Why peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians keep failing
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Analysis: 50 years since the Six Day War

Why peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians keep failing

On the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, earnest diplomats and a new US president seem as eager as their predecessors to bring peace to this troubled place -- and as blind as those earlier failed do-gooders to the animating roots of this conflict

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A Palestinian protester holds a flag as he stands near the security fence during a protest in Bil'in in September, 2011 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
A Palestinian protester holds a flag as he stands near the security fence during a protest in Bil'in in September, 2011 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

For the past 50 years, Palestinians and Israelis have been subjected to the uniquely corrosive institution of belligerent occupation. For fully 25 of those years, they have been subjected to the almost equally scarring peace process that tried to end it. That’s not a flippant comment. The peace process managed to stimulate and intensify the centrifugal narratives on either side: it incentivized Hamas’s steady escalation in brutality, the corresponding — and, for peace prospects, devastating — Israeli public disillusionment, and the anxious race by the ideological settlement movement to expand Israeli settlement deep inside the West Bank in any way it could. It brought all the anxieties, terrors and resistance of a real peace — without delivering the sides any closer to reconciliation or resolution.

And that’s no accident. The peace process was forged by a class of individuals possessing an exceptionally well-developed capacity for selective blindness. Some Israeli leaders — Yitzhak Rabin, for instance — believed they could forge with PLO leader Yasser Arafat the sort of cold but dependable standoff Israel had maintained with each Egyptian dictator since Anwar Sadat. Other Israelis — Yossi Beilin is one example — believed they were negotiating a real reconciliation, apparently because they themselves yearned for it so intensely that they could not really fathom that it might not be reciprocated by the other side. Both of these sorts of Israelis were determined to ignore the domestic Palestinian discourse advanced by Arafat and others that resisted reconciliation, elevated the ideological rejection of Israel to the level of civic religion and openly glorified brutality against Israelis — and that was in the happy early years of Oslo peacemaking, the mid-1990s to which more than a few of today’s despairing progressives look for inspiration.

The Palestinian side, too, was gripped by a strategic blindness that transformed peacemaking efforts into a recipe for permanent war. The PLO turned to peace talks after the First Gulf War, when American power in the region was on the ascendant. It was a strategic concession, not a historic turnaround. The fundamental Palestinian predicament, even today, is not in any simple sense the specific Israeli presence in the West Bank. Fatah was founded in 1964, not 1967, and saw its mission as addressing a deeper and older problem than the one being marked this week — the problem of a nation dispossessed of its homeland, and whose very identity coalesced around that loss. It is Israel itself, invasive, Jewish, a standing reproach to Arab powerlessness and decline — and more galling, to Muslim incapacity in defending the shrines at Jerusalem’s sacred center.

Palestinians take part in a violent protest in front of Israeli security forces following a Friday afternoon prayer service in solidarity with Palestinian security prisoners, outside Nablus on May 26, 2017. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP Photo)
Palestinians take part in a violent protest in front of Israeli security forces following a Friday afternoon prayer service in solidarity with Palestinian security prisoners, outside Nablus on May 26, 2017. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP Photo)

With such deafening emotions pulsing through Palestinian political discourse throughout the years of peace processing, perhaps it is no wonder no Palestinian leader ever seems to have paused, looked carefully at the Israelis across the divide, and discovered that this challenge to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim worlds was no mere colonialist political project, as so much Arab propaganda has proclaimed over the decades. They might have noticed that Jewish Israelis had a distinct culture and shared history, their own language and identity — and more to the point, nowhere else to go. This realization would have made the strategic turn toward terrorism taken by Hamas and parts of Fatah during those peacemaking years nonsensical. One can murder colonists until they return to their home country or tyrants until they abandon their unjust oppression. But how does one terrorize a nation with nowhere else to go? The Israelis are no more capable of resolving the Palestinians’ primordial predicament of displacement — for example, by fulfilling their redemption fantasy of return across the Green Line — than the Palestinians are of leaving this land quietly to the Jews.

Earnest diplomats and ideologues, too-clever politicians with dreams of Nobel Prizes, all bathed in global adulation and funds, and all stubbornly blind to the most fundamental anxieties and yearnings of the two sides — this, too, is part of the legacy being marked on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.

