Middle East Conflict: Fighting to Improve the Past

By Valerie Saturen

With the rising power of Hamas and a rightward shift in Israeli politics, a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians appears farther out of reach than it has in decades. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity is closing on a two-state solution to the conflict.

Netanyahu seems unwilling to seriously curtail Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to build their state. As demographics shift toward an Arab majority, Israel may soon be unable to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state. Both sides have grown pessimistic about the prospect of two states living side-by-side in peace.

War of Historical Narratives

Yet polls show that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians support a peace settlement, and a consensus exists over its general framework. In fact, the deepest source of contention is not whether peace is desirable or what its parameters should be. Rather, it is a war of historical narratives playing out on an international stage, and the American public has front row seats.

This is a war about memory. When suicide bombers and rockets strike their cities, Israelis recall centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in genocide. They relive several wars in which Israel seemed hopelessly pitted against multiple armies. When tanks and missiles tear through their streets, Palestinians remember the exile of 750,000 refugees during Israel’s birth — an event they call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” They recount every injustice they have suffered over four decades of Israeli occupation.

The tendency to view one’s own side as a righteous victim is both understandable and universally human. However, it creates an obstacle to reconciliation. A just and lasting peace cannot come about by merely delineating borders and agreeing to end violence; it must include mutual recognition and dialogue.

Because the narratives war involves the international community, such dialogue must also take place internationally, especially in the United States. Since the creation of Israel, the United States has played an important role in Israeli affairs. Because of Israel’s dependence on diplomatic, military, and economic support from the U.S., both sides of the conflict are aware of the necessity of swaying American public opinion. This has produced a fierce battle over academic and media channels and the access they grant to American hearts and minds.

Choice of Language is Crucial

A major source of contention is the use of language, whether in labeling geographical locations, deciding what to call perpetrators of violence, or invalidating the opposing narrative. To supporters of the settlement movement, the West Bank is the biblical Judea and Samaria. To Hamas supporters, terrorists are martyrs. To cynics on both sides, the peace process is the “peace process.”

The narratives war plays out daily in venomous online screeds and in the close monitoring of media channels for the slightest hint of (often imagined) bias. College campuses are ideological battlegrounds where students face off at emotionally charged rallies. Troublingly, the physical and rhetorical conflicts have merged, and journalists have become targets for combatants who wish to keep their atrocities out of the public eye.

Those who care about Middle East peace can play a role in transforming this ideological conflict. By creating dialogue that honors both narratives, the international community can transcend the polarization surrounding this issue and help pave the way for genuine peace.  Φ

Valerie Saturen is editor of Middle East Mirror (www.middleeastmirror.com), an online publication devoted to dialogue. She holds an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona. Contact her at vsaturen@middleeastmirror.com.

1 comment for “Middle East Conflict: Fighting to Improve the Past

  1. February 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    More “dialogue” is meaningless when one side has all the power. International intervention to balance this vast asymmetry will be necessary before any just resolution will become possible. Competing “narratives” are equally irrelevant. The independently documented historical record and relevant international law are all that should matter (if the latter is enforced).

    The Israeli/Palestinian “peace process” has been going through its motions for some two decades now, nudged and attended by anything-but-disinterested U.S. meddle-men, in ostensible pursuit of Palestinian self-government and an ever-elusive “two-state solution.” University of Illinois international law professor Francis Boyle, who advised the Palestinian delegation to Oslo, reported in his book, Palestine, Palestinians and International Law, that the Israelis never negotiated in good faith. Their strategy has been to stall as long as possible while gobbling up more and more Palestinian land. Then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon in 1998 encouraged settlers to “move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.” The grabbing is now focused on East Jerusalem while the stalemate drags on.

    Two upcoming presentations at the University of Oregon will present much more promising alternatives than continued faux “dialogue.” On Thursday, February 25 Rebecca Tumposky of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) will appear at 7 pm in the UO Knight Library Browsing Room with Monadel Herzallah of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network to discuss “One year after Gaza – What happened? What’s next? What can we do now?” They will appear in Portland on Friday, February 26 and Corvallis February 27. The IJAN is a recently established, rapidly growing network to provide an organizational voice to the many Jews who reject Zionism and do not identify with Israel – some half of Jewish-Americans under 35 according to a 2007 survey reported in the Jerusalem Post. This movement instead bases its collective identity upon the honored Jewish tradition of social justice and repudiates the racist ideology and practices of Israel (www.ijsn.net), stands in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance, and supports the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel (www.bdsmovement.net) to balance the power scale.

    Resolution has been blocked primarily by the Zionist insistence on a “Jewish” state which privileges Jews and equates loss of Jewish majority through honoring the right of return for displaced Palestinians as “the destruction of Israel.” If Israel can simply give up Zionism like any other bad habit, they can become a normal, multi-ethnic state accepted by the world community rather than the ethnocratic pariah state they are today, the object of over 100 UN resolutions of censure, condemnation and directives to desist from numerous and repeated internationally prohibited actions.

    Such a state is envisioned by Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website (www.electronicintifada.net) and author of One Country – A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse who will appear on Friday, March 5 at 1 pm in UO Lawrence Hall, Room 115. Abunimah is the most prominent voice among many recognized writers, historians and human rights proponents to advocate creation of a single, integrated, democratic state as the only solution that would meet the requirements of international law and simultaneously bring freedom, justice and equality to the long-embattled Holy Land. He will appear in Portland that Friday evening.

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