Can They Ever Make a Deal?

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Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at peace talks at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, November 2007

On September 23, 2011, two national leaders addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. One spoke of

the brutality of aggression and racial discrimination against our people…ethnic cleansing…colonial settlement…sixty-three years of suffering…

while for the other, his country was

unjustly singled out for condemnation…the one true democracy in the Middle East…. I didn’t come here to win applause. I came here to speak the truth.

No mastery of textual criticism or profound learning is required to distinguish these two. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might as well not have been talking about the same subject, and indeed they weren’t. They were not conducting an argument or even shouting at one another; they were loudly addressing quite different audiences—in Israel and the United States in Netanyahu’s case, everywhere else in Abbas’s—and that schism in global opinion is now part of the problem.

Far from there being anything unusual about fierce communal or national struggles, they are all too common, from Ulster to Bosnia to Ceylon and so many other places afflicted by Yeats’s “great hatred, little room.” Moreover, these conflicts all display similar characteristics: not only does each side think that it’s in the right, each side thinks that it’s the victim (and can usually adduce some evidence to that effect). But the conflict in the Holy Land is well-nigh unique in its bitter intractability, fortified by sheer reciprocal incomprehension. Here are two sides locked in what sometimes looks like a dance of death, and is all too plainly a dialogue of the deaf.

Any attempt to open an honest debate between the two is welcome, and Side by Side is such an attempt, worthy if curious. The book was inspired by the late Dan Bar-On, the Israeli scholar who founded PRIME, or the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (the very name is forlorn!), and developed from a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian academics and teachers in 2000. They were struck by the fact that the versions of history told in Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks were not just different but mutually exclusive and uncomprehending, like those two speeches.

One possibility, which Bar-On and two colleagues, Sami Adwan and Eyal Naveh, originally attempted, was to construct a synthesis or “bridging narrative” that both sides could share. But such detached and impartial histories are easier dreamed of than achieved, even from a consciously neutral position by those of us outside the quarrel. Trying to narrate an objective account of recent events anywhere is difficult enough. “Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow Truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth,” said Sir Walter Raleigh and, since he wrote his History of the World in the …

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