Enter President Trump

“There are many things that can happen now that could never have happened before,” US President Donald Trump proclaimed on his visit to Israel last month as he declared his desire to finally bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

There is little doubt among Israelis that Trump earnestly hopes to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli media has dwelt at length on his appointment of two of his closest confidants, son-in-law Jared Kushner and trusted adviser of two decades Jason Greenblatt, to the task. It hardly matters whether he is motivated by magnanimous humanitarianism, hard-nosed policy thinking or merely the validation of an outsized ego; all three motivations were at work with his predecessor Barack Obama, most Israelis will tell you, and presumably all three will be present in his successor’s efforts as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

But perhaps Israelis and Palestinians can be forgiven their skepticism of this latest effort, even as their leaders go out of their way to show a willingness to cooperate so as not to be blamed for the coming failure.

Repeated debilitating failure has had one positive outcome: there is less blindness among ordinary folk on either side. Most Palestinians no longer believe the Israelis can be dislodged. Most Israelis do not believe the current state of Palestinian politics is able to reciprocate Israeli concessions with peace. Whether one laments or celebrates these realizations is beside the point; they constitute an awakening for each side to some of the fundamental realities and anxieties of the other.

Urgency

The cynical despondency that now grips Israelis and Palestinians is arguably healthier than a half-blind, violence-inducing peace process, but pessimism alone does not absolve the sides from the unvarnished realities that still cry out for resolution.

After 50 years, many Palestinians now ask if it is still reasonable to expect that they will ever become free of Israel, and if it is not, what that might mean for their future. Other Palestinians — the divides are as well-worn and predictable as everything else in this long-running war — will point to the passage of time as proof that implacable, immovable Israel is no mere political problem, but a cosmic-spiritual one to be overcome through tenacious sacred war. Israelis, too, divide in all the old ways. Some lament the self-made trap Israel laid for itself by allowing settlements to grow in the West Bank, others lament the self-made trap the Palestinians laid for themselves by making previous Israeli withdrawals end in bloodshed and disaster, and still others celebrate a simpler story: the 50-year anniversary, a Biblical yovel, of the Jews’ return to surging success in their once-and-future spiritual heartland.

All these visions and anxieties are ultimately arguments about the passage of time, about the meaning and purpose of history.

It is the sheer durability of the occupation, after all, that makes it a bad thing, that turns a legal instrument originally conceived by the authors of the Fourth Geneva Convention as a means for protecting civilians in wartime into the permanent powerlessness and confining liminality in which West Bank Palestinians live, and which gives their situation its moral urgency and resonance.

A man praying at the illegal outpost of Amona, with a view of West Bank settlements, on February 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A man praying at the illegal outpost of Amona, with a view of West Bank settlements, on February 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As a new generation of earnest diplomats champs at the bit for a chance at resolving this stubborn conflict, and as the very real suffering of two peoples calls out for a solution no one has yet been able to deliver, it is worth examining the two sides’ deeper impulses and assumptions that have been so steadfastly ignored by the peacemakers of yesteryear — and without which no new peace attempt is likely to end any differently from the previous ones.

Which Abbas?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to embody a great many opposing impulses in the Palestinian national movement. Ostensibly the heir to Arafat’s violent meshing of Islamism and anticolonial nationalism, the octogenarian Abbas has spent the better part of the past two decades battling against the very violence and terrorism that Arafat so eagerly promoted. Yet like his predecessor, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to lionize and celebrate the killers of Israeli civilians, naming city streets and schools after them and providing large budgets for their families’ welfare from the PA’s paltry treasury.

The contradictions don’t end there. Abbas demands Palestinian independence, but has vehemently opposed unilateral Israeli withdrawals such as the 2005 pullout from Gaza, as though how Palestine is liberated is more important to him than that it is liberated.

Abbas’s relationship with Israel’s Arab citizens is no less bewildering. One example: He is adamant that they must never be given citizenship in the new independent state of Palestine.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, second right, review an honor guard at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, second right, review an honor guard at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017.
(Thomas Coex/AFP)

In 2009, in a conversation with Palestinian negotiators leaked to the British daily The Guardian, Abbas was asked point-blank by an Israeli Arab member of the PA’s negotiating team if he, the Israeli, would be eligible for Palestinian citizenship.

