Search for middle ground in West Asia

The difficult gets done immediately. The impossible — well, so far it has taken almost a century. How long before the Israelis and the Palestinians reach the true peace agreement that has eluded Jews and Arabs since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I?

In separate meetings in the Oval Office recently, US President Barack Obama pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift from the ‘proximity’ talks to the direct negotiations which alone can lead toward resolution.

Across generations that saw political reconciliation replace ferocious enmity between France and Germany, England and Ireland, and even Moscow and Washington, why has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proved so intractable? Assuming direct talks do resume between Israel and Palestine, what obstacles must negotiators overcome?

Immediate issues are obvious: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, security arrangements, the question of ‘settlements,’ the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, Israeli concern about ongoing incitement to violence, the place of Hamas. Before Netanyahu arrived at the White House last week, a senior US official said, “The gaps have narrowed. And we believe there are good opportunities to further narrow those gaps.”

A yawning ditch

But in addition to immediate obstacles, however thorny, the Israelis and Palestinians face each other across not a gap but a yawning ditch, the width and depth of which are insufficiently measured. Deep history is the abyss in which so many West Asian hopes are buried. Against the usual perception, the Israeli and Palestinian stories are not contradictory but parallel. Jews and Arabs did not dig the ditch that keeps them apart.

To shift the analogy, Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a corner. But the walls of that corner were constructed by someone else. Those walls are anti-Semitism and colonialism, each of which is thought to be well understood. But their recombination begets something new — a lethal feedback loop, as the historic hatred of Jews mixes explosively with the contempt for native peoples that defined imperial expansion.

When Palestinian Arabs, claiming a national identity distinct from Pan-Arabism, finally mounted resistance in 1936, the British response was brutal, involving more royal troops in Palestine than there were in the entire subcontinent of India. Zionist fighters struck at Arabs, too, but overwhelmingly this was a London-ordered colonial war.

In three years of fighting, more than 5,000 Arabs were killed. Whole villages and neighbourhoods were destroyed. Political institutions and economic systems were devastated. The Palestinian social fabric was ripped asunder, never fully to be restitched again.

This crippling of Palestinian hope in its infancy partially explains the Zionist complaint at the lack of local leaders on the other side with whom to deal. If Palestinians seem invisible, as they often protest, the phenomenon begins not with willfully unseeing Jews, but with British eradication. Thus, the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi writes that the Arab defeat of 1948 was “no more than a postlude, a tragic epilogue to the shattering defeat of 1936-39.” Who remembers that today?

The return to the land of Israel was momentous for people who had prayed for most of two millennia, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. From the Arab point of view, however, Zionism could only be taken as a manifestation of the colonialism that native Palestinians had by then every reason to detest.

When Palestinian and Israeli negotiators finally face each other across one table, these common notes of experience should be paramount — but only for the sake of moving beyond them. Two peoples who have each defined themselves positively by negative hatred of the other have been at the mercy of a broad culture that created this very habit of mind.

Jews and Arabs can renounce this history without renouncing themselves. Each can then receive the other’s account of the past, and, perhaps for the first time, hear it respectfully.

That, more than anything else, is the prerequisite to peace. The Palestinian and Israeli negotiators need the diplomatic support of outside powers. But in this long history, the West has not been a disinterested bystander. By naming it as a secret-sharing third party to the conflict, historic creator of the double-sided trap of Jew hatred and colonial contempt, Israelis and Palestinians can leave the trap to find the way forward. They can focus on what remains between them, which is enough.


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