The key to peace for Israelis and Palestinians is... identity

Thanks to Kerry, the two sides are close, perhaps closer than ever to such a new vision that will make peace possible.

John Kerry departing Israel, January 6, 2014 (photo credit: U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv)
John Kerry departing Israel, January 6, 2014
(photo credit: U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists that with “just six words” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could assure peace. Netanyahu proclaims that if Abbas, and the Palestinian people he more or less represents, would “recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” peace would prevail. But many view this as a ruse. In saying “no,” the Palestinians would be blamed for the failure of the strong-armed peace process that Kerry is indefatigably pursuing.
“It is not mission impossible,” says the US secretary of state, in a modest double negative.
Is he despairing at last? Or is he still so naïve? Neither. He gives evidence that the best way to predict the future is to create it out of the present.
He is an artist of negotiation who knows how to take powerfully symbolic public statements – like “you must,” and “never” – and reweave them into a new formula.
Indeed, if Kerry can get a new formula right, and I believe he may indeed be on the verge of just that (although it may not look like it for a while), we may finally arrive at a moment in which peacemaking as the art of possibility prevails. However, some new ideas must precede this formula.
First, the tired formula of “land for peace,” captured in UN resolution 242, which has served as the basis of failed negotiations for 45 years, can finally and fully be put to bed as the point of departure. Trading land for peace is the end of the deal, not the beginning. Next, we must finally wake up to the reality that the international system is built less and less on the impermeability of nation-states – as hard billiard balls bouncing off each other – and instead is constituted of a much softer underbelly of identity-groups – ethnic, religious, sectarian, interest-based – that cross state boundaries.
Success in complex negotiations of this kind is rooted in getting the formula right. On that foundation, details are then negotiated as a process of consolidating core principles into specific agreements about who gets what from whom, when and how. In short, the very concrete details about land for peace.
But in identity-based conflict, of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is paradigmatic, a vision of peace must come first. How is this possible when each side rejects so much of what the other views as basic and existential? For Israeli Jews it is essential that their Jewish identity, in all its complexity and proud and painful history, be recognized. For Palestinians it is critical that their peoplehood – their unique identity – is recognized and dignified and their people’s bitter dispersal is finally ended. Yet there is a stubborn Gordian knot that must be severed where these claims for recognition are mirrored by mutual rejection.
Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish identity of Israel – as Abbas recently reiterated, it “is out of the question” – is viewed as evidence by Israelis that Palestinians still hold to a genocidal agenda of “The Strategy of Stages.”
That refusal is seen as integral to a goal to eventually eliminate Israel slice by slice.
Israeli Jews’ demand for recognition of the Jewishness of Israel, suggests to Palestinians that the Jews just don’t understand that acceptance of this demand for recognition is tantamount to renunciation of the Palestinians’ existential legitimacy. It affirms Palestinian fears that Israel will, at best, continue to marginalize, divide and conquer them in a “state” no better than the reviled Bantustans of apartheid South Africa and thus will also continue to reject the specific, complex and dynamic dimensions of Palestinian identity.
So how then can identity provide a new formula, or vision, for successful negotiations when it seems it is the very source of their continued failure? Getting stuck over the politically loaded demands or rejections regarding identity misses the opportunity of using identity needs as the basis for formulating a mutually acceptable and overarching vision. The details – where deals get made and specifics eventually get done – would follow. There have been decades of work on such details – hundreds of thousands of person hours and millions, if not billions of dollars invested already – and for many on the inside, it is clear that along the lines of details and parameters, there is great progress. It is the larger vision that is still blurry.
Thanks to Kerry, the two sides are close, perhaps closer than ever to such a new vision that will make peace possible. And identity is not the barrier but the key.
What will it take to make peace? In the same New York Times interview where Abbas said “no way” to the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he also said that if Netanyahu believes in it “everything will be easy.”
The key to this belief, which is at the root of the conflict, is also the way to peace: identity and mutual recognition of how each side, without undermining the other, seeks its affirmation and perpetuation.
The author is professor of conflict management, resolution and negotiation at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of the recent book From Identity-Based Conflict to Identity-Based Cooperation, Springer, 2012.