A missing link: acknowledgement of historical narratives as part of peacemaking

by Paul Scham
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WASHINGTON - At the present time, there is a fundamental perceptual difference between the so-called "peace camps" among Israelis and Palestinians, on the one hand, and, on the other, those who would like to see peace, but don't see it as possible. The members of the peace camp believe that majorities on both sides are essentially willing to live in peace with the other. As opposed to this, the "potential moderates" believe that they are willing to make peace but the other side isn't.

Breaking through this wall of suspicion must be the chief task of all those who identify with the "peace camps", whether they are in the government, working with grassroots organizations or in other countries. It must be recognized that the governments on the two sides are not themselves the main problem; rather their fear, unwillingness or inability to take the steps necessary to punch through the suspicion is part of the fabric of the conflict.

A significant component of these walls of suspicion is the baggage that both sides carry in the form of historical narratives. These narratives cannot be jettisoned; they are essential components to the respective national identities of both sides. Neither can they be combined into a single narrative. Rather, they are indispensable elements of national identity that need to be dealt with in any future serious peace initiative.

Traditional diplomacy usually assumes that each side will "take its narrative and go home"; i.e. each side can ignore what the other thinks or believes through carefully spelling out the rights and responsibilities of both sides in a treaty. However, it must be recognized that any peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians, to be effective, must deal with issues such as the Right of Return and Jerusalem, which are rooted in the basic historical narratives of both sides.

The "Right of Return" is an outgrowth of the seminal event of Palestinian history, the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, in which 700,000 Palestinians left their homes, through force, fear or persuasion. The most fundamental Palestinian demand is for their right to return, and that of their descendants, now numbering an estimated 4 million, to these homes (which in most cases no longer exist). Israel strenuously refuses this, arguing it is tantamount to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. Further, it refuses any discussion of the issue, seeing it as incompatible with peace, as well as denying even partial responsibility for the Palestinian exodus, maintaining Israel was solely defending itself.

In fact, the historical record has become clearer in recent years, primarily due to the work of younger Israeli historians. There is little doubt that atrocities can be attributed to both sides. It is hard to maintain, now, that any side was solely a victim.

Most Arab moderates readily agree (privately) that a blanket Right of Return can never be implemented. However, most likewise believe it must be a part of the peace process. This is not a contradiction. Both sides can reasonably insist that their narratives be "acknowledged", not necessarily accepted, but respected by the other.

Jews should be able to understand this through the prism of the Holocaust. While there is no legitimate comparison whatsoever between the scope, intent and nature of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe and the Palestinian Nakba, it can reasonably be expected that the importance of both to each national narrative be acknowledged by the other. Both are integral and irrevocable elements of that narrative.

Another issue that needs to be part of the preparation for peace is the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. While Palestinians can show that the location of the Second Temple is now fully occupied by the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they must acknowledge the importance of the site to the fundamental Jewish and Israeli narrative. This can go a long way towards allowing Israelis to feel their legitimacy is accepted by their neighbours, as recognition of the Nakba will for Palestinians.

Acknowledgement of these issues by top officials and by official documents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority can help to diffuse the fears of the moderate majority on both sides that they will never be accepted by the "other".

Acknowledgement of the historical narratives of the other side is not, of course, a magic bullet for settling the conflict. However, as part of a comprehensive package that deals with land, sovereignty, borders, settlements, security, and the like, it can go further than many people realize in confirming the legitimacy of both peoples in the land, which is the only feasible way to attain peace.

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* Paul Scham is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. and formerly a research associate at the Truman Institute for Peace of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; he is also co-editor of the book Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 May 2007
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