“The answer, strategically, is no,” Abbas replied. “You should stay where you, protect your rights are [sic] and preserve your community. You don’t need a passport to prove that you are a Palestinian. In 1948, Palestinians in Israel were 138,000 and now above a million. That homeland is your homeland. You must remain there and this does not detract whatsoever from the fact that you are Arabs and Palestinians…Raise two banners. Equality [in Israel] and an independent state for your brothers in the occupied territory.”

This was not a one-off comment. Five years later, in a November 2014 interview with the Egyptian daily Akhbar al-Yawm, translated by MEMRI, Abbas said, “Netanyahu once told me that it was an ‘idea from hell,’ from his perspective, for him to give me the Triangle [an area in northern Israel densely populated with Arab towns] and everything in it. It was occupied in 1949 and at that time it had 38,000 residents. Today, it probably has about 400,000 residents. I said: ‘I will not take anyone. Forget it, because honestly, I will not allow, or force, any Arab to relinquish his Israeli citizenship.’ You might be surprised, but this is important. As far as I’m concerned, this is sacred.”

Not only would he refuse to give Palestinian citizenship to Palestinian-Israelis, he would refuse to accept any part of Israel where Palestinian-Israelis live as part of a newly liberated Palestinian state.

He didn’t stop there. “For example, in the fourth round of the release of our Palestinian prisoners [as a trust-building measure during the 2014 peace talks], 15 of the 30 are 1948 Arabs [i.e., Israeli Arabs]. [The Israelis] told me: ‘Take them to the West Bank and they will relinquish their citizenship.’ I told them: ‘This is impossible. They should return to their homes and retain their citizenship.’ As far as I’m concerned, Arabs remaining citizens of Israel is a sacred matter.”

That round of talks broke down at the end of 2014, so Abbas wasn’t put to the test, but the question remains: Would he have condemned these Israeli Arabs to continued incarceration just to prevent them from losing their Israeli citizenship?

In 2013, when then-UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told him that Israel had agreed to allow terrified Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war to go to the West Bank, Abbas, by his own admission, rejected the Israeli offer because of Israel’s precondition: that the refugees sign a document in which they forgo the “right of return” to areas within Israel.

He fights terror and praises it. He seeks an independent Palestine alongside Israel, but not one that is home to Palestinian-Israelis. And he seems to prefer — indeed, to view as “sacred” — that Palestinians remain incarcerated in Israeli prisons or trapped in Syria’s killing fields than that they surrender their claims to Israeli citizenship or “return” into Israel’s borders.

‘On my watch’

The apparent paradoxes that make up Abbas have their parallels in Israel’s Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu operates within a freer political domain, they are easier to find.

Netanyahu has affirmed his support for a Palestinian state repeatedly and publicly, from his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech to his latest comments to Trump during the US president’s visit to Israel last month. He has also, repeatedly and publicly, affirmed his opposition to such a state and promised it would never be founded “on my watch.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset during a vote on two-week delay in opening the new public broadcaster, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset during a vote on two-week delay in opening the new public broadcaster, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His supporters insist there is no contradiction here. Netanyahu backs a Palestinian state only under certain conditions (among these are demilitarization and recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state) but does not believe the Palestinians will be able to meet these conditions anytime soon. “Not on my watch” is thus a prediction, not a rejection.

A careful parsing of Netanyahu’s profusion of comments on this point may prove these defenders technically correct, but the political context and timing for each statement suggest Netanyahu himself deliberately fosters the confusion. His most recent vow not to allow a Palestinian state “on my watch” was made in the last days of the March 2015 election campaign in an overt bid to woo Jewish Home party voters to Likud. That is, he made an explicit promise not to allow Palestinian statehood — no caveats about demilitarization or recognition were mentioned — to voters who oppose such a state in principle.

So does Netanyahu support a Palestinian state, or oppose it?

