When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington in November 2015, he arrived amidst a low-water mark in U.S.-Israeli relations. He also left a country that was experiencing a new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence. And a peaceful resolution to this decades-long conflict seems farther away than ever.
We usually think about the Middle East “peace process” as a top-down, high-level, diplomatically formal business. We also wonder if it will ever end and whether it is doomed to failure.
Political administrations have changed and negotiators have come and gone but the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seems as intractable as ever. After all, the negotiations so far have proceeded from the “land for peace” formula laid out in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, almost 50 years ago.
Perhaps there is a more comprehensive way to look at the conflict.
As a problem of diplomacy and security to be solved in that “top-down” way, we have seen the impasse as a question of political give and take. It has been an ongoing fight over “who gets what, when, and how,” to borrow Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics.
But before we can get to a resolution over who gets what, we must first recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prime and tragic example of the way two nations competing over the same territory struggle not only over conflicting political and economic interests but also with competing mythologies, cultures, and historical narratives.
All historical narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about the past—are constructed through acts of interpretation. The same set of historical facts can yield different meanings for different people and that is surely the case for Israelis and Palestinians as they look at their histories.
The fierce debates over which interpretation is “right,” however, may miss the point because each version of this history is so central to the collective identity of each group and neither side is ever going to persuade the other that their interpretation is “wrong.”
Instead, each side needs to recognize how and why these historical narratives have become “true” for them. Reconciling the “competing mythologies” is essential if the next Arab-Israeli peace process, with the Palestinian question at its core, has any chance to succeed.
Rather than arguing over “facts”—the usual approach of pitting the “fact” of one side against the “fact” of the other—such an approach would demand that each side come to understand the deeper meaning of those “facts” to the people who believe them.
Before the details of peace can be worked out, each side needs to acknowledge more fully how the identity of the other side has developed over generations and been shaped by the conflict itself.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—like so many other protracted and existential conflicts where so many demands are stated in mutually exclusive terms—only when the other side’s fundamental needs are met can its own be fulfilled.
Traditional diplomacy and endless fights over who gets what, how, and when have not solved this problem. The suffering continues.
It is time for a different approach.
A Brief Chronology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Even a chronology of the political events that have created the current situation can be the source of sharp disagreement. Historical “facts” are often not as transparent or objective as we would like them to be.
Recognizing that any review of these events necessarily emphasizes some moments at the expense of others—and will likely raise objections from readers for the events I choose to focus on—a brief overview of how we got to where we are now is important to set the stage as we think of new pathways to peace.
The Zionist movement was founded at the end of the 19th century by Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl. Convinced that Europe would never rid itself of anti-Semitism, he called for the “restoration of the Jewish state” in his 1896 book The Jewish State.
Although Jews had been immigrating steadily albeit in small numbers to Palestine for a couple decades before this time—mostly to flee increasingly oppressive conditions imposed upon the large populations of Jews in eastern Europe—large-scale, systematic programs for Jewish immigration to Palestine began in earnest following the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
Relations between these new Jewish immigrants and the Arab populations in and around Palestine were generally strained and sometimes violent.
In the midst of World War I, the French and the British issued the Sykes-Picot document drawing new colonial boundaries in the Middle East. In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to help establish a “national home [in Palestine] for the Jewish people.” Arabs saw both these diplomatic developments as treachery, generating hostility toward Jewish settlers.
Jewish arrivals in Palestine continued and peaked in 1935 at 60,000. The following year, feeling increasingly threatened by this influx, the Arabs in Palestine revolted against the British, who maintained rule over the area. This insurgency represented the most organized and vehement rejection of Zionism and British policies supporting it by Palestinian Arabs to date.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, international sympathy for the Zionist endeavor grew, and the State of Israel was established in a United Nations declaration in 1947 which envisioned a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.
The declaration was unanimously rejected by Arabs in and around Palestine, and war was immediately launched against the new Jewish state by all of its Arab neighbors. Israel emerged the military victor, gaining more territory than originally mandated by the United Nations. Some 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians fled or were exiled. Thus began the Palestinian diaspora.
With a Jewish state now an accomplished geopolitical fact, Palestinians began to threaten Israel in a variety of ways.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 with the destruction of Israel among its basic principles. The PLO became even more militant after Israel’s military victory in 1967’s “Six Day War” when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.
Across the 1970s, the PLO grew and was increasingly recognized internationally, despite the U.S. position not to engage with the organization.
At the end of the decade, President Jimmy Carter helped broker the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. But this agreement did not include Palestinians, and the treaty was rejected by Arabs, especially Palestinians, as a “sellout.” Indeed, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was soon assassinated for it.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the powerful military and political infrastructure the PLO had built in that shattered country. The PLO was defeated and “exiled” from Lebanon, but Israel was internally torn asunder as a majority of Israelis came to view this war as unnecessary—its first “non-defensive” war.
In late 1987, after a series of violent incidents between Israelis and Palestinians, the Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began a spontaneous uprising (which came to be known as the Intifada, from the Arabic for “shaking off”) against Israeli rule, which had been in place for 20 years.
For the first time, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and not the PLO leaders in the diaspora, began to set the agenda for the Palestinian national movement.
In early 1991, the Gulf War pushed Israel and the Palestinians even further apart. In response to the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, the United States led a coalition, which included several Arab states, against Iraq. The PLO was one of the few supporters of the Iraqi regime. Israelis were hit by missile attacks from Iraq.
