A few months ago, the famous Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua wrote an essay on why the Arab-Israeli conflict is so hard to resolve. In preparation for an essay on this subject, I fisk his answer which at least goes beyond the superficial silliness of the typical liberal (Friedman, Kristof, Beinart), but which fails to get beyond a combination of deep issues tied up in a false parity that leaves the reader as mystified as ever.
Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved
The author argues that peace remains elusive because the conflict is unprecedented in human history.
By A.B. Yehoshua | Apr.26, 2011 | 1:53 AM | 35
The question in the headline should ostensibly be directed to a Middle East expert, a political scientist, or even a foreign historian, not a writer whose expertise is his imagination. But because the question is a real one that is painful to everyone in the region regardless of his nationality, I will try to propose an answer. This question is serious and disturbing for two reasons. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest-running conflicts in the modern era. If we mark its beginning at the start of Zionist settlement in Palestine in the 1880s, the conflict has been active, in blood and fire, for about 130 years.
I think that’s an erroneous approach. It’s been an open conflict since 1936, although it was in formation for a long time before. But the response of the local Arab population to the Jews from the 1880s to the 1930s was too variegated, and often broadly favorable,that it’s inappropriate to date the kind of implacable hostility that characterizes the conflict since the “Great Arab Rebellion.”
Second, this is not a remote conflict in a godforsaken place, but one constantly at the center of international awareness. That means it is one of the most extensively dealt-with conflicts in the world. In the past 45 years alone, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has been the subject of serious attempts at mediation by many countries and respectable [sic, should read “respected”] international organizations. Presidents of the United States have tried to mediate personally between the sides. Heads of government from all over the world devote their attention to it; high-level emissaries come to the region to try their hand at mediation and compromise. All this is on top of tireless initiatives by organizations and individuals on both sides in well-meaning symposia and meetings. Studies, books and innumerable position papers have been written and are being written all the time.
Here’s an interesting thought. Maybe all this “help” have made things worse? Maybe by using techniques intended to get people in civic polities to “get to yes,” without any real understanding of the sources of the conflict (still worse, with the noxious notions behind “Peace and Conflict Studies”), the solutions have backfired. Maybe in engaging in “therapeutic history” where the soi-disant “left” support Palestinian (lethal and delusional) narratives as a way of showing “support for the underdog,” the worst elements of Palestinian culture (scapegoating, hate-mongering, revenge fantasies, conspiracy theory) have been reinforced.
And although the sides have come to partial agreements in direct, secret and open talks, and although the formulas for a solution have seemed clear and acceptable, and even though these are two small nations that are ostensibly subject to international dictates, the conflict still contains an inner core that stubbornly refuses to surrender to peace.
First major mistake: to refer to the Palestinians as a “nation” reflects two erroneous notions: 1) that the people he calls Palestinians represent a distinct nation or have a “national consciousness”, and 2) that its leaders want to be one of two “nations”. The consequences of this conceptual “granting of nationhood” to the Palestinians will become clear later on.
It’s true that there have been many mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides throughout the years. And because this conflict is cyclical rather than linear – in other words, time does not necessarily bring us closer to a solution, but peace approaches and recedes at historical junctions in the past and future – there is reason to wonder what makes this conflict unique compared to other conflicts, what causes it to persevere so zealously. I do not presume to intimate that my answer is the exclusive one, but I will try to put it to the test. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved because it is a conflict unprecedented in human history. There is no precedent for a nation that lost its sovereignty 2,000 years ago, was scattered among the nations, and later decided for internal and external reasons to return to its ancient homeland and re-establish sovereignty there. Therefore, if everyone considers the modern return to Zion a unique event in human history, that means the Palestinian people or the Israeli Arabs have also been forced to face a unique phenomenon that no other nation has confronted. In the early 19th century there were only about 5,000 Jews in the Land of Israel, compared with the 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian Arabs. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 there were about 50,000 Jews compared with 550,000 Palestinians Arabs. (These numbers are from the Jewish Encyclopedia. ) And by 1948 there were about 600,000 Jews versus 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs.
