During the year 2000 and early 2001--prior to, at and after Camp David II--Israelis and Palestinians tried for the only time at the official level to negotiate a final status agreement. Since those negotiations failed, relations have deteriorated seriously and many Israelis have lost faith in the two sides' capacity to reach a solution in the foreseeable future. The current post-Lebanon war reality in which fighting still rages in Gaza, PM Ehud Olmert's convergence plan for the West Bank has been shelved and Palestinian internal governance is in disarray, in some ways constitutes a new low in the relationship and bespeaks a greater degree of stagnation than ever.
Precisely because things are so bad, this may be a good time to look again at the basics. A considerable majority on both sides appears today to agree broadly on issues like borders, settlements, security, water and economic arrangements between Israel and a Palestinian state. A majority appears to concur on the geopolitical model of a two-state solution. But what we learned in 2000 is that even near-agreement on these topics couldn't prevent the process from collapsing because we remained so far apart on the narrative, or "existential" issues: the refugee/right of return question and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
In the years since 2000, it has become apparent that the consensual Palestinian position on these two issues actually contradicts the underpinnings of a two-state solution as Israelis understand it and as UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 defines it: "an Arab state and a Jewish state" in Mandatory Palestine, i.e., a Palestinian Arab state adjacent to Israel, a Jewish state.
Ostensibly, Palestinians are roughly divided in their allegiance and historical-philosophical approach to the conflict between a large minority that supports Hamas' insistence that genuine peace with an Israeli state is impossible and the only true solution comprises Israel's disappearance (a plurality voted for Hamas in January of this year), and a majority that accepts Fateh's advocacy of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines. In fact, nearly all Palestinians insist on two "narrative" versions that, at least at the historical-philosophical level, contradict a solution that juxtaposes a Jewish state and an Arab state.
First, the Palestinian argument that there was no Jewish temple on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which therefore has no overriding national-religious significance for Jews, denies Israel's Jewish national roots in Jerusalem and in the Land of Israel/historical Palestine. It projects Israel as an artificial state, the product of colonial settlement by foreigners, which is indeed precisely the way most Palestinians, indeed most Arabs, see us. Israel could make peace with Egyptians who hold to this view because Egypt makes no claim to the land of Palestine or Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, thereby rendering the issue irrelevant to good (albeit cold) neighborly state-to-state relations. But the intimacy of Israeli-Palestinian relations--two peoples sharing the same land--makes this far more difficult.
The same argument holds for the right of return. The problem is not whether Israel will accept Palestinian refugees as part of a settlement or even the question of how many refugees. Rather, the real narrative issue is the Palestinian insistence that, regardless of the fate of specific refugees, Israel must acknowledge at the level of principle the right of return of all the 1948 refugees and their descendants, more than four million people. As Israelis understand this demand, if all Palestinians have even the theoretical right to return, this is because Israel expelled them in an unjust war. If the descendants of those expelled in 1948 have, in perpetuity, the right of return, this is because Palestinians' link to the land is eternal, whereas Jews' link to the land is not.
In other words, Israel was born in sin in 1948, meaning, once again, that it has no right to exist, that it is a foreign and illegitimate entity. This is what Palestinians in a Palestinian state next to Israel will teach their children in school. It is not an acceptable basis for a two-state solution, because it comprises the kernel of one side's negation of the other and opens the door for future irredentism and subversion.
Note that Israelis do not call into question the sacred and historical importance of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for Palestinians and Muslims in general. They don't demand that Palestinians and other Arabs apologize for rejecting 181 and trying to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948. They don't insist that Palestinians recognize that wars cause refugee problems, that the 1948 war generated as many Jewish refugees in Middle East countries as Palestinian refugees, and that each country should in principle absorb its own. They don't care what Palestinians think about the first and second temples as long as they acknowledge that Jews have a national-religious historic tie to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that must find expression in arrangements for its sovereign status and in respect for Israeli and Jewish rights on and access to the site, all without prejudice to Palestinian and Muslim rights. In other words, Israelis don't insist that Palestinians (or other Arabs contemplating peace with Israel) ratify the Israeli narrative in order to end the conflict, even though Palestinian logic dictates that we should.
