The seemingly endless war between Palestinians and Israelis isn’t only about substantive issues of borders and land and sovereignty. It is, in essence, a war of competing narratives. This week as Israelis celebrate 70 years of victory over repeated attempts to destroy the miraculous rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, and Palestinians mourn 70 years of defeat, displacement and occupation, each side clings to its founding story as an affirmation of its very being.
One reason that peace between Israelis and Palestinians has been so elusive is that the real elements of the conflict — faith, memory, identity — have gone largely unaddressed. Diplomats focus their so-far futile efforts on the tangible issues dividing the two sides. But this is a fight over intangibles.
I recently appeared on a panel with Palestinian reconciliation activist Huda Abuarquob of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. A member of the audience asked us: Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians forget the past and concentrate on the future? Instinctively, Huda and I nearly shouted together: “Impossible!”
It was a revealing moment in the disconnect between the West and the Middle East. For Middle Easterners, Jews and Arabs alike, we are our stories.
We are formed by the cumulative memories of millenniums; we are contemporaries with our ancestors. Both Arabs and Jews, for example, cherish our ancient father Abrahim/Ibrahim not as a mythic patriarch but an extant example of faith and perseverance. And no less than our exalted memories, we are formed by our collective traumas.
As we enter the eighth decade of the conflict, the two sides are further apart than ever before. Palestinians see spreading West Bank settlements eroding the chances of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Israelis witness the constant denial of their country’s right to exist, conveyed by Palestinian media, schools and mosques. And with the U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem, violence in Gaza and the West Bank will likely intensify.
And yet for all the fatalism on both sides, the Middle East is in greater flux than ever before. Fear of an imperial Iran is drawing together Israel and the Sunni Arab world. Israel’s massive retaliation against Iranian military bases in Syria last week was greeted with quiet satisfaction in Arab capitals. Saudi Arabia’s government-controlled media publishes denunciations of anti-Semitism these days, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has declared there is no Islamic obstacle to recognizing Israel’s legitimacy. He has also publicly faulted the Palestinian leadership for rejecting past Israeli overtures for a two-state solution.
Along with respect for the wounds of the past, we need to recognize the maximalist territorial claims of both peoples.
This radically shifting atmosphere requires a new conceptual language for peace. Each side will need to honor the other’s narrative. That means Israelis acknowledging the shattering of the Palestinian people and the destruction of their homeland. That also means the Arab world acknowledging the shattering of ancient Jewish diasporas in the Middle East — a million Jews forced out so that today they are scarcely a memory from Yemen to Morocco to Iraq.
Along with respect for the wounds of the past, we need to recognize the maximalist territorial claims of both peoples. Each can make a compelling case for why the totality of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs by right to its side. For a Palestinian whose family fled Jaffa near Tel Aviv, what is now the state of Israel will always be part of Palestine. And for me, as a religious Jew, the West Bank isn’t occupied territory but Judea and Samaria, the biblical heart of my homeland. I understand why Palestinian maps exclude the word “Israel” because on my emotional map, there is no “Palestine.”
But solving our conflict will require each side to contract its maximalist dreams, a violation of its perception of justice. And each must acknowledge the sacrifice of the other.
A successful Middle Eastern — not a Western — peace process would also draw on religious language. In the past, diplomats tried to circumvent the powerful religious sensibilities on both sides to reach a “rational” compromise. But for us, a peace process between secularized elites lacks legitimacy. Moderate rabbis and imams must be willing to probe their respective traditions to justify painful compromise. This is not far-fetched: Meetings between Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders have quietly occurred even as talks between political leaders collapsed.
Finally, each side needs to acknowledge the right of the other to define itself as a people entitled to national sovereignty.
On the Palestinian side, one of the great obstacles to peace is accepting that the Jews aren’t just members of a religion but a people. In conversation with Palestinians at every level of society, I have repeatedly heard the same refrain: We have no problem with you as a religious minority, but we can’t accept your invention of yourselves as a nation.
On the Israeli side, much of the right denies the existence of a Palestinian people, insisting that it is a contrived identity whose sole purpose is to undermine Israel. Yet the majority that do acknowledge the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity understandably fear the creation of a Palestinian state when there is no sign of reciprocity.
Without illusions of an imminent breakthrough, Israelis and Palestinians can create an infrastructure for reconciliation resonant with our values and cultures. No outside power, however well-intentioned, can do that hard work for us. We need to hear each other’s narratives, and acknowledge that two rightful claimants share this tortured land between the river and the sea. Seventy years on, there is still no other choice.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” will be published this month by HarperCollins.
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