We need Palestinians and Israelis to atone


When the latest peace talks began, I was interviewed on talk radio in Montreal. I thought I was invited to offer historical analysis, but at the last minute the producers told me a radical Palestinian would also appear. "I don''t do food fights," I said. The producer promised that the host would never let the conversation degenerate - but it did.

The radical cleverly condemned all the region''s dictatorships and theocracies - lumping Israel with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Somehow only Hamas was a legitimate, democratic government. This stance allowed him to dismiss the peace talks and, perversely, define Israel as a dictatorship, because it dared to have peace with Egypt and Jordan while negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas. Trying to manipulate North Americans, he advocated one secular democratic state in Palestine, claiming that any Jewish state or Muslim state  was theocratic, oppressive, dictatorial, undemocratic, un-American, un-Canadian, and, of course, racist and apartheid.

This radical masked his ugly vision of destroying Israel behind beautiful words like democracy, liberty, equality. I told him he was trying to transplant the uniquely North American concept of civic nationalism into the Middle East''s inhospitable soil, forgetting that most of the 192 nations in the United Nations build on some ethnic, national, tribal distinction - including most European democracies. He was also being impractical, considering that ethnic tensions destroyed Yugoslavia and triggered civil war in Lebanon. Arabs, in particular, have never established a state treating Jews equally.

Finally, and most obnoxiously, calling Israel a theocracy treated Judaism only as a religion, ignoring Judaism''s national dimension. "Palestinians have spent decades demanding the right to define themselves as a nation," I said. "How dare you turn around and deny my rights - and my people''s rights - to define Jewish identity as we choose, as national not just religious." He replied with an absurd tirade comparing this fundamental right to national self-determination with Osama Bin Laden asserting his rights to create a Muslim empire.

I left the studio depressed. These hateful, pessimistic, anti-peace verbal smokescreens seduce naïve North American audiences, especially in universities. This self-righteousness exemplifies the Palestinian national movement''s great failures, including its inability to tailor Palestinians'' maximalist dreams to fit current realities, to take responsibility for bad decisions, to acknowledge complexity and to apologize.

Sure enough, Mahmoud Abbas made more demands, vowing to "pack his bags and leave" any conference if forced to make certain concessions. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat bristled at the suggestion that he might have apologized to Israel in conciliatory remarks he made online. "I never intended to say sorry to the Israeli nation, they are the ones who should be sorry for what they have done to Palestinians," he fumed. The addiction to feeling victimized is too great to take responsibility, even among those relative "moderates" who at least talk to Israel.

This year, the Jewish and Muslims seasons of reflection and repentance coincide. Jewish liturgy frames its ashamnus, its confessionals, in plural so we all take communal responsibility for one another. One of the most powerful Jewish prayers, recited daily, not just during "sorry season," says me''pnai chataeinu gelinu me''arzenu, because of OUR sins we were exiled from our land. This act of taking communal responsibility for our national fate paralyzed Jews for centuries, as we preferred breast-beating and maximalist messianic longing to action. Zionism in the late 1800s and early 1900s launched a pragmatic revolution to solve problems, to accommodate reality, to build a state not just dream about it. Zionists compromised repeatedly, especially in November, 1947 when the Zionist movement reluctantly but pragmatically accepted the UN partition compromise, despite the indefensible borders and the proposed internationalization of Jerusalem.

Establishing a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Israelis and Palestinians is premature. But both Israelis and Palestinians should do some soul searching - and atoning. As this season reminds us, it takes self-confidence to say you are sorry.

Both Israelis and Palestinians fear that apologizing would weaken their standing in world opinion. Yet Israelis can apologize for mistakes made, abuses imposed, suffering Palestinians endured, killing and maiming thousands of innocent Palestinians, men, women and children, caught in the crossfire - even if many of those actions were justified reactions. This week''s tragic mistake which killed 91-year-old Ibrahim Abu Said and his grandson Ismail Abu Odeh, 21, who apparently stood next to someone lifting an RPG, required a more heartfelt comment than the IDF''s sterile response: "This is not the type of result that we would like from such incidents." Since Israel made genuine sacrifices for peace in the 1990s under the Oslo peace process only to suffer a thousand civilian deaths when Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back to terror, most Israelis have ignored Palestinian suffering because it has been self-imposed.

Ironically, this moral numbness has spread, despite the Israeli political consensus swinging toward accepting the two-state solution compromise. Palestinian self-righteousness and violence along with the campaign to delegitimize Israel make Israelis worry that any apology will be used to negate Israel''s right to exist. Those extreme Israeli leftists who take their apologetics so far they repudiate any Israeli action, thus negating Israel''s right to self-defense, make matters worse.

At the same time, Palestinian apologies for extremism, rejectionism and terrorism would also foster an atmosphere conducive to compromise and mutual concessions. Some mainstream Palestinian apologetics without negating their losses in territory and in blood would help eliminate perhaps the greatest obstacle to peace today - the culture of demonization of Israelis, Zionists and Jews that perverts too many Palestinian sermons, classes, textbooks, and TV shows.

Atonement offers an opportunity to press what Barack Obama has famously called a reset button. As we reset our individual lives and relationships, let us also press a communal reset button. If we can reconcile with the past, we can start taking steps toward the kind of future moderate Israelis and Palestinians seek and can build together.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at [email protected]