Due in large part to its victory over Iraq and with the simultaneous decline of Soviet influence, the United States gained new credibility and influence in the Middle East.
In October 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker succeeded in organizing a Middle East peace conference in which representatives of Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians sat down at the same table for the first time in history. In spite of an acrimonious beginning, bilateral negotiations between all the parties began by January 1992.
These discussions led eventually to the famous White House handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, affirming the Oslo accords.
Despite its initial promise, the Oslo peace process soon bogged down. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995 and what appeared to be a path to peace soon spiraled into the Second Palestinian Intifada by 2000.
The collapse of negotiations after Oslo was followed by the rebuilding of psychological walls and the construction of actual walls dividing the Israelis and Palestinians to this day. Several more rounds of diplomatic processes were launched by successive U.S. presidents and their secretaries of state, with the latest failure in May 2014.
The Myths of National Origin
Overviews of historical and political events only help us so far, however. Distinct from the chronology, we need to understand the underlying emotional, cultural, and psychological meanings that the parties involved have invested in these events.
The competing mythologies and historical narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are exclusive and oppositional, saturated with the sense that the other side lacks historical or political legitimacy.
Indeed, in 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was widely quoted as saying that was no such entity as a Palestinian People, and Arabs said that the “Zionist entity” was an alien presence in the Arab midst that must be swept into the sea.
Israelis and Palestinians are not alone. Such mutually exclusive hostilities have appeared in Cyprus, South Africa, and Sri Lanka in recent years. One analyst estimated 71 such conflicts between 1955-2004 fought over the quest for and denial of national identity and self-determination.
The term myth is charged and I mean it here not as a synonym for fiction, but as narratives shared by a group of people which define their identity.
As the historian of nationalist movements Anthony Smith explains, these “myths of origins and descent” have six parts: 1) origins in time and space, 2) ancestry and descent, 3) migrations and liberations, 4) golden ages, 5) current sad decline and 6) future rebirth.
Problems arise when two such myths conflict in the same physical space, creating protracted disputes not just over political details, land, and resources, but over the more existential questions of identity.
This is exactly what has happened with Israelis and Palestinians, whose competing narratives can be outlined as follows.
(1) Origins in time and space. According to the Biblical account, the Jews emerged as a people at the time of their exodus from Egypt, approximately 4,000 years ago and settled in the land God promised them.
The Palestinians trace their roots to stories of a peasant society living well and simply off the fruit of the land. They honor their connection to the land where their religions, either Christianity or Islam, flourished. As a people, they emerged in many ways in sumud (Arabic for “steadfastness”) against Turkish, British, and now Zionist colonialism. They work unceasingly for a future that will supplant their loathsome present and in which they will regain their dignity and build a state, like all others, in their homeland.
(2) Ancestry and descent. In addition to their belief, as either Christians or Muslims, that they are adherents of a religious true path, Palestinians also link themselves to the Arab purveyors of modern science and literature who thrived in the Middle Ages.
Religious Jews consider themselves to be the Chosen People, the children of Abraham, to whom God spoke, and of Moses, through whom God gave the Torah as a heritage for the People of Israel. Some secular Jews see themselves as descendants of great prophets who wrote profound poetry and provided instructions for a world of justice and righteousness.
(3) Migrations and liberations. After establishing the First Temple in Jerusalem and building a Hebrew civilization, the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians. Later, they returned to the Land of Israel and built the Second Temple and again flourished as a religious civilization. They were again exiled, this time by the Romans in 70 CE, and wandered for almost 2,000 years, living as strangers and outsiders in other lands, until they returned to reclaim what they continued to view as their land and rebuild modern Zion in 1948.
The Palestinians take pride in recalling that their forebears have been in Palestine in an unbroken continuity. Although millions are now in exile, this merely adds strength to their determination to return. Liberation, it is dreamed, will be a return to the control the Palestinians feel they once had over their lives and daily affairs.
(4) Golden ages. The Palestinians, through their connection with the Muslim, Christian, and Arab communities globally, glory in the greatness of Arab genius. Particularly in the Middle Ages, Islamic thought, philosophy, literature, and poetry were gifts transmitted to civilization. The Arab civilization was once an expansive and glorified one. Its leaders were feared and its greatness respected.
The Jews recall their golden age in the periods of the First and Second Temples.
Both peoples view their golden pasts as providing moral markers for the proud and dignified existence they seek in their own modern states—to be preserved and promoted by the Israelis or sought for and built by the Palestinians.
(5) Their current sad decline. The Jews speak of being in a situation of exile even to this day because, despite the homeland/state, most Jews still live in the diaspora. Moreover, Israel has continued to struggle for acceptance and existence since its uneasy founding.
The Palestinians reject their current oppression and dispersion as unnatural and unacceptable. They are harassed by the Israelis, manipulated by their “fellow” Arabs in cynical and destructive ways, and internally fragmented.
(6) Future rebirth. The Palestinians maintain faith that justice demands that they have their own land and the self-determination and renewal that come with it.
The Jews in Israel had three dreams with the founding of their state: that it would serve as an ingathering of all Jewish exiles from the four corners of the globe, provide a place of peace and refuge for a tired people, and provide the Jewish people with social and cultural regeneration. For many Jews, these cherished goals have only been achieved to a limited degree.