To engage with the other does not mean to submit

September 3, 2012
Sarah Benton

The critique by Rosemary Hollis is followed by the ‘obituary’ by Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib

The importance of the Bitterlemons obituary

Each of the key players perceives peace as desirable but not at any price. This is the message of the exchanges of views aired in Bitterlemons over the years. We still need to enable discourse that is ‘equal and fair’.

By Rosemary Hollis, Open Democracy,
August 31, 2012

Bitterlemons is a web magazine founded in November 2001, that grew to encompass four different publications and two virtual books, iPad and iPhone apps. The weekly magazine presented Israeli and Palestinian views on a selected topic, including those by founders Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and Ghassan Khatib, now director of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center. Beginning in July 2003, circulated a second weekly collection of analyses on a broader Middle East topic, written by commentators from throughout the Middle East and beyond, welcoming writers from nearly every country in the region. In 2002-3, was published in Arabic and Hebrew.

Funders, led by the European Union, supported the readiness of an Israeli and a Palestinian to undertake a task which did not aspire “to make ‘virtual’ peace and never presented a ‘bitterlemons plan’”, but sought to debate their differences in one space and raise the level of dialogue. Until now, except for holidays, they have never missed an edition. Everything published in the family of internet publications will remain available at It is an invaluable resource. But, as the founding editors have explained, eleven years later the project is now closing…

The obituary for Bitterlemons published this week by its two founders and co-editors, Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib, provides an important commentary on the fundamentals and trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beyond providing an opportunity to pay tribute to Alpher and Khatib for their exemplary contribution to our understanding of the nature of the conflict, their farewell to the Bitterlemons e-magazines raises several points that warrant further consideration.
Yossie Alpher and Ghassan Khtib (2)
Here I wish to address four of these. First is Alpher’s assessment that ‘there is no peace process and no prospect of one’; and second, related to this, Khatib’s contention that the prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict has been overtaken by a slide toward a ‘one-state’ option tantamount to ‘an apartheid Israel’. Third is Khatib’s lament that ‘Palestinians are rarely heard on their own terms’, given the pressure on them to respond instead to both Israeli concerns and ‘western-derived’ questions; and fourth is Alpher’s depiction of ‘donor fatigue’.

Over the last several years, it has been common for those of us engaged in the academic study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to place the term ‘peace process’ in quotes, to convey a measure of irony about a diplomatic drama that is patently not moving the contending parties closer to a peace agreement. During the 1990s a clear connection could be discerned between ‘the process’ ̶ internationally mediated and managed negotiations, agreement on specific steps to be taken by the contending parties and implementation on the ground ̶ and the goal of peace.

As of the turn of the century, however, the process collapsed in the course of the second Palestinian Intifada and Israeli counter-measures. For a decade, the international donor community kept up the mantra that the ‘peace process’ must be put back on track – but the momentum shifted from direct Israeli-Palestinian engagement in that process to a series of external initiatives, in which all endorsed the objective of a two-state solution to the conflict in theory but ‘the facts on the ground’ (another catch phrase beloved of Middle East watchers) kept accumulating in a way that eroded belief in the possibility of that solution.

US and European stakeholders in the peace process have proved unable to come up with an alternative formula to the two-state solution in part because, for all its drawbacks, it appears the most logical and principled compromise solution to the conflict. Also, because they and even the UN have formally endorsed this as a just and appropriate way forward, no one wants to concede defeat in the face of practical obstacles to realising their vision.

As the experience of the Obama administration has demonstrated, any would-be champion of peace prepared to contemplate forcing a compromise solution on the Israelis and Palestinians faces the prospect of losing political capital at home as well as opposition on the ground. Also, given the situation in the region today, even the two-state solution as broadly envisaged, would be no guarantee of an end to conflict unless and until all the stakeholders ̶ local, regional and international ̶ saw it as in their best interests.

As it is, for almost all the key players, peace per se is not an overriding priority. Each perceives peace as desirable but not at any price. This is the message of the exchanges of views aired in Bitterlemons over the years. The co-editors are right to celebrate their achievement in ‘enriching our understanding of Middle East conflicts and developments’. Yet herein lies a lesson that is not sufficiently appreciated, certainly among western policymakers and observers who, as Khatib indicates, still insist on asking questions derived more from their own needs and wishes than a full appreciation of the situation on the ground.

If only they were different
In connection with my own work with Israelis and Palestinians over the years, latterly with those studying for undergraduate degrees at City University London, I constantly encounter an almost wilful desire among western observers to impute to the conflicting parties views and positions which they do not necessarily hold. At the policy level, westerners constantly call on the parties to change or adapt their views – in the belief that therein lies the answer to resolving the conflict. Such thinking resembles a truism that simply avoids the issue.

No doubt the conflict could be resolved if either or both the Israelis and Palestinians changed who they are or at least how they see the other. Yet, as Bitterlemons has demonstrated over the years, being understood for who they are and how they see things is crucially important to both. And indeed, alongside the conflict over territory, Jerusalem and refugees, sits a passionate attachment to their separate narratives, their national identities and cultures.

