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.

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