Israeli settlers wave the Israeli flag in response to the demonstration.
© Roman Koblov, Your Middle East
Israeli settlers wave the Israeli flag in response to the demonstration.
Last updated: May 7, 2016
The battle of narratives in Israel/Palestine

"The issues facing Israeli/Palestinian negotiations can be divided into two baskets"

Banner Icon The competing narratives have become so interwoven into the negotiation process that they have repeatedly blocked progress on issues where the sides are less far apart, writes Hugh Lovatt.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often referred to as one of the world’s most intractable. After close to a century of struggle and decades of failed peace-making attempts by the international community, violence and instability remain the norm, and a final settlement between both sides as elusive as ever. While a number of factors have fed this impasse, at its core lies an often zero sum game waged between Jewish and Palestinian national movements. 

Neither side is blameless. Israelis and Palestinians have each deployed unilateral national narratives to buttress their own territorial claims while undermining the other’s legitimacy. Palestinian discourse is often guilty of ignoring historic Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Israel meanwhile is quick to label any narrative or critique that goes against its own as a mixture of incitement and anti-Semitism in an attempt to delegitimise the main pillars of Palestinian national identity. But failure to acknowledge the existence of an alternative Palestinian narrative has meant that Israel frequently misdiagnoses and mischaracterises the drivers of the Palestinian anger and violence that we see today. 

This is occurring against the backdrop of Israel’s occupation, and its policy of fragmentation and dispossession of Palestinians. The accompanying rhetoric and actions have sought to negate the existence of a Palestinian national identity and deny the Palestinian right to statehood. More recently the political enfranchisement of the national religious/settler right within Israeli society has seen growing popular support for the annexation of vast amounts of Palestinian land and the creation of a Greater Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley.

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It is not uncommon for communal conflicts to centre on competing national narratives. Think for instance of Northern Ireland and the internecine conflict between Protestant and Catholics during the late 20th century, or the bloodletting in Rwanda in 1994. But in successful cases of conflict resolution, resolving the tensions caused by mutually exclusive national narratives has occurred during a years-long post-conflict truth and reconciliation process. In Israel/Palestine however, it has very much been a case of putting the cart before the horse. As a result, the competing narratives have become so interwoven into the negotiation process that they have repeatedly blocked progress on issues where the sides are less far apart. 

In this sense, the issues facing Israeli/Palestinian negotiations can be divided into two baskets: those that have arisen due to the divergent narratives surrounding the events that occurred in 1948 war leading to the creation of modern day Israel – known by Palestinians as their Nakba (Catastrophe) and by Israelis as their War of Independence; and a second basket of issues arising from Israel’s occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. 

Achieving a two state solution through the creation of a Palestinian state requires the sides to address the 1967 basket, which includes practical status issues such as border and security arrangements, and the fate of settlements and East Jerusalem (the latter a lightening rode in the battle between narratives). While talks on these issues remain fraught with difficulties and have so far failed to yield a breakthrough, a zone of possible agreement has emerged on several occasions, including in President Clinton’s 2000 Parameters and at Taba in January 2001. 

But Israel’s demand that any peace agreement include an end to all future Palestinian claims against it has conditioned success on resolving the more thorny 1948 basket, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who were forced to flee their homes during the establishment of Israel. While this remains a highly emotive (if perhaps increasingly symbolic) issue for Palestinians, Israel refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for their displacement. 

Israel has used the asymmetry of its relations with Palestinians and the position of strength it enjoys in negotiations by virtue of its status as occupying power to dictate terms and impose its own Jewish (Zionist) narrative even as it continues its de-facto annexation of Palestinian territory. This has allowed Israel to repeatedly shift the parameters for resolving the conflict in its favour by creating its own facts on the ground, and allowed it to dodge having to reciprocate Palestinian concessions. 

Nowhere is this starker than on the issue of territoriality and recognition. In 1988, for example, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised Israel’s right to exist and renounced its claim to 78 per cent of “historic Palestine”. From that point on the PLO committed itself to a peaceful two state solution based on the 1967 Green Line. But having played one of their best negotiating cards, they received precious little in return other than demands for further concessions.

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At the Camp David Talks in July 2000 Israel moved the goal posts, declaring that it would not countenance any return to the 1967 borders, but rather seek the annexation of its settlement blocs in the West Bank – although the boundaries of these blocks remain ever changing, Yasser Arafat agreed in principle. And it took at least until then for Israel to even acknowledge that the outcome of negotiations would indeed be a Palestinian state. More recently, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Issac Herzog – Israel’s opposition leader – have gone a long way in walking back Israeli support for a Palestinians state, arguing that the current regional conditions now make this unrealistic

Similarly on the right of return for refugees, President Abbas provoked the ire of his public by indicating some flexibility and admitting that not all Palestinian refugees would be able to return to Israel. Two years later, he again spoke of the need for a creative solution. Yet Netanyahu’s response has been one of continued maximalism and intransigence. Instead of leveraging the space for compromise this could create he has doubled down, demanding that the Palestinian leader abandon “the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees” and recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people – a condition absent from previous rounds of talks. 

Meeting Netanyahu’s conditions would be tantamount to political suicide for Abbas, or worse. Submission to Israel’s Jewish narrative is seen by Palestinians as undermining their historical ties to the land, the rights of 1.4 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, and disenfranchising 5 million Palestinians refugees. It is therefore difficult to see Netanyahu's comments and his use of the 1948 file as anything more than a cynical ploy to block meaningful negotiations that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state while shifting the full blame for any impasse onto President Abbas.

If Israel was truly interested in a viable peace agreement and addressing the 1948 basket in an honest way, then it should acknowledge that there are two narratives, two histories, and that Israel cannot get away with imposing only a Jewish narrative. But unfortunately the growing strength of right wing ideology in Israel will mean ever more intractability in negotiations. 

Ongoing efforts by the French government to forge a renewed international mobilisation around peace-making efforts could help re-affirm mutually agreed international parameters as the basis for a future deal and perhaps for the resumption of negotiations at an appropriate time. But rather than struggling for an unobtainable and all-encompassing peace deal, mediators should sequence the final status issues, privileging the 1967 basket which is a pre-requisite for a sovereign Palestinian state, and thereby test Israel’s commitment to a two state solution. In doing so, the door should be left open for continued talks to reconcile both side’s narrative with the aim of addressing the 1948 file, including a lasting solution for Palestinian refugees and other outstanding issues.

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