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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

1.

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 Tower of London and was then beheaded, he may be thought to have known what he was talking about. But this particular subject is the most fraught or demanding of all.

At any rate, those colleagues quite soon realized, not very surprisingly, that such a synthesis could not be achieved. Instead they have compiled the book under review, which consists, as its title and subtitle say, of parallel narratives side by side. On the verso or left-hand page is the Israeli text; facing it on the recto page is the Palestinian text. We can read the two, and then compare and contrast, as exam papers used to say.

If the two narratives are not only contrasting but largely contradictory, that need not in itself imply bad faith. Two parties in a divorce will not recall their marriage in the same terms, and any lawyer or policeman knows that two chance eyewitnesses to the same event may give startlingly disparate accounts of it. But to read these two versions—not written by some extreme adherents of Likud or Hamas, but by Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to cooperate—is as revealing as it is dispiriting. Here are two litanies of sorrow and grievance, a competition in suffering, with more than a hundred years of history driving them ever further apart.

Sometimes the contrast is made with visual force. One recto shows a photograph of British police breaking up a Palestinian demonstration in Jerusalem; facing that on the left is a photograph of the entrance to Auschwitz. A right-hander reading “Israel destroyed entire Arab villages and confiscated the agricultural land” is followed by another instantly recognizable photograph, of Adolf Eichmann in the dock. Even the tone of the two narratives is discordant: rueful and occasionally irritable in the Israeli text, bitter and brooding in the Palestinian.

Few passages are flagrantly false, though both versions are often tendentious, the Palestinian marginally more so, not least when dealing with the years of British Mandatory Palestine from 1920 to 1948. The British received no sympathy over this episode in their late-imperial history and they deserved none, but to say that “the British government…was complacent with the Zionist conspiracies” (is “complicit” intended for “complacent”?) is too broad and lurid, while “British policy in Palestine was based on the subjugation of the Palestinians” is a simplification at best. At any rate, nothing better illustrates the reciprocal sense of victimhood than this: the Arabs believe that they were betrayed by the British, and so do the Zionists.

And one must admit they both have a point. The betrayals stemmed from the incompatible promises—some public, some private—the British made to Arabs and Zionists during World War I; rarely has Albion been more perfide. Even so, for the Palestinian text to say that the Balfour Declaration “and the unremitting attempts to implement it by all means contradicted everything that Britain and its World War I allies had always stood and called for, namely, the right to self-determination” is empty rhetoric.

In the great shake-up that took place after the war ended in 1918, what made the sundry settlements imposed by the victorious powers so ugly was that a veil of President Wilson’s high-sounding idealism shrouded the usual power hunger and scramble for territory. That and the fact that, as Walter Lippmann so truly said, “self-determination” is a disastrous notion, which “rejects…the ideal of a state within which diverse peoples find justice and liberty under equal laws,” and can only end by inciting mutual hatred and aggression.

Looking at the end of the Mandate period rather than the beginning, the Palestinian text might have had stronger points to make. It’s left to the Israeli text to remind us that, before its landslide victory in the 1945 British election, the Labour Party adopted “a pro-Zionist platform,” which is if anything an understatement. The fateful passage seems to advocate ethnic cleansing: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in,” it read, which is, one might say, what happened in 1948. This document was written by Hugh Dalton, an overbearing product of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, who became a socialist and an academic economist and then served as Attlee’s first chancellor of the exchequer. In private, Dalton called Harold Laski, his LSE colleague and the Labour Party chairman, an “undersized Semite”—something to ponder for those who think that “pro-Zionist” and “philo-Semitic” must always be synonymous.

On some of the grimmer episodes in the last years of the Mandate the two accounts differ only in emphasis, and not always in that:

One of the most notorious massacres perpetrated against the Palestinians took place in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948. The Zionist forces killed more than 100 and wounded dozens more.

There was a massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem; Irgun and Lehi units attacked the village, and by the time the battle was over, according to most updated historical research, 100 to 120 Arabs had been killed, including women, children, and the elderly.

The first is the Palestinian text, the second the Israeli, which is also candid about the reprisals against whole Arab villages taken by Israel throughout the 1950s.

Recounting the long years of defeat and humiliation, the Palestinian text grows more somber, but not necessarily more accurate. The Six-Day War in 1967

was an attempt on the part of Israel to take over new Arab lands in a quick war, and consequently would enable it to establish additional settlements and absorb a large number of Jewish immigrants…. Capturing the whole of Jerusalem was a dream Israel had looked to since its establishment of the state.

But the story is not (of course) as simple as that. Israel may have begun the 1967 war, but did not do so for calculated purposes of conquest and acquisition. While the war was still raging, Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, told his colleagues, “Even if we take the West Bank and the Old City, we will eventually be forced to leave them,” although, as it turned out, no one did force them to leave.