If Palestinians cannot adjust their narrative to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in the Land of Israel/historical Palestine--and I see little likelihood of this happening in the foreseeable future--then we cannot truly end this conflict. Israel would legitimately fear lest Palestinian acceptance of a two-state solution and recognition of Israel be tempered by Palestinian adherence to a set of narrative beliefs that negate Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and harbor an agenda of eventually Palestinizing Israel through legal and illegal "return", subversion and incitement of Israel's Palestinian minority.
Meanwhile, we can and should find ways of coexisting with one another and with our conflicting narratives. We Israelis should dismantle settlements and withdraw unilaterally from as much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (but not the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif!) as possible in order to provide the Palestinians with the best possible conditions for running their own lives in their own political entity. We can reach partial agreements and solutions. But we cannot truly end the conflict.- Published 4/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The narratives that inform Palestinians and Israelis are important and dangerous components of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that are rarely touched upon by those who are trying to bring it to an end.
Their respective narratives have been used liberally by both sides for all kinds of purposes: first, as a tool for incitement and to secure political support and consensus as well as increase the hostility necessary to continue the fighting. Second, narratives have been used in order to justify each party's position to the outside world. This is especially important in light of the fact that the two sides, to different extents and during different phases of the conflict, have been heavily dependent on external support, whether from governments or public opinion.
The differences in the two narratives are very deep and serious. They encompass the whole array of historical, religious, cultural and political facets of the conflict. It is difficult to see a serious reconciliation process and lasting peace agreement succeed without dealing with these contradicting narratives in a way that will allow both sides to agree on a growing number of issues, thus reducing the number of issues they disagree on.
Some elements from outside the establishment in Israel have recently gone through a process of serious revision of parts of the Israeli narrative, particularly vis-a-vis the historical aspect. Many of the "new historians" in Israel have now revealed the lies that were erected to serve political ends in the official and non-official narratives of Israelis regarding especially the establishment of the state of Israel.
These are the kinds of initiatives that need to be encouraged and developed in order to proceed toward greater understanding. Hopefully, they will one day include other aspects of the Israeli narrative, notably the religious. The religious Israeli narrative has been solidifying in Israel and has now reached a point where top politicians in the last few years have based some of their political positions on religious claims. This group includes the otherwise secular former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon at a certain point in time, but a growing number of others as well.
On a cultural level, a certain kind of Israeli feeling of superiority over others, particularly the Palestinians and Arabs, is also something that needs to be addressed as a component of the narrative about the conflict.
The problem also exists on the Palestinian side, but with some differences. There is a difference between the positions, mentality and narrative vis-a-vis the conflict on an official level compared to the public level. The Palestinian leadership, until the recent victory of Hamas, was less influenced by an unscientific narrative then the public. The Palestinian leadership has historically been rather secular and thus less influenced by any biased religious narratives and relatively speaking more accurate when it comes to the historical understanding.
The problem of narratives on the Palestinian side is serious and real on the public level. The Palestinian public is influenced and compromised by certain narratives that need a lot of revision and education. The weakness of the Palestinian side in the conflict and the weakness of the Palestinian leadership internally, however, restrict the possibilities for debating and revising these narratives.
One of the possible constructive contributions from civil society institutions on both sides is to try to establish several arenas of debate on aspects of the respective narratives. Such an undertaking should include relevant personalities and institutions from both sides but also relevant third party institutions specializing in the issues. Such groups could establish the ground rules for processes of academic debates of a kind that could teach both sides about each other's narratives and also eliminate certain aspects that do not belong in such objective and academic fora.
