The Israeli-Palestinian impasse

Above the Fray: Only with a broader and deeper dialogue, and shared pursuit of understanding the conflict, can its roots be addressed.

Camp David 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Camp David 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
On the surface, the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems illogical.
After all, each side knows the basic framework of a negotiated settlement: a two-state solution based on the 1967 border with land swaps that keep the major settlement blocs inside Israel proper.
Jerusalem would remain a united capital of two states, and the vast majority of Palestinian refugees would be compensated and remain in their resident countries or resettle in the newly created state of Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
These contours, coupled with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, represent what has been on the table at the conclusion of numerous rounds of negotiations in the past decades, with each round coming closer to finalizing the deal and then failing to do so. But why? And why the deep reluctance now by either side to return to talks if the contours are so clear? Because agreeing on suitable arrangements does not put to rest the deeply embedded and conflicting psychological dimension, religious conviction and nationalist narratives of each side that must be recognized, understood and addressed if a genuine end to the conflict is ever to be reached.
UNDERLYING THE Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars each side carries from a traumatic past. The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora has been one of discrimination, persecution and expulsion, culminating in the Holocaust, during which one nation sought to extinguish a defenseless Jewish people. The trauma of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis is unmatched in size and scope. Without question, the Jewish people have carried the scars of this past with them to Palestine.
Many Jews had been prevented from immigrating to Palestine to avoid the death camps, which added another layer of horrifying experience for the Jewish people.
With this past, once the State of Israel was established, it was seen as a fulfillment of both the secular Zionist mission and the biblical account of the Jews’ return to their ancient homeland.
Instead of understanding the implications of this horrific Jewish historical experience and their connection to the land, Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that if it did happen, why should they pay the price? For the Palestinians the experience of the “Nakba,” precipitated by the 1948 war was indeed ‘catastrophic.’ From their perspective, they were living in their own land – albeit under Ottoman and then British rule – for centuries. During the 1948 war, many were either forced out of their homes by Israelis or encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren during the war, making them refugees – an experience that has lasted decades. Israelis have never fully understood the significance of the Palestinians’ traumatic experience, nor how it has served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust.
Israelis often argue that since Jews left their homes across the Arab Middle East and settled in Israel, the issue of the Palestinian refugees must be considered as a de-facto swap. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by Palestinians, it also disregards the national aspirations of the Palestinians to establish a homeland of their own.
THE TRAUMA experienced by both sides prior to and as a result of the founding of the Jewish state was reinforced by wars and misdeeds that fostered a culture of mistrust between the two peoples. The Arab refusal to accept the 1947 United Nations’ partition plan was the first message to Israelis that the Arabs were not interested in peace. The wars, identified by the years they took place, 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, have strengthened the Israeli conviction that Arabs seek only to destroy, rather than make peace with, Israel. The Arab League meeting in Khartoum in 1973 codified this view, declaring the infamous three noes: “no to negotiations, no to recognition, no to peace.” With the launch of the Oslo peace process in 1993, Israelis and Palestinian began to speak in an attempt to find a lasting end to their conflict, yet with the trauma of conflict underlying their discussions, neither side believed the words of the other. From the Israeli perspective, they negotiated as Hamas and other extremist Palestinian groups gained strength and committed a savage campaign of suicide bombings across the State of Israel, only to be further intensified by the second intifada upon the collapse of the Oslo talks.
The Israeli view that the Palestinians do not really want peace gained further currency following Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Instead of using the evacuated territories as an opening for improved relations, they became a staging ground for launching rockets on Israeli cities. Meanwhile, from the Palestinians’ perspective, they negotiated as Israeli settlement construction grew exponentially in the West Bank. The Palestinians insist that Israel can’t negotiate in good faith as long as it continues to deepen the roots of occupation. Both sides are right to feel cheated, but it is no longer a question of right or wrong. If peace is to be reached, both must overcome the view that the other is insincere. The leaders of both sides, however, have not made any real effort to correct these perceptions, instead, they stoke nationalist fervor and angst against the other.
THE ARAB-ISRAELI conflict is typically viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet it is the religious component that fuels it. The Israeli narrative is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu implored Congress in his May 24 address, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond, between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.”
For many Israelis it is extremely painful to relinquish control of the West Bank, known as the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and it is inconceivable to surrender the Western Wall and see Jerusalem under anyone else’s jurisdiction. Similarly, no Arab leader would compromise on Jerusalem because of the religious convictions tied to the third-holiest shrines of Islam in Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Haram al-Sharif. Moreover, many Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the “furthest mosque,” which literally means Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, before he ascended to heaven. Although Al-Aqsa mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Sura 17:1 says that Muhammad visited the site where Masjid Al-Aqsa was to be built. This belief is not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, which further complicates any solution to the future of Jerusalem.
ALTHOUGH MANY realize that coexistence is inevitable, there are still strong voices among Israelis and Palestinians who don’t accept it. There are Israelis who deny that the Palestinians are a nation with national aspirations, believing that they can be given independence in municipalities, but remain perpetually under Israel’s jurisdiction. Similarly, there are Palestinians who deny that Israelis constitute a nation, let alone one that settles in the land they seek for their own. Too often leaders on each side have exploited these denials for their own political and ideological gains. For example, for the Israeli side, this has meant a denial of the dilemma of Palestinian refugees; on the Palestinian side, a denial of Israel’s genuine security concerns. This blind refusal of reality by influential voices on both sides strengthens those on the fringes seeking to delay a solution. The quintessential example of the denial of the need to coexist is the development of unilateral policies that signal an attempt to shape a national future as if it were possible to do so independent of the other side.
BY INSISTING on far-fetched formulas, each side creates a state of self-entrapment, locked into a posture without a face-saving way out. Israelis and Palestinians are addicted to missing opportunities and adopting harmful positions. Israelis insist that Palestinians have no jurisdiction over any part of Jerusalem, and that Palestinian leaders recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians perpetuate the fantasy that refugees will one day return to Israel, destroying Israel’s Jewish character. These positions only serve to impede any serious dialogue.
Overcoming these foundational obstacles to a twostate agreement requires more than negotiations between political leaders. Recently the idea of a conference hosted in France to spark Israeli-Palestinian talks was shot down. The Europeans may, however, be particularly suited to host conferences that bring together the religious leaders, historians and NGOs that engage in talks, without outside political pressure. Airing these issues and reaching a better understanding could impact public opinion and provide leadership with the necessary public support and political cover to accommodate each other.
For this reason any negotiations about the future of the city of Jerusalem, for example, requires in-depth dialogue between respected and independent Jewish and Muslim religious scholars. In a different setting, notable historians can meet to advance understanding among both peoples of the traumatic history of each side and how the narratives have been shaped in the past and might be shaped in the future to advance coexistence. Other conferences could deal with the lack of trust, the continuing self-entrapment and the denial of the realities on the ground. Finally, non-governmental organizations can help disseminate the findings, without the political baggage borne by the leadership. The European community would be ideal to host such conferences of dialogue because they don’t share the same religious biases of countries like the United States or Turkey.
Doing so would also acknowledge the helpful role that Europe and the broader international community can play in resolving the conflict. Only with a broader and deeper dialogue, and shared pursuit of understanding the conflict, can its roots be addressed, and ended on the political, psychological, historical and religious levels.
The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.