And so through the 1973 war, the false dawn of peace with Egypt, and then the 1982 Lebanon war. That changed not so much the course of history as the tide of sentiment, and not only in the outside world. According to the Israeli text, “The consensus that had characterized Israeli society in all of its previous wars was ruptured.” For all the bravado of Menachem Begin and Netanyahu, national self-confidence has never been the same in the thirty years since.

Even after so many bloody wars, the last chapters of the book are in some ways the gloomiest. The story tails off some ten years ago with the second intifada, so that the continuing expansion of settlements and the rise of Hamas are barely mentioned, and the book has since been overtaken by events—or “nonevents,” if that’s the word for things that have not happened.

2.

Apart from harsh intractability and mutual incomprehension, Side by Side unintentionally demonstrates something else about this conflict. George Orwell said that every national movement makes very free use of the begged question, in the correct sense (which seems to be going out of journalistic fashion) of petitio principii, the supposed demonstration in argument resting on an assumption that itself needs to be demonstrated. That’s true here, with advocacy on both sides turning into long lines of petitiones principii.

One central begged question in the Palestinian text is the very word “Palestinian” used to describe a nationality, as in the first chapter, which complains that the Balfour Declaration “made no mention of the inalienable political rights of the Palestinians”—and “inalienable political rights” is one more begged question. To be sure, few single sentences have ever been as potent, as ambiguous, and perhaps as hypocritical as that letter of November 2, 1917, to “Dear Lord Rothschild” from Arthur James Balfour, the foreign secretary, in which

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. [Emphasis added.]

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Win McNamee/Reuters
Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the Oslo peace talks, November 2, 1999

The words emphasized were written with care, or at least after long wrangling, and “civil and religious rights” are far from the same as political and national rights, which in fact nobody thought of, any more than they were aware of “the Palestinians” as a nation who might be entitled to such national rights.

Ever since, some Zionists have not only denied those rights but derided the very idea of “Palestine” or “the Palestinians.” A meeting that I attended in New York some thirty years ago, and which had been optimistically convened to discuss the matter in calm and detached fashion, was broken up by a group of young men in kippas shouting, “There is no Palestine!” That was much what Golda Meir had said in 1969: “There was no such thing as Palestinians…. It was not as though…we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” (She would also sometimes say, “I am a Palestinian.”) And we have it recently from no less an authority than Newt Gingrich himself that there is “an invented Palestinian people.”

As it happens, and little as he knows about the matter, Gingrich has stumbled across something. Not so long ago, there was no Palestine, except as a geographical description, and there were no Palestinians. A hundred years ago if you had asked a man from Jaffa or Jenin what he was, you would have heard the hallowed age-old reply, “I am a Muslim from here.” You would have heard the same in Aleppo or Baghdad: each man barely knew that he was an Arab by nationality, let alone a Syrian or Iraqi (and “Iraq” really is an invented nation, the passing fancy of Winston Churchill as colonial secretary). Least of all did someone then know he was a Palestinian.

Bear in mind that if you had put the same question, not a century ago but two, to a man from a village near Bratislava or Ljubljana, he would have said, “I am a Christian from here.” That’s to say he didn’t know he was a Slovak or a Slovene.* National consciousness is a hot topic with historians—connoisseurs of intellectual fashion might notice the September 2001 issue of The English Historical Review, in which the titles of two out of the four longer articles (one of them on twelfth-century Wales) contained the phrase “national identity”—but it’s a problematic or tricky concept.

Such consciousness tends in truth to be a later-flowering growth than historians like to think, especially those who are using history to support nationalist ends, as is often the case. Nationalist historians almost invariably attribute the existence or mere idea of a nation far too early, sometimes preposterously so. E.J. Hobsbawm was amused to come across a book called 5000 Years of Pakistan—about a country that did not exist sixty-five years ago, and whose name was not coined eighty years ago.

This pattern is conspicuous in the case of Zionists and Arabs. One of the founding fathers of Palestinian nationalism was George Antonius, the title and date of whose 1938 book The Arab Awakening speak for themselves: an Arab nation—and specifically a Palestinian nation—that had slept unaware of itself was slowly awakening. That is effectively if unintentionally conceded in the Palestinian text of Side by Side:

During the 1920s, the Arabs in Palestine began forging a national identity. Initially, they saw themselves as belonging to the greater Muslim Arab nation that replaced the Ottoman Empire. [Emphasis added.]

But “the 1920s” followed rather than preceded the Balfour Declaration of 1917, let alone Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, published in 1896. And the phrase “greater Muslim Arab nation” is misleading in a rather sinister way. Some of the best-known champions of the Palestinian cause, from Antonius to Edward Said, were Christian Arabs by origin. At one time that cause claimed to be nonsectarian, and its recent capture by radical Islam has unhappy consequences, for the diminishing number of Christian Palestinians most of all.

When all that is said, something must be added. The creation of Palestinian identity and of a Palestinian nation—of “Palestine” itself—has been one of the most signal achievements of Zionism. Over and again, from one place to another, nationalist actions have stimulated opposite reactions. Slovak nationalism was a product of Magyar triumphalism, and the attempt by the French republic, the great champion of the idea of la nation, to extinguish Breton or Provençal identity by subsuming them did not have the intended effect.

