By Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian,
Wednesday 18 October 2000
The verdict came swiftly and with characteristic eloquence. The leaders had spent 28 hours arguing, shouting and finally negotiating in Sharm el-Sheikh - but the people they represent took just minutes to deliver their response. As the summit ended, Palestinian militiamen aimed their guns at a Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem and Israel responded with tank-mounted machine gun fire. So much for the paper truce, painstakingly pieced together by Bill Clinton and his unique brand of insomnia diplomacy.
Not that you can blame the American president. Nor can you point the finger at Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak: they are merely reflecting the mood on the Palestinian and Israeli streets. For both sides in this conflict have returned to the hardest of hard lines. The past two weeks have put them back on a war footing, and they are digging into their trenches.
Ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, and their defenders outside the region, are returning to the old, cold positions. The email that has reached me this last week is revealing enough. Advocates for Israel are singing once more the 1970s refrain that the Palestinians already have a home (
It's called Jordan) or that the Arabs have 22 other countries to go to, so why must they have poor little Israel too? These are arguments that Israel and Zionism were meant to have abandoned two decades ago. Yet here they go again.
The same regression has occurred on the Palestinian side. The email inbox speaks not only of the evils of Israel's post-1967 occupation, or the grotesque record of discrimination inside Israel proper, but of the country's fundamental crime: its mere existence. Longtime rejectionists such as Edward Said are back in business, appearing on Start the Week to call implicitly for the dissolution of the Jewish state - and facing only the slightest challenge. The clear undertow of the phone-in shows and letters pages is the same: not opposed to this border or that settlement, but to the very idea of Israel. As one veteran peace activist told the Guardian this week:
It's not that they don't want us here as occupiers. They don't want us here at all.
For those who thought the 1993 handshake between Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin heralded a new dawn, this return to core hostilities is profoundly depressing. The breakthrough of the Oslo accords was to move beyond the absolutist demands of the past - in which each side claimed exclusive right to the land - to a new place, where the two nations finally saw each other. It was that new premise, that both sides had a claim on the same, disputed territory, that underpinned the so-called two-state solution: one for Palestinians, one for Israelis.
The trouble, it seems now, is that that logic was never fully accepted by both sides. Palestinians say that Israel never understood it: hence the paltry, pocket Palestine Barak was offering at Camp David. Israelis say Arafat never understood it: hence his regular rhetorical flourishes, in Arabic, hinting at the eventual liquidation of Israel.
We are in the realm of retro nationalism, with both Israelis and Palestinians sinking their noses back into history rather than lifting their eyes to the future. But the paradox may be that this could be just what the Israel/Palestine battle needs. Perhaps, if they are ever to have a chance of making peace, both sides need to get to the bottom of their argument once and for all.
For Palestinians that means a recognition from Israel that they are a people with national rights. Rabin and Barak both dipped a toe in this water, and Israel's liberal intelligentsia have gone much further. But now Israelis themselves may have to dive in. Yesterday's Ha'aretz newspaper contained an extraordinary essay, all the more remarkable for being published in the current climate. In it sociologist Danny Rabinowitz adds to the current back-to- basics mood by suggesting Israel needs to reflect on its own birth in 1948 - and make amends. He urges his fellow countrymen to acknowledge at last that their state was created at the cost of tragedy and dispossession to another people. He suggests government memorials for the 400 Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, proper care for ruined mosques and churches, an official memorial day for the Palestinian tragedy - even perhaps a change to Israel's national anthem and flag. What Rabinowitz, in common with Israel's
new historians, wants is for the Jewish state finally to see the other side: to recognise the Palestinians' history and understand their claim.
I sraelis, of course, want the same thing. Among the ironies of the peace process is that, while one of the great sticking points was always Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state, it is Israel which desperately wants Palestinian recognition - of the Jewish state. It is a constant neurosis of the Israelis that their presence in the Middle East is not accepted as legitimate by their neighbours. They need to hear the Palestinian intelligentsia, if not Arafat himself, at least acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist - yes within smaller borders, yes with an end to occupation and brutality, yes with a policy of internal equality - but a right to exist.
Yet such acceptance never comes. Until now, the best Israelis could hope for was a pragmatic recognition by Palestinians that there are 5m Jews in the region and they cannot be wished away. But that grudging, de facto acceptance has not been enough to make Israelis feel secure - and ready to forge a genuine peace with their neighbours.
What Israelis, and indeed Jews around the world, need to hear is that Palestinians, and their supporters, recognise that Jews have a right to self-determination like every other people: the Scots, the Catalans, even the Palestinians themselves. Of course the tragic difference is that the territory designated by Jews as the stage for their self-determination already had another people living there. In an ideal world, the Jews would have gone somewhere else. But where? There was no land without a people for
the people without a land.
Besides, much as the anti-Zionist absolutists refuse to see it, the Jews do have a millennia-old connection to that terrain. No matter what Hanan Ashrawi may say, Jews did not
fabricateJoseph's Tomb. Nor is Haram al-Sharif important only to Muslims: it is also the site of the Jews' Second Temple. It would be easier if the claim was all on one side, as the Palestinian hardliners and Zionist right insist it is. But the truth is not so absolute.
So maybe there's hope to be had in this current return to first principles. Maybe, through this argument, those outside the region will see that this is not a Wild West battle of cowboys and Indians, Zionist villains against Palestinian heroes, but a tragedy - pitting against each other two needy peoples, whose causes are both just. When both sides see each other that way, then maybe they will decide to share the land, not only because they have to - but because it is right.