Mutual candour can bring peace

It is time that Israelis and Palestinians came out from behind the old and rigid arguments

By Naomi Shepherd, September 3, 2009

The obstacles to the “two-state solution” to the Israel/Palestine conflict are well known. Can they be removed by international intervention?

Israel maintains that it has periodically offered generous settlement terms, which have been rejected. It argues that Palestinian violence against civilian targets has continued throughout the conflict and that the Palestinian leadership is too divided to ensure that such violence would end or any agreement reached be honoured. For Israel, the barrage of rockets from Gaza, since Ariel Sharon evacuated all the settlements there, proves that ceding the West Bank might endanger security along a much more vulnerable frontier. The ties between Hamas and Iran suggest that Israel would then be attacked by more advanced missiles.

The Palestinians, for their part, maintain that Israel’s settlements and the road system constructed in the West Bank, corralling Palestinian citizens into separate cantons, make independence impossible. They believe that even if they achieved such a truncated state, Israel would control the Palestinian economy and the state’s frontiers, just as it does today in Gaza. They argue that Israel, too, has targeted civilians caught up in the conflict, while pitting a powerful army against a group of militias. They are outraged by Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, and Israel’s refusal to resettle the refugees of 1948, and their descendants, within the borders of Israel.

Given these two apparently irreconcilable viewpoints, the durability of the conflict, and its centrality to the much larger rift between the Muslim world and the West, a new argument is now proposed. Put crudely: outside forces: non-fundamentalist Arab states, on the one hand, and the United States and Europe, on the other, must resolve the conflict by sanctions or bribes.

But, over and beyond the well-rehearsed arguments, there is another, more deeply rooted division, which cannot be solved by border adjustments, the evacuation of Israeli settlements and/or the defeat of fanatics on both sides. Only the players in the conflict can resolve it.

Israel believes that it had an historic right to all of Palestine, and compromised in accepting its partition while the Palestinians (and the surrounding Arab states) initially refused it. The Palestinians believe that Israel infringed their historical right to the same territory, and that they will be compromising by — finally — agreeing to its partition.

The Israelis believe that the persecution of Jews over the millennia entitle them to a state of their own. The Palestinians see the majority of Jews as outsiders and argue that they have been made to pay the price for Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

No Israeli politician has ever stated publicly that an injustice against another people was committed when modern Israel was established. No Palestinian politician has ever stated publicly that the Jews are there by right.

Such statements would arouse feelings of outrage in both nations, and they would have to be followed by substantial concessions on either side. But they are a necessary and indispensable part of any lasting peace. Once made, they could not easily be retracted.

Until now, both have employed considerable sophistry in avoiding making such statements. Israel argues that Palestine was never a separate political entity — and there is no doubt that, had the Jews lost the 1947/8 war, it would have been divided between Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The Palestinians argue that most Israelis have no roots in the Middle East — and there is no doubt that Israel would never have achieved demographic mass had it not been for the Holocaust and its refugee immigrants, few of whom were Zionists. It is not difficult to show that distinct Palestinian nationalism emerged from the conflict with Zionism. Yet these are arguments for historians to debate, not excuses for intransigence.

Both sides attribute enormous importance to their historic pedigrees and their claims to legitimacy as nations. It is difficult to imagine a lasting settlement between the two — even if externally imposed by stronger powers — without mutual recognition of their adversaries’ rights.

Naomi Shepherd’s books include ‘Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-48’

Last updated: 1:59pm, September 3 2009