Note the remarkable population growth of the Arabs. The demography of the region under Ottoman rule had been remarkably stable (and low) for centuries.
The Jewish people thus quickly ingathered from all corners of the world. They did not want to expel the Palestinians, and certainly not to destroy them, but neither did they want to integrate them into Jewish society as other nations did with the local residents.
This is a strange formulation. What does he mean by “nations did with local residents.” Empires need to deal with “local residents,” and they tend to make them subjects. Nations form around a collective identity, and if they’re democratic they try and integrate everyone within a pluralistic (i.e., tolerant) polity. In the period of early Zionism, the Arabs were not part of a nation, but an ethnic and religious identity, and any other religious or ethnic group, like the Jews, or the Maronites, or the Bedouin, neither sought to, nor accepted the notion that they should be “integrated.” On the contrary, under the Turkish rulers, the land was filled with various groups (millets), most of them dhimmis in an elaborate hierarchy (in which the Greek Orthodox were the highest, and the Jews the bottom of that hierarchy). The real problem with the advent of the Zionists was that, as Westerners returning upright (komemiyut), they posed an impossible dilemma to the prevailing pre-nation situation.
Moreover, there was no attempt here to impose a colonial regime, since the Jews had no mother country that had sent them on colonial conquests, as in the case of Britain or France. Here something original and unique in human history took place: A nation arrived in the homeland of another nation [sic] to replace its identity with an ancient-new one.
Now why on earth would Yehoshua identify the position of the inhabitants of this region as a “nation”? Nothing remotely resembling that existed, and even if one wanted to argue that some “proto-nations” existed (Syria, Egypt, Algeria), that had nothing to do with a district that had no separate or unique identity. Note that when the UN partitioned Palestine in 1948, there was no talk of an Israeli and “Palestinian” state. It was to be an “Arab State.” Palestinian “national consciousness,” even among those who might use the term, was only in terms of “all or nothing.” Hence the rejection of a statehood for which there was no cultural framework.
That is why at its most profound level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a question of territory, as in the case of many historical conflicts between nations, but a battle over the national identity of the entire homeland – every stone and every part of it.
Here we enter the “both sides” narrative. Very little was particularly sacred to Arabs about this land before the arrival of the Zionists. Even Jerusalem, the “third holiest city in Islam” was neglected as late as under Jordanian rule in the 1950s and early 1960s. Haram al Sharif under Jordanian Rule (1948-1967) HT: Elder of Ziyon
Haram al Sharif, 2007 (no weeds under these worshipper’s fee)
The Islamic/Arab interest in Jerusalem, indeed in “every stone” of the land is a classic case of mimetic desire: you only want it because someone else does. And that has a great deal to do with Islamic supersessionism, which lies at the core of the conflict: Muslims can’t leave Jews alone, because Muslim honor depends of Jewish subjection. In typical Israeli fashion, Yehoshua is here being generous and granting the Palestinian claims as much credibility as Israelis. Mistake, both historical and therapeutic. As Aldous Huxley says, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”… or denied.
For both sides, and mainly for the Palestinians, the size of the nation confronting them is not clear – whether it consists only of Israeli Jews or the entire Jewish diaspora. And the Israelis don’t know whether they are confronting only the Palestinian people or the entire Arab nation. In other words, the demographic boundaries of the two sides are not clear either. This is therefore a fundamental conflict that constantly creates primal and profound mistrust between the two peoples, preventing a possible solution.
Again with the false symmetries. Israelis are dealing with a Palestinian/Arab/Islamic entity (nation is inappropriate) for whom the shore line is the only acceptable border (as in “drive the Jews into the sea”). Israel, while willing to negotiate another, more restricted border in exchange for peace, has no ambitions beyond the Jordan (pace Arab conspiracy theory). This is not about two uncertain claims. It’s about two asymmetrical claims, one of which is incompatible with any other.
Is it still possible to resolve the conflict without ending up in the trap of a binational state? I believe so, but because this is a question I haven’t been asked, I won’t answer it now.
And as far as I can make out, you haven’t begun to answer the question you set out to answer, because, in your therapeutic search for parity, you merely scratched the surface. Alas.