Americans think the “other side” is the problem when it’s really the solution
When we were building the OneVoice Movement in the Middle East, dignitaries, celebrities, and citizens alike joined us in asking Palestinians, Israelis, and global advocates for peace, “What are you willing to do to end the conflict?” The question was central to what became a movement of more than 650,000 people, from both sides of the conflict, who eventually realized the only real answer would require the individual involvement of all citizens – necessitating conversation, partnership, and even compromise with “the other side.”
How did we get to the point at which sworn enemies were willing to work together? And is this kind of partnership feasible in the United States where 4 out of 10 Americans think civil war is likely in the next ten years? The answer is yes, so long as all of us recognize just how wrong we’ve been about one another.
When the OneVoice Movement launched our Citizen Negotiation Project in 2003, we assembled a group of Israeli, Palestinian, and international experts spanning the political spectrum to draft a statement of founding principles rooted in fundamental values like national security, dignity, freedom, and economic viability. Our teams of grassroots volunteers took this Proclamation of Principles for Negotiation into communities from Israeli kibbutzim to refugee camps in the heart of Gaza, asking citizens if they agreed to this vision for the future. Overwhelmingly, Palestinians agreed to the principles, but cautioned that we would never get Israelis to concur. In Israeli communities, the same pattern unfolded with Israelis aligning to the principles but seriously doubting that Palestinians would.
To each side’s surprise, we uncovered enormous consensus on these principles, garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures (roughly evenly distributed across Palestinians and Israelis). While establishing a set of shared values may seem like a deceptively small victory, it was the catalyst for the collaboration necessary to advance peaceful solutions to the conflict. Orientation around a shared set of values created the basis for both Israelis and Palestinians to assume positive intent in one another, generating the trust necessary to create the space for conversation and compromise.
Those founding principles became the guardrails for our Citizen Negotiations on ten resolutions to end the conflict. On each proposal, participants could vote “yes” or “no;” however those nos could not be absolute. Citizens were required to assign weight to the issues that mattered most to them by allotting some portion of 100 negative points to their issue. If citizens applied most of their points to one issue, they would dilute their votes elsewhere, teaching them the art of setting priorities and negotiating with themselves.
By vesting people with the power to address issues formerly reserved only for elected representatives, the process forced citizens to exercise their responsibility to deal with issues realistically. Moreover, rather than focus on scoring points for their side, something that would lead to either gridlock or more conflict, people could shift their attention to building solutions guided by enlightened self-interest.
Our resolutions signaled to the government that peaceful solutions were wanted by many, helping to bring about the Annapolis negotiations in 2008. While the road to peace in the Middle East is still long and winding, the OneVoice Movement made important strides in demonstrating that partnership across perceived divides was possible and necessary.
Nearly 20 years later, here in the United States, the Left and Right are looking for solutions but facing a stalemate. But as was the case in the Middle East, just because we can’t see the opportunity to work together doesn’t mean the opening isn’t there. A new poll from Starts with Us and NORC at the University of Chicago reveals huge consensus among Republicans and Democrats on some of the most fundamental values underpinning American life. Across both parties, 9 out of 10 US citizens deem the following principles important: a government that is accountable to the people it serves; rule of law; a representative government; learning from the past while working to improve the country’s future; personal responsibility and accountability; and respect and compassion across differences.
Despite the alignment, polling also reveals a large gap in perception versus reality. In most cases, only about 3 in 10 Republicans and Democrats predicted that members of the other political party would consider these values important. In other words, we have strongly shared values (a lot of them); we have just lost sight of them. As Starts With Us has pointed out before, our vision has largely been clouded with the warped view that divisive but newsworthy politicians have imparted to us.
We have the power – and with that power, the responsibility – to open our eyes and look across the aisle and see not an enemy but a potential partner for change. I have been part of this work before and I know it’s possible: a dramatic change from destructive conflict to constructive progress can start with the majority of citizens who want solutions, and one small shift in their perceptions of each other.