It is in the nature of this particular conflict, but also others, that both the Israelis and Palestinians define their respective identities, interests and worldviews through reference to ‘the other’. Their national stories are intertwined and in their respective belief systems they share a common heritage too. Through Bitterlemons, interlocutors from both sides have been able to disagree about issues of substance but agree to be heard in parallel.

If the drift toward a one-state solution depicted by Khatib as Israeli apartheid continues, Israel will come under increasing pressure, both internally and externally, to define what sort of system it is and explain this in relation to its oft-repeated boast that it is the only real democracy in the region. For their part the Palestinian advocates of a one-state solution will need to explain how they will define national identity and its meaning for all those in the mix.

Donor fatigue
As noted by Alpher, the goal of Bitterlemons was not to forge agreement, but to let all sides of an argument be heard. And in Khatib’s view, the Palestinians are more often expected to be reactive as opposed to airing their own views for what they are. In this connection it is cause for concern that the donors who have funded Bitterlemons and other ‘track II’ endeavours, have tired of supporting such undertakings because they see them as failing to end the conflict or even mitigating extremism.

The fault in this respect does not lie with track II exercises. The problem is misplaced expectations ̶ a prevalent assumption that if you put conflicting parties together they will end up agreeing and if they do not, either the exercise is of little use or has actually failed. We learn from the Bitterlemons obituary that this disappointment is one of the explanations for donor fatigue.

Another explanation, we learn, is the unwillingness of donors to persist in the face of the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against ‘normalization’. Yet both campaigns carry an important message for the donors.

The efforts of Israeli right-wingers to curtail the operations of NGOs in receipt of western donor support speak of a fear of criticism and a desire to dominate the discourse. To concede to this is to fly in the face of the democratic principles that Israel boasts and the donors claim to want to promote.

The Palestinian anti-normalization campaign meanwhile, risks equating all contact with the enemy with acceptance of or even capitulation to the occupation. It buys into the same illogic as espoused by the donor community – namely that simply by engaging with the enemy contending parties will end up agreeing. In my experience this is completely untrue and in fact it is empowering for Palestinians to have a chance to explain who they are and what their red lines are and why, and to do so with the very people who thus far have been denying them their aspirations.

As explained by members of both parties to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland – when they hear each other out, in a setting that allows both free speech and safety from retribution – they learn that neither party has the monopoly on truth. Instead the reality they live with is the presence of at least two narratives and neither can eliminate or deny the other.

It is to be hoped that the closure of the Bitterlemons two-weekly e-magazines will not herald the end of all attempts to enable discourse that is ‘equal and fair’. Let the people speak! And let leaders in the donor community reflect on why they consider an endeavour that fosters a deeper understanding of the conflict is somehow superfluous in the quest for peace.

Rosemary Hollis is Professor of Middle East Policy Studies and Director of the Olive Tree Scholarship Programme at City University London.

Bitterlemons, the next stage

An innovative Israeli-Palestinian collaboration offering regular analysis of middle-east affairs is ending regular publication after eleven years. Its co-editors, Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib, explain why.

August 28, 2012

Yossi Alpher

Why we are closing

We are closing bitterlemons’ two weekly e-magazines. The publications that you, our readers, have known for the past eleven years will, with this special edition, cease to exist. You deserve an explanation as to why this is happening. It is not disconnected from what is transpiring around us in the middle east and globally.

First, for those not wholly familiar with the details of our operation, here is a brief summary of what we have produced and published. From November 2001, presented a weekly web-magazine of Israeli and Palestinian views, including those of myself and Ghassan Khatib, on a selected topic. Beginning in July 2003, circulated a second weekly collection of analyses on a broader middle-east topic, written by commentators from throughout the region and beyond. By the by, in 2010-11 we briefly published, a series on the Arab Peace Initiative. In 2002-03, was published in Arabic and Hebrew.

We published two virtual books and created iPad and iPhone apps. We attracted hundreds of thousands of readers and witnessed our articles re-circulated by hundreds of web-based and print publications. We welcomed writers from nearly every country in the region. Everything we published will remain available at

All of this cost money, received over the years from generous foundations, one individual, and donor countries, led first and foremost by the European Union. The donors welcomed our aspiration to involve the region’s influential figures, along with interested parties from beyond the region, in a high-level and civilised discussion of our differences. They supported the readiness of an Israeli and a Palestinian to undertake this task.

You, the reader, were never asked to support us financially. Indeed, we never even asked you to identify yourself to us, on the assumption that reader anonymity would increase the circulation of a controversial publication produced by Israelis and Palestinians.

We never aspired to make “virtual” peace and never presented a “bitterlemons plan”. Rather, we sought to debate our differences and raise the level of dialogue. Over the years, our internet and email publishing operation, based in Israel and Palestine, weathered an intifada, suicide-bombings and an Israeli invasion of the Palestinian Authority. Throughout, we never missed an edition except for holidays. Until recently.

