Political Memory in the Mideast

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas regime in Gaza, may be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's favorite Palestinian leader -- a true ally, a blood brother. What they share is an all-or-nothing approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: either complete Palestinian rule over the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan or complete Jewish hegemony. Neither man is a totally immovable object -- roped and dragged by an irresistible political force, either might agree to less than the whole land, but only in violation of his life's central conviction.

Haniyeh reiterated his views on Sunday at a Gaza rally, expressing "great hope of bringing an end to the Zionist project in Palestine." Netanyahu seized that comment as a gift from an ally and quoted it the next day in his own speech to the Knesset, using it as proof that "this is not a conflict over 1967; this is a conflict over 1948, over the very existence of the state of Israel."

Let me add several bits of context: First, in Israeli political debate, "1948" and "1967" are misused as shorthand. If the key to the conflict is the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip ever since, then agreement on a two-state solution is possible. It will be based on an Israeli pullback more or less to the pre-1967 borders and creation of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

If, however, the intractable core of the conflict is Israel's establishment and the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 -- what Palestinians call the Nakba, the Catastrophe -- a two-state compromise won't work. Rolling back the consequences of 1948 means eliminating the Jewish state, creating a single political entity between the river and the sea, and allowing all of the refugees of '48 or their descendants to return to Israel. Outside of a fraction of the Israeli radical left, which insists on a single, shared state, Israelis are understandably unwilling to accept such a "solution." But the claim that the conflict is essentially about 1948 is exploited by the Israeli right: If the Palestinians, every last one of them, will never settle for less than a reversal of 1948, then there's no point in giving up the West Bank. The conflict will just continue.

Second, Haniyeh's and Netanyahu's comments came at the start of a week and a half overtangled with political developments, even by the standards of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. Haniyeh spoke on May 15, when Palestinians commemorated the Nakba. The same day the Arab Spring literally spilled into Israeli-controlled territory, when Palestinian demonstrators from Syria -- mobilized via Facebook, with some wearing business suits to emphasize that they came unarmed -- managed to march into the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu cited that event along with Haniyeh's speech in Parliament, warming up for a Washington trip that will include a meeting with President Barack Obama, a speech before Congress, and another at the convention of AIPAC, the hawkish pro-Israel lobby. Obama has his own speech on Middle East policy today, and another before AIPAC's thousands. Count on Netanyahu to repeat the 1948 arguments, bolstered with some cherry-picked quotes from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's New York Times op-ed this week and with a "peace offer" designed to be rejected. The question facing Obama is whether he is finally willing to be the winch dragging Israelis and Palestinians toward peace or whether he'd rather be cheered by the AIPAC crowd, which does not want to hear any criticism of Netanyahu or of the status quo.

Third, the either-or argument about 1948 versus 1967 is deeply misleading. Both years are part of Israeli-Palestinian history. But history isn't made of rock. It is built from witnesses' uncertain memories. It shimmers and shifts with collective retellings and with scholarly discoveries that sometimes actually convince people to reconsider what they thought was fact.

Most important, the meaning and weight of past events -- including the Nakba and the Israeli conquests of 1967 -- changes in light of current politics. When Israel pursues a peace agreement based mainly on the 1967 issues of dividing territory, it has a better chance of resolving the 1948 issue of refugees. When it tries to deny that 1967 matters, it has much less leverage to deal with 1948. Netanyahu's stress on 1948 is therefore a foolish and dangerous choice.

For a case study of how malleable history can be, read Abbas' op-ed. His retelling of the past is infuriating and has led some very pro-peace Jews to accuse him of consciously lying. Abbas says that in 1948, when he was 13, he and his family "were forced" to leave the Galilee town of Safed and go into exile. That's in the passive voice, so that Abbas does not accuse anyone or any event in particular of forcing his family to leave. But he then writes that "Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel" -- painting the entire Nakba as a premeditated strategy, and his own flight from Safed as a case in point.

That fits the dominant Palestinian narrative and makes an altogether overly neat story out of a chaotic war. The most solid military history, by Israeli scholar Benny Morris, details a Palestinian exodus that combined the normal flight of civilians from war with expulsions by Israeli forces that grew more frequent as the fighting continued. As for the particular case of Safed, Morris describes the cause of Arab exodus from the town as panic caused by house-to-house-fighting, Jewish mortar fire into Arab neighborhoods and Arab commanders abandoning the town.

Yet Abbas may honestly "remember" being expelled. As Israeli historian and peace activist Mordechai Bar-On has written, based on his own experience as a young soldier in 1948, "each individual [witness] has firsthand experience of only a very narrow portion of the events, yet he or she tells a complete story," based on details heard afterward from others and by shared repetition.

Abbas' account includes more recent history, though. For 20 years, he says, the Palestinians have been negotiating with Israel on a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines. That's accurate, and Abbas himself has been the Palestinian leader most consistently committed to a negotiated end to the conflict. Now he says bilateral talks have failed. So in September he will ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine "on the 1967 border ... in the remaining 22 percent of our homeland" -- meaning the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- and accept it as a member. Afterward, he says, Palestine will be ready to negotiate all the remaining core issues with Israel, especially "a just solution for Palestinian refugees."

Netanyahu's response in a press release says Abbas has shown that the "the Palestinian leadership views the establishment of a Palestinian state as a means to continue the conflict with Israel instead of ending it." That's Netanyahu's standard line, but the lens of his preconceptions distorts what Abbas wrote.

In those 20 years of talks, from the Madrid Conference through the Oslo Accord up to Abbas' negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, both the 1967 and the 1948 issues were on the table. The Palestinians sought a state next to Israel and a resolution of the refugee issue. As another veteran Palestinian negotiator recently told me, in the Oslo talks, the Palestinian side assumes the final agreement would allow some refugees to return to what is now Israel, some to return to the West Bank and Gaza, and some to remain in Arab countries as citizens. The proportions, he said, "would be negotiated."

As long as 1967 and 1948 were on the table together -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and all the rest -- Israel could trade concessions on one issue for Palestinian chips on another. At the time of the Abbas-Olmert talks, as Bernard Avishai has reported, the two sides were still dickering about the number of refugees going to Israel, but it was clear that they would be the "exceptional cases."

But once Netanyahu took office, unwilling to continue the talks where his predecessor left off, unwilling to agree to Obama's request for a lasting settlement freeze, certain that "no [Palestinian] leadership has arisen that is ready for a real historic compromise" (as he told the Knesset this week), Abbas finally gave up on negotiating a package deal. He hopes the United Nations will impose a two-state solution. That will leave the 1948 issue of the refugees still on the table, with a final-status deal yet to be signed. Netanyahu, meanwhile, will take all of this as evidence that his his misreading of history has been proved right.

All this might please his ally in recalcitrance, Ismail Haniyeh. I can't figure out why the AIPAC thousands should be happy, but I'm sure they'll cheer Netanyahu wildly.

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