Such an initiative could be extremely constructive in terms of confidence building and the narrowing of narrative gaps at a public level to create a situation more conducive to peacemaking between the two sides.- Published 4/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Historical narratives and peacemaking
by Paul Scham
In the aftermath of the second Lebanese war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost seems shoved to the side, at least for many Israelis. Yet it is still a fundamental cause of Middle East instability, and its root causes must be dealt with if there is ever to be peace.
It is usually assumed that agreement on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, difficult as they are, will settle the problem. These issues are well known: borders, settlements, nature of the Palestinian state to be created, security (for both sides), refugees (including the Palestinian claim of "right of return"), Jerusalem and water. All are undeniably important, and of course a comprehensive peace is not possible without dealing with all of them, and perhaps a few others.
However, there is a set of deeper issues involved that also must be dealt with. Both sides are uncomfortable with half of them, and insist on the other half. I call these the "intangible issues", and for Israelis and Palestinians they are as important as the "tangible issues" listed above--perhaps, in certain respects, more so.
These intangible issues are located in the historical narratives of the two sides. Until recently, the rule of Israeli-Palestinian interaction had usually been, as noted by Uri Savir in his history of the Oslo process, "no history". History was considered too hot to handle. In fact, during the 1990s those of us who dealt with the "other" side, whether as negotiators or in academic or NGO (track II) meetings, found we could generally talk freely about the present and the future, but the past would often cause tempers to explode and thus was shunned.
There was good reason for this, because the historical narratives of both sides portray a peace-loving people attacked and brutalized by another that wants its land. The peace-loving side has tried as best it could to find a workable compromise, but all its efforts have been stymied by the other. Both sides agree on this. They disagree, however, rather strongly, as to which of them is the peace-loving side. Most people on both sides are affronted to the depth of their respective national consciousnesses at the idea that their side has not, with occasional and pardonable lapses, done all it could (and perhaps too much) to solve the conflict.
While there is no space here to go into the extensive national narratives themselves, they are particularly important to two vital aspects of the conflict, namely, right of return and Jerusalem. For Palestinians, right of return is inextricably bound up with the central feature of their national narrative, the Naqba, or catastrophe, of 1948, and the dispersion that followed. Israel's refusal to recognize the occurrence of the Naqba except solely as a result of Arab actions, and its consequent unwillingness to accept any responsibility for it or to deal with the claim of the right of return is understood by Palestinians as an implicit, or even explicit, negation of their national existence. (Of course, Israelis are absolutely convinced that such an acceptance would lead to a flood of Palestinian claims for repatriation in Israel, which it would then be obliged to honor.)
While the two are not exactly comparable, the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish historical relationship with Jerusalem, and Yasser Arafat's claim that the Second Temple did not exist or, if it did, was located in Nablus, is similarly understood as a fundamental unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
What is needed is an acknowledgement of the narrative of the other; a gesture of respect that takes it seriously, but does not deal with its historical truth. Not that historical truth is irrelevant or unimportant. But it is the province of historians, while the historical narrative is the possession of the whole society. (In fact, the work of Israeli and Palestinian professional historians, even apart from that of Israeli "new" or revisionist historians, is much closer to that of the "other" than are the national narratives.)
Acknowledgement of the historical narrative of the other is not, of course, a magic bullet that will make peace possible. However, recognition of elements of the other's narrative and acceptance that the two sides necessarily have very different--and legitimate--views of the past, can help to lead to joint acceptance of responsibility, which will go a long way toward dealing with the claim of right of return for many Palestinians. This will not be easy, for each side's conviction that it bears none of the blame is matched only by the other side's certainty that it bears virtually all of it.
Ultimately, the conflict is not primarily about dunams of land or numbers of returnees; it is about full acceptance of the national legitimacy of the other. Acknowledgement of the other's narrative is a step in that direction. For example, public discussion of the separation of the "right" of return from the "reality" of return could change some of the dynamics on both sides. Likewise, Palestinian acceptance of the historical and religious importance of the Temple Mount and the destroyed Temple to the Jewish people need not detract from the significance of the still-standing Haram al-Sharif to Palestinians and other Muslims.