One other truth remains, and it’s incautious (as well as preeningly ignorant) of Gingrich to use the phrase he does in this context. Whatever else is said about it, whether it was for ill or for good, Zionism was itself a classic case of invented tradition. Herzl’s idea of political Zionism and a Jewish state had no roots at all in existing Jewish tradition, of which it was to the contrary a radical rejection. When the Israeli text says that “in the nineteenth century…the Jews began to see themselves as a nation, desiring and deserving of a country of their own” (emphasis added), it likewise echoes the Palestinian text in inadvertently acknowledging this truth.

By way of anticipating that point, the indefatigable Martin Peretz tells us that “not until modern times—and largely among the arriviste Jews of nineteenth-century Germany and France—did anyone doubt Jewish peoplehood.” But this deliberately muddies the waters. Plainly neither they nor those who hated them ever doubted that the Jews existed as a people (presumably with “peoplehood,” whatever that may be), or as a “race,” although that word was at one time continually used in contexts that we would now find incongruous if innocuous (such as the conflict between “Celtic and Saxon races” in Ireland, or R.W. Seton-Watson’s 1908 book Racial Problems in Hungary, which deals with the struggle between Magyar and Slav).

And yet the fierce Jewish debate over Zionism, for and against, which simmered in the half-century from publication of The Jewish State until it was silenced by Hitler and the birth of such a state, turned largely on the question of whether the Jews were a nation. That word is all-important, and its meaning has been the subject of much learned debate. More to the point, quite apart from the theological objections to political Zionism held by most rabbis in Herzl’s day, very many proud and pious Jews—not mere “arrivistes”—entirely rejected the idea of the “nationalization” of the Jews. They were Jews by religion but English or French or Austrian by nationality—or American. It is curious that the angriest polemics on behalf of Jewish nationality and the Jewish state are made by people who have patently enjoyed the benefits of citizenship in a country founded not on a people but on a proposition.

Even after the state was born, David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues might well have borrowed Massimo d’Azeglio’s words about Italy in the previous century and said, “Israel has been made; now it remains to make Israelis.” And that was done, as anyone who has ever visited Israel must know. As for the other people sharing the land, the case is reversed: Mahmoud Abbas (or perhaps some more inspiring leader) could say today, “We have made Palestinians; now we must make Palestine.” It has been a long wait, and may be much longer yet.

3.

How pleasant it would be to end on a cheerful or optimistic note, and how hard that is today. The words “peace process” have never sounded so hollow, while the prospects for a just resolution of the conflict—and if it is not just it will not be lasting—are more distant than ever. There are days when one feels that the only reliable commentator is the prophet Jeremiah: Why are they saying, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace?”

A “two-state settlement” might once have been possible—who will ever know?—but for now it seems what Goethe called one of those moments that, once they are lost, “Eternity will never give back.” And while the Palestinians are sunk in despondency and helpless rage, the mood among Israelis seems to have turned (as in the old Viennese joke) from “the situation is serious but not hopeless” to “the situation is hopeless but not serious.”

One more speech at the General Assembly in September unintentionally illustrated the problem, as well as demonstrating, yet again, the self-contradictory role of the United States in pretending to be both arbitrating judge and counsel for one party. As Israeli newspapers observed, President Barack Obama’s speech could have been written by the Netanyahu government, and it was warmly approved by Avigdor Lieberman, the intransigent foreign minister.

In one striking passage, Obama said that “peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations—if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.” He seems to have forgotten that the Israelis have always claimed legitimacy through just such a United Nations resolution. This was General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, declaring that British rule over Palestine would end and be replaced by “Independent Arab and Jewish States” along with a “Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.” The Zionists were ready to accept this partition, which gave the future Jewish state some 55 percent of the territory between Jordan and the sea, while the Palestinians—as they could now be called—and all other Arabs rejected partition.

At the same time, the president (or his speechwriters) must have been deaf to historical echoes when he said, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions.” That had been said, more emphatically, a long time before:

The great questions of our time will not be decided through speeches and majority resolutions—that was the great error of ’48 and ’49—but through iron and blood.

Bismarck’s speech to the Prussian parliament on September 30, 1862, has been condemned for brutal cynicism, but what he said was true enough in foretelling the way he forged his German Reich through successive wars—and it was true also of the way Israel was born.

Within months of the November 1947 resolution, Israel was created, not by speeches or majority resolutions but through iron and blood, a savage duel in which the side stronger not in numbers but in arms and will and sheer desperation prevailed. A Jewish state was thereby created, with 78 percent rather than 55 percent of the territory once the fighting stopped, to which the remaining 22 percent was added as occupied territory in 1967. And at bleak moments today it’s all too easy to imagine that, whatever the outcome of this tragic conflict may be, that too will be decided not by speeches or majority resolutions, but by iron and blood.