If You Were Born Where They Were Born

Dr. Tony Klug

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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If you were born where they were born

There is an old adage, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that goes something like this: “If you were born where they were born and you were taught what they were taught, you’d believe what they believe”. I dare say this simple dictum provides more insight into the tragic, convoluted conflict between Israelis and Palestinians than an entire conference of Middle East experts.

While falling short of a complete general theory, it goes some way, I would suggest, to explain not just what we believe but why we believe it. Why we take up certain positions and hold them so fervently. Why Jews, generally speaking, have historically supported Israel and seen the Palestinians as an irritant or worse. Why Arabs and Muslims, as a rule, have supported the Palestinian cause and seen Israel as an interloper or worse. And why both sides have been equally certain they were right.

What would we believe - each of us - if we hailed from the other side of the track or river or mountain? What ‘facts’ would we then be predisposed to accept as self-evident truths and which ones, by contrast, would we be inclined summarily to dismiss as propaganda lies? And what of the dedicated fanatics among us? Would their support of the opposing cause be any less partisan or extreme or self-righteous if they happened to be born on the other side of the mirror?

None of this is to suggest that facts are merely subjective. Nor that there are not genuine questions of historical interpretation, justice, legality or human rights. Of course there are. What is suggested, though, is that if progress is ever to be made on resolving this conflict, there is a vital need to think outside of our boxes.

We are trapped in and by our own narratives and we devote enormous resources to justifying and reinforcing our own perspectives and simultaneously to belittling or ridiculing the other’s. This is not the prerogative of any one side. All sides do it. Self-appointed experts churn out - and their followers dutifully cite - reams of supposedly scholarly research that ‘prove’ the non-authenticity of the people-hood of the other and the non-validity of their cherished claims.

Fired by the negative motive to demonstrate as non-existent phenomena that are regarded as undesirable, these commonplace writings are completely without value. They add nothing to the sum-total of human knowledge, wisdom or understanding. Worse, they perpetuate stereotypes, demonize a whole people, falsify its history and ridicule its aspirations. Their solutions - however they are dressed up - invariably involve the capitulation or subordination of the adversary. They offer no real solutions. They merely condemn us all to endless conflict.

Indeed, there is a serious risk of this. But such a future is not pre-destined. It is not as if there is a fundamental ideological or religious dispute between these two small peoples or an endemic historical enmity. Israelis and Palestinians have clashed - bitterly - because they have simultaneously aspired to the same piece of territory on which to exercise their self-determination. This is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been superimposed on top of it. If the physical circumstances had been different, it would not have been so hard to imagine the relationship between these two long-suffering peoples as one of alliance and mutual support. In many respects, they have much in common.

All sorts of conspiracy theories and malevolent intent have been heaped onto the Zionist movement by its detractors, some of it giving off a familiar anti-Semitic whiff, not so different from that which played the decisive role in winning so many Jews to the Zionist cause in the first place. Conceptually, Zionism was a distressed people’s proud, if defiant, response to centuries of contempt, humiliation, discrimination and periodic bouts of murderous oppression, of which the Nazi holocaust was but the most recent and extreme. The Israeli state was the would-be phoenix to rise from the Jewish embers still smoldering in the blood-soaked earth of another continent.

The motive was the positive one of achieving justice for one tormented people, not the negative one of doing damage to another people - although, in effect, this is precisely what it did do, and at some point Israelis and their supporters around the world are going to have to come fully and openly to terms with this.

For their part, for all that they have suffered, and for all that they have been pilloried, the original felony of the Palestinians was no more than that of ‘being there’- of being in the way of another people’s grand enterprise. They likewise did not set out to damage anyone else. They merely wanted for themselves what they felt - with considerable justification - was rightfully theirs.

While their Arab brethren were achieving independence in neighboring countries, the Palestinians were paying a heavy price for losing out in the geographical lottery. Almost everything that has followed is a consequence of this.

At an intellectual level, it is not so hard to grasp any of this. Psychologically, it is often a lot more difficult to accept - we have to contend with our demons. But to the extent that we can persuade ourselves, even momentarily, to take that enormous short step into the other box, we should be able then to see what they see and understand why they act as they do. The ultimate failure of the negotiations of recent years - from Oslo through Camp David to Taba - owes a lot to the remarkably low levels of empathy on the parts of the chief negotiators, and indeed of the people in whose name they purported to speak, towards the history, needs and aspirations of the other people.

I do not propose, in this presentation, to deal with the detail of who offered precisely what to whom and when. I have offered my own analysis of these matters previously in an article entitled ‘The Infernal Scapegoat’, published in the Palestine-Israel Journal. Rather, I shall focus here on what I would suggest were two principal flaws that seriously handicapped the negotiating process from start to finish and probably pre-destined the final outcome.  The first of these was the neglect of the stronger party to compensate for the grossly unequal power relationship between the two sides. By failing to accommodate the Palestinian’s basic needs in tabling its take-it-or-leave-it proposals at Camp David, the Israeli negotiators, with the heavily partisan support of the mighty US, heightened the prospects of the Palestinian negotiators resorting to the weapon of the weak by simply refusing to play ball, and thereby appearing to sabotage the negotiations. To be fair, it is quite likely that the Israeli negotiators, locked firmly in their own box, had no real notion of what the vital Palestinian sticking points were. But this is not to their credit.