It is surprisingly hard to answer that question. Netanyahu himself may be undecided. He has a long record of upholding and even advancing peace agreements with the Palestinians. It was Netanyahu, not Labor leaders like Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, who implemented the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron in the mid-1990s, signed the last agreement actually concluded between Israelis and Palestinians, the Wye River Memorandum of 1998, and faces long-standing accusations from the leaders of the settlement movement that he is choking construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s unprecedented ten-month freeze on settlement construction in 2010, a concession to Obama, is entirely in keeping with this record.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath during a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on April 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Amir Cohen)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath during a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on April 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Amir Cohen)

His opponents dismiss this history as grudging concessions to American pressure. Yet that, too, does not really explain the record. Where was this servility when the prime minister traveled to the US Congress to rail against the Iran nuclear deal under the very nose of a livid American president? Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama, the two presidents who dealt with Netanyahu as premier, remember him as particularly accommodating to their desires or demands, to put it mildly.

Ironically, it may be Netanyahu himself who is most responsible for the widespread view that his peace moves over the years were due to American pressure. He often talks up the significance of that pressure to deflect the intense pressure he faces from his rightist flank to expand settlements and annex parts of the West Bank.

Yet it is probably equally wrong to suggest that Netanyahu is a secret dove who dresses in wolf’s clothing for domestic politics. In 2005, while then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was leading Likud into the Gaza withdrawal, it was Netanyahu who pushed a resolution through the Likud’s Central Committee formally declaring the ruling party to be opposed in principle to Palestinian statehood. His agitation forced Sharon to leave the party in late 2005 and form Kadima, shattering Likud’s activist base and collapsing its Knesset list to just 12 seats in the 2006 election. And, of course, it was Netanyahu who introduced the Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state as a fundamental Israeli precondition for peace.

Across four decades of political activity and four terms as premier, Netanyahu can be found supporting peace talks and opposing them, making the case for Palestinian independence and the case against it, implementing Israel’s agreements with the Palestinians and delaying or attempting to disrupt them.

True blood

The contradictions contained in these two leaders run too deep to be ignored or brushed off as mere politicking. To foreign diplomats they can be maddening.

Yet there is method in this madness. Beyond the political rhetoric, embedded in these incongruities, lies the real conflict, the one that drives the terrorism, the wars, the settlements and the bombastic oratory. It is the underlying, subterranean clash that eluded Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton because it is hard to see something that lies so far outside one’s own assumptions and experience.

In his 2014 Akhbar al-Yawm interview, Abbas offered this explanation for refusing Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state: “We cannot recognize a Jewish state. We will stand against this enterprise, not out of obstinacy, but because it contradicts our interests…. [Israel] will not allow the return of refugees. There are six million refugees who wish to return, and by the way, I am one of them. We need to find creative solutions because we cannot close the door to those who wish to return.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking during a rally marking the 12th anniversary of the death of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 10, 2016. (Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking during a rally marking the 12th anniversary of the death of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 10, 2016. (Flash90)

And he adds: “Israel aspires to a Jewish state, and ISIS aspires to an Islamic state, and here we are, suspended between Jewish extremism and Islamic extremism. [IS leader] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will have an excuse to establish an Islamic state after the Jewish state law is approved. This is another matter from which we and everyone else suffer.”

When Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” because it would preclude the entry into Israel of millions of Palestinians from abroad, does that mean he plans to oversee such a migration? Or if, as Palestinian diplomats often say, they do not really mean to flood Israel with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, does that mean they can now recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

What of the comparison of a Jewish state to Islamic State? Palestine is hardly secular, as Abbas knows well. The Palestinian Basic Law, passed by the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2002, declares in article 4 that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine” and that “the principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation.” Article 22, in a passage much hated by Israelis that has its roots in this Islamic religious ethos, even provides for the “welfare of families of martyrs” — including, for example, those “martyrs” who carried out religiously motivated mass murders of Israeli schoolchildren.

Abbas’s Palestine does not beat around the bush regarding its religious identity. If Abbas really believed that a state should not identify itself with a religion, that “Jewish state” is ipso facto tantamount to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, he’d be as concerned about Islamic Palestine as he is about Jewish Israel.

