The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed and defined as a long-lasting historical one. In reality, it’s a century- long conflict, not so much about history, but rather about its interpretation. The historical narratives accepted by the mainstream in both societies contradict each other, on every possible level and in every facet of life. These conflicts of narratives lead to gross misunderstandings of the current lives, identities and intentions of the other side. They make a common language and mutual understanding impossible.
If Israel is perceived to be Western compensation for the Holocaust at the expense of the local population that lived here for centuries, then everything Israel does and is, is an extension of aggressive colonialism.
If Palestinians can hardly be considered a nation and their nationalism came about only as a result of an Arab struggle to annihilate Israel through war and terror, then anything Palestine does or is, is an extension of terrorist rejection.
The fundamental clash of narratives is related to the view of the historical roots of the two national movements, out of which stem narratives in all aspects of life. While Palestinians probably admit that Jews lived in this land centuries ago, they do not perceive Zionism as a historical link to the ancient Land of Israel and to Jerusalem. In the view of most Palestinians, including the Palestinian leadership, Zionism and Israel is a result of the Western world dealing with the European Jewish predicament, from the Balfour Declaration to the international support for a Jewish state after the Holocaust. Palestinians, according to this view, are a victim of a neo-colonialist drive by the big powers as a result of European anti-Semitism. Too often one hears the Arab question: “Why do we have to suffer because of the Nazi crimes?” The birth of the Jewish nation on its land, with Jerusalem as its religious and cultural center, is overlooked as historically irrelevant. Palestinians see themselves as the original inhabitants of these lands, descended from the Canaanites who lived under different occupations. They became a national movement, with the rise of Arab nationalism in the beginning of the 19th century, as part of the Arab revolt against Turkish rule and of the rise of nationalism in the world (not unlike Zionism).
The Israeli view of the Palestinian national movement is that it has no real historical roots and was born as a rejection of the Jewish state, in using force and galvanizing the Arab world to get rid of Israel. Golda Meir even said that “there is no Palestinian people.” We see ourselves as the Children of Israel, with our freedom born with the Exodus from Egypt, with Jerusalem as the heart of our nation and Hebrew the language of our forefathers. This gives us the right to see in the land our legitimate homeland.
The two historical narratives clash in the most existential manner. If this chasm of views persists, the definition and realization of common interests will become impossible and mutual mistrust will ruin any horizon of peace.
The two historical narratives can, however, coexist in parallel, as they constitute the authentic cultural and religious views of each people. And beyond that, for the sake of coexistence, both sides have to stop delegitimizing the narrative of the other.
The Palestinians do not have to see David Ben-Gurion as a successor of King David, and Israelis don’t have to see the ascent of Prophet Muhammad to heaven from Jerusalem as having a bearing on the Palestinian national existence. But both sides need to at least understand what the other sides’ view is. The sides must stop seeing the two narratives as mutually exclusive. It is not a zero-sum game. Both nationalisms are legitimate as long as they do not delegitimize the other.
It is not a debate about historical accuracy.
Each side is entitled to its view of the past. In any case, the past cannot be changed.
The same way one respects differences in culture, language, habits, political structure, etc., one needs to respect the difference in narratives and the rights of each side to hold to its fundamental historical beliefs. Palestinians cannot become Zionists, but can understand that Zionism is a legitimate national movement. Israelis will not join the PLO , but can understand that the Palestinian national movement is legitimate.
This mutual respect for narratives is highly important, as the hostile view of the other side’s narrative leads to a twisting of the other side’s current intentions – from misguided nationalism to permanent aggression – and conflict resolution becomes impossible.
With the prevalent views – where in Palestinian eyes virtually every Israeli is a colonist settler or an occupying soldier intending to kill the Palestinian desire for a homeland, and in the Israeli eyes, every Palestinian is an anti-Semitic terrorist out to annihilate Israel – there is no chance for peaceful coexistence.
Therefore also as a part of the current peace process, there needs to be a mutual recognition of the other’s narrative as legitimate.
Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and should be recognized as such. Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people, and should be recognized as such.
The political translation of this mutual recognition of narratives is a two nationstate solution, without occupation (i.e.
along the 1967 lines), Jerusalem – the center of the two narratives – as a shared capital, the right of return to the new Palestinian state,, an effective answer to the legitimate security concerns of Israel and to the Palestinian economic concerns, with cooperation in development of a modern Palestinian economy.
The mutual recognition of each narrative is possible and necessary, while understanding that we will never be able to agree about past narratives. Our duty, beyond mutual recognition and conflict resolution, is to agree on a narrative of the future.
What must be critical to both nations are not the shrines of their forefathers, but the well-being of future generations. A future in which two states live according to new priorities of social equity, economic growth, modern and good education for all, healthcare, employment, technology, water, energy, everything that really makes a difference in peoples’ lives.
For this to happen – to bury the conflict – by mutual recognition of narratives, and to build a different future, we are in need of real leadership on both sides; leaders who do not use history as a propaganda tool, who do not use historical suffering to make others suffer, who do not ride historical nationalistic narratives for political popularity; leaders who do not look for the other side to fail in conflict resolution; leaders who do not poison the minds and hearts of their constituencies with hate and suspicion.
We are in need of leaderships that reflect the good values of their history, respect the history and narrative of the other side; leaders who can be pedagogues for peace and compromise, not demagogues of conflict; leaders who can make brave decisions to overcome history and craft a different future. We are in need of leaders who will develop a new language of coexistence together.
Do the current leaders have it in them? So far, so bad, yet the following weeks will tell.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.