Palestinians chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni

Understanding Israeli/Palestinian Interactions

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Gershon Baskin can be optimistic when all others are profoundly depressed, which is how he’s managed to stay in the peace biz so long.

After being out of circulation for a number of weeks preoccupied with the end of my academic semester, involving grading papers and exams and such, I was going to write a piece on the “peace process” but, after reviewing what’s been going on, I concluded that there was nothing for me to say that hadn’t been written ad infinitum from every point of view.  Moreover, with a few exceptions, left & right agreed that Secretary Kerry’s current peregrinations through the region have little chance of success.  I would love to write a contrarian piece pointing out a startling fact or interpretation that everyone else has missed but, sadly, I couldn’t find anything of the sort.  So I wish Kerry well and fervently hope that he surprises us by conjuring a successful peace process out of meager materials but until he does make us eat crow, I’ll write about other things, of which there are plenty.

My attention was recently called to a new online magazine, The Tower.  It is not exactly competition for this blog; it bills itself as non-partisan but it was founded by the new head of The Israel Project, Josh Block, and seems to mostly have an overwhelmingly rightwing (post-neocon?) orientation, with some clear exceptions, notably my friend Gershon Baskin, a stalwart of the Israeli peace camp for decades, who has a hopeful article on Jerusalem, for which I congratulate him.  Gershon can be optimistic when all others are profoundly depressed, which is how he’s managed to stay in the peace biz so long.  But I want to discuss another article, by Deborah Danan, who is billed as a “Tel-Aviv-based journalist, organizer of co-existence initiatives for Israelis and Palestinians,” entitled “If Peace Never Comes this will be the Reason.” It is a thoughtful analysis of Israeli-Palestinian interactions purporting to explain why Palestinians can never really accept Israel.  It has some interesting points but I think it is profoundly wrong. However, it makes some arguments that those of us who believe peace is possible should take seriously in understanding current attitudes of Palestinians.

I have some experience in this field.  From 1996 to 2002 I lived in Jerusalem and organized and attended numerous meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, working under the auspices of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace of the Hebrew University.  The chronologically-inclined reader will note that the period spans the height of the Oslo process (I arrived in the Middle East in Feb. 1996) to its depths (the middle of the 2d Intifada).  Since then, I have kept in touch with many of the Israelis and Palestinians I worked with, as well as teaching and writing on the subject, so I’m not exactly unaware of current developments.

Danan argues that Palestinian collective identity, focused on creation of a Palestinian state, fundamentally differs from Israeli Jewish empathy for Palestinian suffering.  She brings up the Muslim institution of a sulha, in which someone who has been wronged accepts the apology of the person who committed the wrong, and then moves on.  She believes Palestinians can only see peace overtures in the context of apology for a wrong, i.e., the Nakba of 1948.  On the other hand, Israelis, who have gone through a process of “individualization” in the past few decades, can empathize with Palestinian suffering without abandoning their core belief in the rightness of Israel to survive as a Jewish state.  She concludes that “Individualization, then, is essential to peace.”  However, the larger implication seems to be the perennial rightwing trope that Palestinians will never accept a Jewish state, no matter how moderate they seem to be.

It is an interesting approach but is based, in my view, on a misreading of the very different historical processes at work among Israelis and Palestinians.  Israel began as an extremely collectivist society, based both on Zionist ideology and socialism.  The latter is almost gone, with economic and political consequences Israel is currently trying to deal with.  The former has changed significantly, including leaving a lot more room for individual choice, but the core belief in Israel as a Jewish State still includes the vast majority of Israelis.  One of the main contrasts Americans who move to Israel deal with is the much greater sense of being part of a collective.  I write this on Memorial Day in the U.S., which is primarily for most people about a long weekend.  Contrast that with Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and I think it is hard to argue that Israel has lost its collective spirit.

However, Palestinians have not spent the last 65 years exploring their national priorities in the context of a state.  They have built a generally-recognized national identity, indeed, but have spent most of their national energies trying to create what Israelis have had all that time, a state of their own.  Israelis are much freer, having attained their state and defended it, to empathize with Palestinians, though the empathy has not led to definitive political changes for Palestinians, due to recalcitrance on both sides but, despite undeniable Israeli suffering, things have been rather worse for the Palestinians.

I have certainly experienced the attitudes Danan describes at work, and it is often irritating to Israelis who are looking for similar empathy from Palestinians on a personal level.  But Danan seems to assume a symmetry of experience that is totally lacking.  Israeli individualization, as well as prosperity, military success, and an explosion of technological and other creativity, was possible only in the context of what Palestinians don’t have, namely, self-determination in the context of a state.  Palestinians do have a chip on their shoulder and will have it until they have an opportunity – at which they may or may not succeed – of forging their own destiny.  Any Israeli who tries to pretend that their is a level field of personal interaction is fooling him or herself.  Only then – perhaps – can Israelis and Palestinians interact more freely.  There is no fundamental opposition to a Jewish state in practice for most Israelis (in theory is another matter, something I expect to discuss in a subsequent posting).

Of course, ending that sense of disparity is not something that can happen in one moment.  The process will not be a love fest.  No one likes to be blamed, and Israelis will be blamed for a lot, some  of it rightfully and some wrongfully.  But the only way of normalizing Israeli/Palestinian relations on a personal and “collective” level as well is by creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, for both of our sakes.  Without that, things will get worse.

And yes, it is often frustrating to meet with Palestinians, especially if one goes in expecting a symmetry of empathy.  And this brings us back to where I began, with a stalled and seemingly dysfunctional peace process.  Personal interactions, which have a real importance in themselves, can help us understand each other, but only if we recognized there is a very uneven field on which we meet.  Until the field is leveled politically, Israeli/Palestinian interactions, necessary as they are, will be fundamentally asymmetrical and unequal – and therefore, for many, fundamentally unsatisfying.

Paul L. Scham

Paul L. Scham

Paul L. Scham is Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, Executive Director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, and an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.His primary interest is in the history and current politics of Israel and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.For the last few years he has focused on the historical narratives of the two sides, co-editing two books and publishing a number of articles.He also co-authored a USIP Special Report on Hamas in 2009. In 1989 he established the first office of Americans for Peace Now in Washington, D.C. and served as its first Washington Representative.From 1996-2002, he lived in Jerusalem and coordinated Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Jordanian joint research projects at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University.Since 2010 he has been the Managing Editor of the Israel Studies Review, the academic journal of the Association for Israel Studies.He blogs regularly on issues related to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.
Paul L. Scham

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