Of course, these arguments are deflections. By pretending that Israeli leaders want him to recognize Israel as religiously Jewish — no Israeli leader has ever made such a request — he neatly avoids the actual Israeli demand: that he recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and thereby recognize the Jews themselves as a nation.

This Abbas can never do.

Palestinian identity was forged by the memory and continuing experience of dispossession at the hands of the century-old Jewish incursion sparked by the Zionist movement. In the Palestinian view, these interlopers, arriving under cover of European imperialism and bending their society to the task of robbing another, weaker people of its homeland, cannot claim for themselves the same legitimacy, the same authentic peoplehood, that rightfully must belong only to their victims.

Thousands of Arab Israelis join a protest on May 12, 2016, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war. (Dov Lieber/The Times of Israel)
Thousands of Arab Israelis join a protest on May 12, 2016, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war. (Dov Lieber/The Times of Israel)

This is not a conflict between two nations, the Palestinian narrative insists, but between an authentic, rooted people battling a political program sustained by nefarious ideologues. Israel is at its core a “colonial” project, or “apartheid,” or “imperialist” — the specific terminology or injustice Israel is accused of hardly matters. What is important to Palestinian discourse about Israel is the category.

That is, Israel is not a nation, but merely a political structure like those from which epithets like “apartheid” or “imperialist” are drawn. And that matters, because political structures can be peeled off a land or a people. Nations cannot. Nations may make mistakes, they may commit crimes, but nothing they do can lose them the one fundamental right granted to all nations by natural law: existence itself.

In other words, this is not an argument about Israel’s injustices or inequalities, but about its nationhood, and thus its fundamental legitimacy.

As Abbas knows well from his study of the 20th century’s Jewish refugees from Arab countries, only a small percentage of the Jews who founded Israel were motivated by deep-seated Zionist ideology. Most simply had nowhere else to go. The gates of immigration to the West were closed to all but a few of them, and none stood ready to absorb the hundreds of thousands who fled Iraq, czarist Russia, Egypt, Morocco, post-war Poland, Yemen, Syria and other countries in the last century — none except the newly established Israel, whose Jewish population swelled from 600,000 on the eve of independence in 1948 to over 1.3 million just four years later as waves of fleeing Jews sought refuge in its borders.

One does not need to be a Zionist or a Palestinian nationalist to see the trap this question holds for Palestinians. If the Jews can claim the simple right to live, and the world offered them no alternative but to live here, then the Palestinians may be able to claim they were wronged, but not that this wrong was wholly and unmitigatedly evil. The Jews, too, were wronged, and had no better option in the face of their own catastrophes.

What becomes of the Palestinian story of zero-sum morality and cosmic criminality if it must incorporate that sort of moral ambiguity, if it must reconsider its sacred ethos of victimhood in favor of one that sees two displaced nations clashing in a single narrow stretch of blood-soaked land?

And so Arab Israeli groups such as Adalah and Mossawa propose “democratic constitutions” for Israel that rescind the Jewish right of return but open Israel’s gates to unlimited return of the descendants of Palestinian refugees. In this vision, as articulated by Abbas to his negotiators, an Israel of “equality” — that is, without a specifically Jewish identity — is to exist alongside a nation-state with a specifically Palestinian Muslim identity.

Mahmoud Abbas celebrates the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in August 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Mahmoud Abbas celebrates the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in August 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

And so, for Abbas, the only Palestinians who were not displaced by Israel — Israel’s Arab citizens — are the ones who must never become citizens of a new Palestine. His Palestine is a Palestine for the displaced, not the Palestine of final, comprehensive liberation that absolves impostor Israel of its innate criminality. To allow Palestinian-Israelis to become Palestinian-Palestinians is to grant Israeli Jews final and complete moral validation in their usurped land.

In Abbas’s vision, Israeli Arabs are to be denied part of their Palestinian story so that Israel can be denied its Jewish one.

Netanyahu is often derided for his demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a “Jewish nation-state.” Netanyahu is a politician, and perhaps deserves few allowances for raising a demand he knows the other side is unable to accommodate. But frustration with Netanyahu, so popular in Western capitals, is not enough here. Abbas has refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state for longer than Netanyahu has been demanding it, and it is Abbas, not Netanyahu, who calls this a “sacred” principle.

