“When you say ‘accept Israel as a Jewish state,’ you are asking me to change my narrative.”
– Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat.
“Every state has created narratives which help its citizen to identify with national culture. These narratives are the foundation on which the state is built.”
– Erica Mukherjee, Perspectives on Global Issues
Secretary of State Kerry’s well-meaning attempt to forge a framework agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian governments is based on the conventional Western perspective of conflict resolution. Western democratic nations that sign treaties overwhelmingly respect the words on the paper they sign.
But what happens when western democracies ask a democratic nation to sign a western- style treaty with an adversary that values tribe and clan over the nation-state? What happens when one party’s narrative is almost totally based on the negation of the other? While the media look through conventional glasses at the prospects for an Israeli- Palestinian framework agreement and pose certain questions, the view for those truly interested in a lasting peace should be through a more nuanced lens. Such an analysis raises questions that are more difficult.
Is a lasting Israel-Palestinian peace achievable if only one side accepts the legitimacy of the other’s narrative? To begin to resolve the conflict, American and Israeli negotiators should consider a western-style treaty only with concurrent recognition of the narratives of both parties. Diplomatic maneuvering, no matter how well meaning, can not lead to a lasting peace in this region without addressing the fundamental narratives of the adversaries.
For the sake of peace, would Israel be willing to express compassion and remorse publicly for the suffering of Palestinians without accepting primary responsibility? Would they acknowledge that there is merit to the Arab world’s disillusionment with the West because of the broken promises made to them by the British and French 100 years ago? Can Israelis, for the possibility of a genuine peace, acknowledge understanding and compassion for the descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees who have been used as pawns by autocratic Arab regimes? Convincing the Israelis would be the easy part. Most of the heavy lifting must come from the Arab side, which considers itself the victim of an illegitimate Zionist movement.
It is essential to understand how Palestinian Arabs think and what they believe. The Palestinian Arab national identity is almost exclusively defined by negating the Israeli narrative, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state, with precious few positive Palestinian nationalistic qualities.
Palestinian Arabs mark their historical time by memorializing what others perpetrated upon them. The quintessential narrative marked in time is the “Nakba,” the catastrophe of the creation of the State of Israel.
Delegitimizing Jewish historical connections to the land extends from mosques to school textbooks, from the PA press to the PA leadership.
They view the Jewish historical narrative as at best exaggerated, but more likely fabricated.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, I interviewed members of the PA, PLO, Hamas, the Jordanian Parliament, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
They all shared the same talking points about the Jews living in Israel. Uniformly, Israel is considered a colonialist enterprise – illegally imposed, and populated by foreigners with no legitimate right to the land. Almost all believe that Israel continually commits “war crimes,” targets Arab civilians, and oppresses defenseless native Palestinians.
Violence committed against Jewish civilians is rationalized as the only legitimate avenue available to an oppressed people.
This troubling narrative is not confined to Hamas, but is part of the DNA of Palestinian Arabs whether they reside in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Judea, or Samaria.
Compounding the problem is the western belief that all peoples of the world share its universalistic perspective. It is certainly true that Palestinians want to feed their families and prosper, but the West simply cannot comprehend that any people in the 21st century would choose self-defeating options over economic opportunity.
If choosing a better life means giving up on the goal of erasing Israel from the map, then unfortunately too many would choose ideology over prosperity.
Israel may be a reality, but to most Palestinians, it is not one that can be accepted for the long-term. That is why the United States and Israel must insist on an acknowledgment of the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland in whatever dimension are agreed to by the parties themselves. This would be one of three game-changing events, if published in Arabic and articulated publicly by their leaders.
The second game-changer would be if the international community could acknowledge that Israel has legitimate rights beyond the Green Line.
It must be acknowledged that Israel has been willing to relinquish almost all of its legal territorial rights in Judea and Samaria over the past 65 years for a lasting peace. Without this acknowledgment, Israel will continue to be branded a “thief,” forced to return stolen land. If not acknowledged, anything Israel retains in a future land swap will be viewed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as illegitimately gained territory. Occupation of disputed territory from a defensive war is not an outdated theory; it is an essential ingredient for a sustainable peace.
The third game-changer is the preparation of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab world for compromise. America must insist on clear and unambiguous public statements in Arabic on all of the lighting-rod issues.
If Palestinian Arabs and their supporters are unwilling or unable to accept these three public pronouncements, then the negotiation should transition to how best to improve the lives of Palestinians without endangering Israeli security.
Israel and the West need to reset their clocks to Islamic time and think in decades and centuries. Americans and Israelis cannot succumb to the false narrative that this is the last best time for Israel to negotiate with its adversaries.
Imposing artificial timelines tilts the negotiation playing field toward an Arab advantage.
We will know when the Palestinians and Arab worlds are ready to embark upon a path to true peace when Arab leaders prepare their people for compromise and end the incitement to delegitimize the Israeli narrative. Until then, negotiate not only on territory, but also on accepting the other’s narrative.
The author is founder of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™.