The war of the narratives. Flickr / Jan Slangen. Some rights reserved.The middle-east peace talks have failed once again. Israelis and Palestinians entered the negotiations nine months ago with an American midwife—but no baby emerged. Once more we have the all-too-familiar blame game, as the two sides sulk, insult and close doors and a helpless American watches in frustration. Others, in Europe and elsewhere, are beyond frustration: it seems that they have just stopped caring like they used to do.
Why, after Camp David 2000, Annapolis 2007, Ulmert in 2008 and Mitchell in 2009, yet another failure? The question is even more baffling given that everyone knows the shape of the two-state agreement that is being negotiated over and over again. It goes along the lines of the Clinton proposal made almost 15 years ago, the Geneva agreement of ten years ago and the Ulmert proposal to Abu Mazen of six years ago. All these “almost agreements” include: (1) Palestine and Israel around the 1967 borders, (2) Palestinian capital in Arab Jerusalem and Israeli capital in Jewish Jerusalem, (c) Palestinians’ repatriation into Palestine and Jews into Israel, and (d) guarantees by the international community for valid Israeli security concerns and an equal, whole and independent Palestine. More or less, this is the deal. Why not sign it?
Even more perplexing is the fact that Israels know the costs of not signing this deal. They will end up living in an Arab Palestine with a sizable Jewish minority or a Jewish Israel that oppresses a large Arab majority. Yet although many understand the two dangers they seem in no hurry to avoid them. “Why rush?” they say. “Are not things rosy as they are now? The economy is good, the beaches are beautiful and in spite of global warming the weather is nice.”
This blindness towards the future, given the deep distrust that dominates Israeli-Palestinian relations, leads to the seemingly rational assertion that this is basically an insoluble conflict that can be managed, at best. There is a mixture of omnipotence and irrationality in these attitudes. It assumes that Israelis hold all the cards and that the Palestinians and the world community will be willing to play this “waiting game” forever. I don’t think so.
Palestinians and Israelis want the same things. They want peace so that they can work, play and care for their families. Surveys also tell us that many, if not most, in both communities favour agreement on a two-state solution. So, if both parties want the same basic things and they know how to get there, how come they fail again and again? The answer is in the main that this is not a conflict about land or water. These are important but the conflict is first and foremost about secure and recognised identities.
It is a conflict about the validity of competing narratives. It is a conflict about legitimacy and justice. A stretch of land can be easily divided. The validity of a national narrative cannot. The nature of identity conflicts is that they tend to be zero-sum conflicts. If my narrative is valid then yours is not.
It is no wonder many Palestinians refuse to admit that thousands of years ago a Jewish nation was born and led a flourishing national life in the land between the Jordan and the sea. In spite of archeological evidence many Palestinians refuse to accept the fact of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand, a substantial number of Israeli Jews dismiss the reality of the Palestinian presence for centuries in the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and claim sole ownership over Jerusalem. They call the west bank by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria, as if the events that are described in the bible occurred a year or 10 years ago.
And it is no wonder Jerusalem occupies such a prominent place in the minds of both parties. Jerusalem is a core element in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of identities. When a politician refers to the city, he is not referring to a geographical area that can be divided or shared but to a fundamental feature of identity which can be neither shared nor divided.
Leaders can attenuate this zero-sum game. They can do so by acknowledging the other’s victimhood. Identities in conflict are dominated by the memory of central traumas. That memory is a unifying force which binds groups together.
For Palestinians the central trauma is 1948. Israelis view this year as the date of their renewed independence and Palestinians as the source of their disaster (Naqba). There is argument between the claim that the Jews expelled Palestinians in 1948 and the claim that Palestinians had left on the advice of their leaders. As is often the case, the truth is probably a mixture of the two. Yet one thing is clear: the national experience of uprootedness and the sufferings of Palestinian refugees, which continue today, began in 1948 with the creation of Israel.
For Jews the national trauma is the Holocaust. Beyond being the climax of evil it represents the pinnacle of two millennia of anti-Semitic persecutions. Palestinians have no role in the long string of persecutions that culminated in the Holocaust but they need to be cognisant that it is the source of Israeli fears and insecurities.
Feelings of victimhood prolong and preserve animosity towards others. When victimhood dominates, it directs the people’s attention away from the pains of others, attending only to their own suffering. They feel a strong sense of entitlement and are preoccupied with the need for their group’s sufferings to be acknowledged. There are few more threatening events for a victim than the denial of their victimhood. When the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, engaged in Holocaust denial he pushed, intentionally or unintentionally, on the most sensitive point in the Israeli psyche.
Political leaders who maintain and magnify the fears that bind the group together manipulate these elements of victimhood. Israelis and Palestinians are plagued by the victimhood identity, regarding it as the ultimate premiss for present-day distrust and violence. Adversaries preoccupied with their own victimhood are blinded to the reality as the other views it. This is a breeding ground for the deep distrust that exists between peoples and the leaders who represent them. The combination of distrust and lack of empathy with the other’s perspective is a guarantor of failed negotiations.
How can this trap of double victimhood be broken? Acknowledging the adversary’s victimhood is one way to do so. It is not a magic cure but it is an important first step in building trust and empathy. These are necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for successful negotiations. Mutual readiness to acknowledge the other’s victimhood expresses people’s success in freeing themselves from the shackles of their need to monopolise victimhood and the self-centered identity which such an attitude nourishes. The acknowledgement of victimhood by the adversarial party indicates a recognition of (to them) the other as suffering humans, not a faceless enemy.
A case in point is the recent exchange between the Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, following the acknowledgement by the former of the Holocaust. The episode illustrated how things should not be done.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of Holocaust memorial day in Israel, Abu Mazen publicly described the Jewish Holocaust as the most horrendous crime in modern history. To many Israeli ears these were new and welcome words by their adversary, addressing their national trauma.
But Netanyahu failed to grasp the deep meaning of the statement and the real opportunity it represented. Almost instinctively, he responded by calling it a manipulative ploy by the Palestinian leader to gain international support. He continued to play the blame game of distrust, adopting a pejorative, dismissive and humiliating stance.
What if the statement had been met with appreciation? And if, on another opportunity shortly afterwards, Netanyahu were to acknowledge the sufferings of Palestinians living in refugee camps and under occupation? Not because there is any parallel between the two national traumas and not as a reciprocation for Abu Mazen’s statement, but because if one willed peace this would be the right and wise thing to do.
The fear that acknowledging the other’s victimhood would be interpreted as weakness and uncertainty as to the justice of one’s own cause is false. If stated correctly and courageously it would be perceived as a sign of humanity and strength. As such it would contribute to the build-up of trust and openness between two peoples who are forever trapped in their own victimhood and lack of empathy for the other.
The recognition of the other’s pain and suffering is missing from the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians. We should try it.