‘Three thousand years ago’

This sense of unequal authenticity is just as fundamental, if not as politically debilitating, to the Israeli side. In his 2012 United Nations General Assembly speech (and repeated in one way or another in countless overseas speeches before and since), Netanyahu opened his remarks with these words: “Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem. I say that to all those who proclaim that the Jewish state has no roots in our region and that it will soon disappear.”

To most Israeli Jews, the Jewish right to this land seems vindicated by hoary antiquity. Arabs have lived here for a long time, sure, but not in any self-conscious sense. Al-Aqsa’s sanctity is clearly a Muslim retelling of the Jews’ original sanctification of the site millennia earlier — and so only a copy of the “real thing.” Jewish identity, and more importantly Jewish attachment to this land, is thus older and more authentic than the copycat Palestinian claims.

It is crucial to grasp that this view is not held by most Jews in any conscious way. Many on the left who believe Palestinian national identity is entirely legitimate and morally compelling nevertheless perceive a hierarchy of age and historical validity between the two identities. Ours is unquestionable; theirs is good enough, true enough, believed strongly enough by them to be worth acknowledging and validating for the sake of reconciliation and peace.

There are, of course, historical facts to back this Jewish narrative (there are historical facts to back most such narratives): It is true, and Palestinian intellectuals acknowledge it readily, that a distinctive “Palestinian” national identity developed slowly over the course of the 20th century, mostly in response to the pressure of Jewish immigration.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly on October 1, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly on October 1, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)

But this “proof” of the Jewish hierarchy of authenticity also serves as a “proof” for the competing Palestinian one. To Palestinian nationalists, the simple farmer or town-dweller who lives in the land of his grandfathers, speaks his Arabic and prays to his Allah five times daily is not less at home in his land because he lacks the invading ideologue’s ostentatious affectations of nationalism. In the Palestinian story, the fact that Palestinian nationalism did not coalesce into European-style rhetoric and organized activism until the Jewish influx was already entrenched in the land demonstrates the elemental, unthinking rootedness of the Palestinian presence here. That the Jews raised their flags, retooled their obsolete Hebrew and built for themselves monumental edifices of political institutions — the very things so celebrated by Israeli Jews as the finest achievements of their renewed nationhood — demonstrate in their very intensity of purpose that there is something manufactured and contrived in the Zionist enterprise.

Homelands

The upshot of this clash of competing authenticities for any would-be peacemakers is simply this: Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu, nor anyone likely to inherit them when they leave power, shares the rest of the world’s sense of urgency.

For Abbas, time is on the Palestinians’ side, no matter how quickly settlements grow or how far the Palestinian economy falls. The higher Palestinian birthrate is only part of this story. Abbas’s entire life has been defined by a fundamental assumption that guides his policy and grants him his equanimity: that the Palestinians are an authentic, indigenous people facing a fundamentally inauthentic ideological movement masquerading as a people. This view is so basic it hardly needs to be uttered. It’s even backed up by religion. Like all monotheistic faiths, Islam’s core promise is that history ultimately arcs toward justice. There will be many agonies along the Palestinians’ journey toward justice, and many battles left to fight, but there is little point in doubting the final triumph of justice.

This underlying, unstated theory of authenticity and the meaningfulness of history means Abbas is in no rush to seal a deal. It is also why he sees the question of Israeli Arabs’ citizenship as “sacred.” Israel can never lose its Arab citizens, even in a land swap that would mean a larger and wealthier independent Palestine, because to separate along ethnic lines means the final, principled concession of the Israeli part of occupied Palestine not only to Jewish control, but to the Jewish claim to a right to that control.

Netanyahu shares this equanimity, and for similar reasons. The Jewish presence in this land is too old, too fundamental, too much a touchstone of the intellectual and cultural history of so much of humanity to really be threatened by Palestinian demands or Palestinian demographics. The Jews, so Netanyahu believes, found strength and shared purpose in their reunification in their ancient promised homeland. Netanyahu, too, though by all reports less pious than Abbas, is at his intellectual core a monotheist, a believer in history’s purposeful arc toward justice. Nations are not dislodged from their rightful homelands — nor, even after 2,000 years of dispersion, can an authentic people remain forever scattered and divided in someone else’s land.