We are ceasing publication for reasons involving fatigue – on a number of fronts. First, there is donor fatigue. Why, donors ask, should we continue to support a middle-east dialogue project that not only has not made peace, but cannot “prove” to our satisfaction – especially at a time of revolution and violence throughout the region – that it has indeed raised the level of civilised discussion? Why fight the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against “normalisation”?

These last two negative developments also reflect local fatigue. There is no peace process and no prospect of one. Informal “track II” dialogue – bitterlemons might be described as a “virtual” track II – is declining. Here and there, writers from the region who used to favour us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighbourhood.

Then there is the global economic slowdown. Even countries and philanthropic institutions not suffering from donor fatigue still have to deal with declining budgets for promoting activities like ours. Obviously, the donors have every right to do with their limited funds as they see fit. But they are nearly all tightening their supervision and review procedures to a point where the weight of bureaucracy simply overwhelms efforts to maintain even a totally transparent project like bitterlemons and to solicit additional funds.

After more than a decade, there is also fatigue at the production end. Even weekly electronic publications that don’t require old-fashioned printers and distributors nevertheless need to recruit writers, edit their articles and meet deadlines.

It’s time to move on. I, personally, do so with a sense of satisfaction regarding the completely unique Arab-Israel discussion format we developed and propagated for more than a decade. I learned endlessly from this endeavour. I believe we enriched the understanding of middle-east conflicts and developments among large numbers of people in the region and beyond. I hope others will continue this pursuit of better regional understanding.

I wish to thank our readers for their consistent support. And to thank Ghassan Khatib and the highly professional staff at and around the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in Ramallah for making our work together such a satisfying experience for more than a decade.

Finally, we’re not completely going away. We hope in the near future to keep the bitterlemons label alive with important alternative activities. We’ll keep you posted.


Ghassan Khatib

The arc of the pendulum

When Yossi Alpher and I sat in my Jerusalem office in the year 2000, discussing plans for the first bitterlemons web magazine, we never imagined that it would grow to encompass four different publications and two books, or that it would span twelve years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

That was before the second Palestinian uprising and its crushing losses, before the construction of Israel’s wall and the blockade of Gaza that have physically divided us, before 9/11 that made villains of Arabs and Muslims in the west, before the population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank had finished doubling despite the peace accords. And, of course, it was before the Arab uprisings that are transforming the region at this very moment.

In the beginning of this project, my hope was that bitterlemons would provide a venue for the Palestinian voice to be heard. And to this day, I remain proud that we seem to have achieved this – that top international policymakers were able to read the opinions of Palestinians from many walks of life and political backgrounds and engage their ideas on this forum.

(In this regard, it remains a criticism of mine and others who observe the media that Palestinians are rarely heard on their own terms. Instead, they are presented responding to Israeli concerns and answering western-derived questions, as if Palestinians have no independent dreams or visions. We must all do better.)

Often in this project, we as editors have felt lucky. In the foreword to The Best of Bitterlemons compilation published in 2007, I noted that we rarely had trouble recruiting writers. Despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel’s occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way. Still, we have been able to present the voices of security chiefs and political prisoners, military generals and farmers losing land, spokespersons for armed groups and peaceniks in an equal and fair manner – rather differently than the situation on the ground.

Nevertheless, this achievement is bittersweet as the scenery around us grows ever more dark and uncertain. Two decades after the signing of the declaration of principles that many hoped would usher in the creation of a Palestinian state and independence, freedom and security, Palestinians and Israelis are barely conversational. The structures created by those agreements have atrophied, corrupted by an increasing imbalance in the Palestinian relationship with Israel. Every day, there is new word of land confiscations, arrests, demolitions, and legislative manoeuvres to solidify Israel’s control. Israel’s political leaders are beholden to a tide of right-wing sentiment and Palestinian leaders are made to appear ever-smaller in their shrinking spheres of control.

We are now, it appears, at the lowest point in the arc of the pendulum, one that is swinging away from the two-state solution into a known unknown: an apartheid Israel. How this new “one-state” option will be transformed into a solution that provides freedom and security for all remains to be seen. We at bitterlemons are grateful to have been able to record over time the shift in this direction and hope the archive we have created will be useful to researchers for years to come.

And so, more than anything, we want to thank our readers and contributors (often one and the same) who shared their ideas with us and were not afraid to join this conversation. I personally would like to thank my co-editor Yossi Alpher for his tireless work on this shared project. The discussion will certainly continue – I am sure of this – until Palestinians achieve their freedom and self-determination by ending the Israeli occupation that started in 1967 and establishing an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza strip alongside Israel, thereby realising the international consensus over the two-state solution. Bitterlemons aspires to be a part of this, through new projects and platforms. But for now, we all wait with trepidation to see around the bend.

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