The second serious flaw was the absence of a safety net to limit the potential harm of a possible failure of negotiations. Negotiations between parties in conflict do, after all, break down from time to time, but then they are often picked up again at a later stage with little serious damage done in the meantime. In this case, the spiral downwards to chaos has been virtually unconstrained - which is why the question of who was to blame for the breakdown has created so much heated controversy.

Both these major flaws stem from the same basic cause, namely the fundamental structural inequality between the two peoples, whereby not only does one side enjoy independent statehood while the other does not, but the first side also controls the territory and dominates the lives of the second. In this circumstance, the intrinsically more powerful party can easily delude itself into thinking that the big question is how magnanimous - in its terms - it should be, rather than to assess what is truly necessary to meet the minimum wants and aspirations of the weaker party.

Thus the whole debate as to how ‘generous’ or otherwise the Barak offer was, really misses the point. That it should ever have been phrased in these terms at all is a symptom of a mentality - an essentially colonial mentality - that has inevitably resulted from more than three decades of one people subjugating another.

The primary aim of any peace process should have been the swift creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. Its realization would have freed the governments of two neighboring states to get on with the business of settling their outstanding differences at a steady pace in the knowledge that temporary setbacks would not be calamitous or endanger the entire peace edifice. It is self-evident that there would have been no uprising against the occupation had the occupation been withdrawn.

The cardinal problem with Oslo was that it reversed this logic by making the end of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state hostage to the prior resolution of all other matters, irrespective of their coefficients of difficulty, thus locking into the process the seeds of its own undoing.

So, what of the future? Merely to parrot the demand that both sides should cease the violence and start talking again is banal. For one thing, what would this Israeli government have to discuss with the Palestinians except their effective capitulation? For another, after 35 suffocating years, the Palestinians have finally lost all patience and are engaged in a determined war of liberation - something which, in the light of their history, it should not be so difficult for Israelis of all people to identify with - against an increasingly brutal occupation regime which continues relentlessly to encroach on their land.

An Israeli leadership that truly wanted to bring the violence to an end would seize the initiative by declaring its readiness in principle to end the occupation and to negotiate in good faith the modalities of its withdrawal. A simple public statement of such intent could profoundly affect the mood between the two sides and create a new momentum. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of this while Israel is led by a government that is in hock to the settlers and still clings to the illusion that it can enjoy both the spoils of war and the fruits of peace.

Therefore, what is vitally required now is a surge of complementary international moves that would deliver an independent state to the Palestinians while meeting Israeli fears about their existence and security and their country’s future in the region. First and foremost, there is an urgent need for an international buffer force to be put in place to protect ordinary people on both sides from the mounting slaughter. This should have been done months ago. It is a matter of political will.  Secondly, a more responsible US presidency would stop hiding behind a succession of aimless and toothless envoys and - preferably in partnership with the EU and if possible other international actors - would briskly prevail upon the two parties to accept the underlying principles rehearsed at the Taba talks in January 2001 as the basis of a future agreement. This should be accompanied by a warning to the Israeli government that it would face severe sanctions in the event of a mass flight of Palestinians or a concerted attempt to re-capture their territories or to overthrow the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, two beacons of light shine through, each with the potential to feed off and enrich the other. The timely Saudi initiative should be pitched not just at the Israeli government but, more importantly, over its head direct to the Israeli people, just as the Sadat initiative was in the late 1970’s with such striking effect. At the right moment, an appeal by leading Arab statesmen delivered on Israeli soil, and separately on Palestinian soil, may be particularly effective - psychologically and politically. The initiative should include a complete halt to official rhetoric and propaganda hostile to Jews as a people, to Judaism as a religion and to Israel per se.

This plan, which may be summarized simply as full peace and normalization for full withdrawal, should not be viewed as just another menu of proposals from which different parties may pick and choose, but as an all-embracing vision for the full solution to the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. It is the end-game. It should be backed by a new UN Security Council Resolution specifically affirming a two-state solution.

The other beacon of light is the eruption of movements of resistance within Israel to the continuing occupation - my own recent research has pointed to between 70 and 80 groups now active broadly in this area - coupled with the emergence of ad hoc Palestinian-Israeli alliances on the ground. The further growth of Palestinian-Jewish, Arab-Jewish and other solidarity groups in countries around the world should be fostered and their weight should be added to a fair and achievable solution. Civil society in Arab states should reassess whether shunning all contact with Israeli civil society is the most productive way of delivering support for the Palestinian cause.

Left to themselves, it is highly unlikely that the two peoples - now profoundly mistrustful of each other - will ever be able to resurrect meaningful bilateral negotiations, let alone agree terms. Decisive outside intervention to bring the broader Arab-Israeli conflict to a belated but final conclusion is now imperative and urgent and would almost certainly be welcomed, overtly or covertly, by the traumatized mass of Israelis and Palestinians locked in a deadly embrace.


Dr Tony Klug is an international relations specialist who has been writing about the Middle East for many years. His Ph.D thesis was on Israel’s rule over the West Bank. He has traveled extensively in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. In a Fabian pamphlet in early 1973 he called for a two-state solution. In a second Fabian pamphlet four years later he advocated a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. Tony has been a member of the editorial board of New Outlook, a trustee of the International Centre for Peace in the Middle East, co-founder and co-chair of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue in the UK and he has served as head of international development at Amnesty International.