In this June 17, 1939 file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States. (AP)
In this June 17, 1939, file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States. (AP)

Netanyahu prides himself on his American MBA, on his thoroughly modern view of governance and his careful stewardship of the Israeli economy during the long years of his four terms as premier. He acknowledges the strategic value of separation from the Palestinians, and may even be willing to act on it. But, crucially for would-be peacemakers, he is not frightened by it. The same sense of an unbridgeable authenticity gap gives him a similar tranquility, to the abiding frustration of his critics.

Peace

The lessons here for would-be international peacemakers are not clear-cut. It is not obvious what one does with the realization that when well-meaning foreigners step out of the room, the tug-of-war becomes one of mutually exclusive identity, not land. But perhaps one lesson might be that any hope for peace between warring legitimacies, between competing theories of the meaning of each side’s history, backed in both cases by the still-living memory of generations-long suffering, fear and exile, lies in first acknowledging the depth of the divide. The world has tried to rein in Israel, assuming that but for settlements, Palestinian politics would be magnanimous and peace-loving. And it has tried to buy off Palestinian political factions with money and honorifics, assuming that this frees said factions from the grip of the deeper war, or convinces Israelis something fundamental has changed. In the end, it is the deeper conflict that must be resolved. The anxieties it generates on both sides, the maneuvering for legitimacy and recognition, the competing demands of a land made holy by ancient custom and yearning, are as deafening today as in the past.

One obvious example: How can the Jews surrender the Temple Mount, the tether at the heart of their miraculous return, their awakening, their unification from scattered, vulnerable exile, their salvation, in other words, that their lived experience tells them could not have happened anywhere other than in this ancient sacred homeland anchored by that holy mountain? And how can Palestinians give up the 14-century-old shrine at the heart of their long-trampled identity, and on which their place of honor in all the vast realms of Islam depends? These concerns are too powerful and real to the Jews and Palestinians actually engaged in this conflict to be glossed over by the diplomatic remonstrances of the frustrated John Kerrys and Madeleine Albrights of the world.

The lesson, put simply, is this: No peace can be reached merely on paper. There must be recognition. Without deep-seated trust, no withdrawal of the IDF or dismantling of the Israeli military governorship in the West Bank assures either peace or actual independence for the Palestinians. Without validation of the other side’s anxieties and sense of self, none of the delicate policy work of any diplomatic or security agreement will survive its first contact with the first pious patriot who is asked to surrender his or her sacred story to make room for the impostor’s fabricated one.

A Border Police officer stands at an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on June 8, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A Border Police officer stands at an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 8, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Unlike with Egypt or Jordan, where a cold policy-wonk’s peace was enough because neither side needed much from the other, a Palestinian state cannot extricate itself from Israel. There is too much interlocking geography here, and no viable defense agreement, even one reached with the best of intentions by both sides, could work without placing a future Palestinian state within the IDF’s defensive line against the enemies and convulsions without. West Jerusalem is not really defensible against East Jerusalem, nor Netanya against Qalqilya, or vice versa — unless all are united in a shared security vision that can only come from Palestinians and Israelis believing they are on the same side.

The point here is not to call for such a reconciliation, or even to argue it is possible. It is merely to say that the animating roots of this conflict cannot be meaningfully addressed by the shallow veneers currently being applied by outsiders. To pressure Israel on settlements without a concurrent effort at reconciliation is to shore up the Palestinian waiting game. To back Israel “within the Green Line” but thereby deny Israeli Jews the sacred heart of Jerusalem is to drive most Israelis to stubbornly support the Israeli waiting game. Neither side’s leaders, after all, shares the sense of urgency that animates the diplomats from abroad.

In the end, even with a fully independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, no complete separation is possible between two peoples who share so many geographic, religious and cultural touchstones. When cold detachment is unavailable, the only options left are hatred or friendship. Hatred is a reasonable choice when the costs of reconciliation are so high, but a century into this conflict, and five decades into the occupation, it is becoming increasingly clear that it may not be a winnable strategy for either side over the long term.

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