Israel-Palestine Peace: A Hostage to History

AP Images/Mahmoud Illean

One of Benjamin Netanyahu's best known preconditions for a two-state peace accord is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state. That's actually the short version of the Israeli prime minister's demand, it turns out. The long version, as he laid out last week before the most amenable audience he could find, is that the Palestinians must sign off on the entire Jewish narrative of the history of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Speaking in Jerusalem to a delegation of leaders of American Jewish organizations, Netanyahu asked: "Do they not know that we’ve been here for the last 3,800 years? They don’t know that this is the land of the Bible? That this is where Jewish history and Jewish identity was forged?" These, of course, were rhetorical questions. Netanyahu's implication was that Palestinians understand that these truths are self-evident, as is the conclusion that Jews have the primary claim on political sovereignty over the land today—part of which Israel is willing to concede. If Palestinian negotiators aren't willing to acknowledge all this in writing through recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, he argued, it shows that they don't see an agreement with Israel as an end to the conflict. The day after it's signed, Netanyahu asserted, they'll go back to demanding more territory and an unlimited right of return for Palestinian refugees.

To quell any confusion, I should state here that I also believe that Jews have a very long history between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. True, Netanyahu's "3,800 years" reflects either his tendency toward hyperbole with numbers or his ignorance of the last several decades of archaeology, which have moved quite a bit of the Bible's early account of the Israelites from the realm of fact to the realm of myth. But no matter. If Jewish history in the land began a mere 2,800 or 2,600 years ago, that's quite long enough to back up the claim of historical connection. Jews who moved to this stretch of the Levant—before and after the beginning of Zionism—regarded themselves as returning to their homeland, and Jews have a reasonable claim to self-determination in that homeland.

The problem is that this is a picture of a complex past from just one camera angle. Seen from another angle, looking seaward from the Mediterranean shore from the 1880s onward, Zionists were foreigners who arrived in Palestine during the age of colonialism and who pushed aside the people who already lived there. From this angle, whatever political existence Jews had in Palestine ended a couple of millennia ago, and the people with the obvious right to self-determination in the whole land are the Palestinians.  

Both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives have a foundation in fact. But to make matters messier, both stories are flawed by large gaps, by unsupported allegations of the other side's intentions, and by justifications of the unjustifiable. The bottom line is that Palestinians don't "know" Netanyahu's particularly simplified version of the Israeli story any more than he "knows" that Zionism is colonialism. 

To be fair, the battle over narratives already plagued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before Netanyahu tossed in his recognition demand. The two issues that contributed the most to the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 were the refugees and the Temple Mount, otherwise known as Haram al-Sharif. Israelis heard Palestinian insistence that the Haram was a purely Islamic holy site as a shameless denial of any Jewish historical connection to the land as a whole. For Palestinians, the Israeli refusal to bend on the right of return showed perverse unwillingness to own up to creation of the refugee problem—for which, in the simple form of the Palestinian narrative, responsibility lies entirely on Israel.

Since the refugee issue and control of holy places are also practical problems, they can't be avoided. But dealing with their historical symbolism is the one place where constructive ambiguity can contribute to a peace deal. Borders must be precise. Both sides must agree on the last detail of security arrangements and water use. Symbolism, on the other hand, can and should be fuzzy. One strong reason for internationalizing control of Jerusalem's holy places is that it avoids answering the question of who has the greater historical claim to the Haram (otherwise known as the Temple Mount). A critical reason that Israel will have to agree to some number of Palestinian refugees returning to its soil is that by doing so, it will signal that it is acknowledging a role in the Nakba, without actually defining what that role was.

It's a lot harder to find a practical need for insisting that the Palestinians go beyond de jure recognition of Israel to recognizing it specifically as a Jewish state. A two-state agreement will necessarily include clauses in which each state renounces further claims against the other.  What would the recognition clause add?

Netanyahu argues that it would forestall demands by "a sub-group of Israeli citizens"—meaning that Palestinian citizens of Israel couldn't demand collective rights as a national minority, or regional autonomy in part of Israel, and or to redefine Israel as a state without a Jewish national character. Palestinian negotiators say that they can't speak for Palestinians in Israel. A logical Israeli response would be, "Glad you mentioned that. Say it louder. Put it in writing: The State of Palestine is not the political representative of any group of Israeli citizens." This, in fact, would deal with a justified Israeli concern about how a two-state agreement could play out.

According to the latest unreliable leaks, Secretary of State John Kerry is looking for a constructive way to fudge the recognition issue. I can't criticize Kerry for this; he has to play the cards he's been dealt, and one of those cards has Netanyahu's face on it. The commentary that the prime minister has added—that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state means accepting confirming an Israeli narrative of "3,800 years" of history—won't make Kerry's work easier.

The easiest guess about Netanyahu's motivation is that he has raised the demand precisely to foil an agreement. Perhaps. I don't know his secret thoughts. Overtly, though, he has made hopes for the future hostage to history.

A workable peace accord must be written so as to avoid direct denial of either side's narrative. But it cannot be conditioned on an agreed-upon account of the past. In the best case, the process will work the other way around: If peace is reached, if both sides actively seek reconciliation, if they let raw wounds become scars, a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians will sneak a look at the past from the other's angle as well as their own.   

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