptical of the involvement of the United States, given what she called its bias toward Israel. Her group has not endorsed a specific blueprint for a peace agreement, though the concept of a confederation appealed to her.

While she and Ms. Pundak live barely five miles apart, they do not know each other, and their lives speak to the vast differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ms. Pundak is working with her group, which she said was moving toward engaging directly with officials about policy. Ms. Salman is consumed with the hazards of daily life in the West Bank, where deadly clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, and attacks by settlers, were becoming commonplace.

“It’s not safe to drive on roads leading out of Bethlehem because of settler attacks,” she said. Bethlehem, she added, was “like a ghost town.”

For Ms. Pundak, the plight of the Palestinians is central to her drive for peace. She said her father, who died in 2014, viewed the Oslo Accords as a continuation of the liberation of the Jewish people that began with Israel’s creation in 1948.

Ron Pundak, Ms. Pundak’s father and one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, speaking in 2014, the year he died.Gideon Markowicz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“He understood that our liberation depends on the liberation of the Palestinian people,” Ms. Pundak said. “My dad was committed to the safety and continuation of the State of Israel,” she added. “But he was as committed to equality and justice, and he taught me that you can’t separate the two.”

“The mentality of separation leads us to think we can solve the problem by putting the Palestinians behind a wire,” she said. “It starts with fear, which I completely understand, but it ends in racism.”

Adam Sella contributed reporting.

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