As Israeli negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein said at Camp David in 2000, "the peace process shouldn't be the arena in which truth is pronounced." However, acknowledgement of the importance of one's own historical narrative to the legitimacy of the other side may be necessary before we can finally settle on the tangible issues.- Published 4/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Paul Scham coordinated Israeli-Palestinian joint academic projects at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University from 1996 to 2002. With Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund he is coeditor of "Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue" (2005). He is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The narrative in the Israeli-Palestinian context
by Walid Salem
The word "narrative" is a very ambiguous one. Some use it to speak about the joint perceptions and collective memories in a society to differentiate between "us" and the "others" and thus express a concentration on a neo-tribalism that is no longer relevant in the new globalized context. Others use it to discover the diversity of different narratives within a society between one group to another, according to age, sex, ethnicity or any other such variable. This second concept of "narrative" helps to place it in a position not against the other, but rather to find "bridgeable narratives" shared by groups in the same society or across a divide. It also helps identify "conflicting narratives" between groups inside or outside a society.
At the same time, the narrative approach is risky if it adopts a position that a peace agreement between two sides in conflict is not possible until the two publics come to an understanding of each other's narratives. One can imagine how long a peace process will take--if it can ever succeed--if it is made conditional on a bottom-up process to understand each other's narratives. A different approach might be to make it sufficient to work with decision-makers, academics and community leaders on both sides to bring them to an understanding of each other's narratives. If achieved, this will no doubt help politicians to reach agreements on the issues at stake. It will help academics to develop new educational curricula that will include the other's narratives, and teachers to achieve an inclusive pedagogy. And it will help community leaders, including the sectorial leaders, to become actors for reconciliation rather than incitement and enmity. This is all built on understanding the narratives of the other--without necessarily having to agree with them.
With regards to the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one might find that a minority of Palestinians recognizes the narrative of the other even while a majority raises the question: why should a Palestinian try to understand the narrative of the other toward the same land? It was David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who said that, "if I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country." This frank assertion shows that it was the Palestinians that paid the price for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (and suffered another massive deportation in 1967).
The question is, should Palestinians understand/recognize the Israeli narrative about their plight? If they do, will it only deepen the asymmetry that characterizes Israeli-Palestinian relations? Or is it a question of Israel's recognition of its responsibilities for the plight of Palestinians, and including with it suggestions for creative solutions that are driven not only by Israeli demographic considerations but by creating the circumstances to ensure the right of equal access to human security for both Israelis and Palestinians? Human security in this sense includes the equal right of the two peoples for freedom from fear and freedom from want.
If this human demand for the recognition/solution of the plight of the Palestinian refugees and displaced persons is not met, then Palestinian fears will deepen that the justifications used in the past to create Israel will be used again in order to expand Israel into the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. These justifications have always been: the Palestinians refused such and such, therefore they bear responsibility for what has happened to them.
With that said, it appears that Israel should take the first step toward resolving the Palestinian refugee problem by understanding the narrative of the other side as a point of departure. This would create a positive atmosphere that could encourage both sides to respond to the "peace quest", which includes the development of a vision for peace that the other side feels encompasses its needs and rights. Such a vision should include recognition of the individual and collective rights of both sides to the same land, recognition of the historical victimhood of both sides, and procedures to transform conflict into peace through the implementation of a two-state solution.
This would be a positive political use of narratives, as opposed to their use as a tool to make Palestinians deliver concessions against their rights, or as a tool for expressing and increasing the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.
At all times, the approach to narratives in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been used politically. The issue now is not to disconnect narratives politically from the current Israeli-Palestinian realities on the ground, but to aim at making them a political tool that can assist the two sides finding ways to break through.- Published 4/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Walid Salem is director of Panorama, the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, in Jerusalem. He is the author of several books and articles on democracy, civil society, youth, refugees and peace studies. He was previously a journalist and a Palestinian National Council member.
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