For the Israel-Palestinian conflict, there are often wildly different interpretations as to what each side wants and how the conflict could be resolved. Part of this phenomenon is due to bias, but it is also due to differences in narratives, though not necessarily in the way that one might expect.
There are obvious differences in narratives between the Palestinians and the Jews. The conflict is between two national movements, each of which has a credible claim to the same land (which one side calls Palestine and the other calls Israel), and each side would rather not share the land with the other. However, what confuses the discussion even more are the differences in narratives within each of the two national groups.
Within each group, there are three narratives:
- Religionism – Kill the Jews / The biblical land: This narrative asserts that the nationalist group’s rights to the land are God-given, although there are differences in this narrative between Palestinians and Jews. For the Palestinians who believe this narrative, it is about the supremacy of Islam and the inferiority of Jews who should be either eliminated or brought back to the status of dhimmis. For Jews who believe this narrative, there is not necessarily any hatred towards Palestinians or Muslims, but there is the belief that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, as ordained in the Torah.
- Maximalism – From the river to the sea: This narrative asserts that no compromise is possible because they (Palestinians or Jews) are the true native people of the land, and the others are impostors who deserve no part of that land.
- Pragmatism – Land for peace: This narrative asserts that even though the nationalist group (Palestinians or Jews) would like to have all of the land (Palestine or Israel) to themselves, they are willing to settle for less, i.e., trade land for peace. The pragmatism narrative can derive from the maximalism narrative because despite their maximalism, proponents of this narrative do not allow religion to dictate their decisions. As Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi puts it, “I have never met a Palestinian who does not believe that all of this land between the river and the sea belongs to them. And so my starting position is, Between the river and the sea – it is all mine. My endpoint is that each side needs to contract its claim and accommodate the competing claim”.
When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the pragmatism narrative was prevalent among Jews. The Jews accepted the 1947 UN partition plan even though it gave them fragmented land that was largely composed of desert. The Jews decided that even that piece of land was better than no land at all. On the Palestinian side, however, the maximalist narrative prevailed. With the encouragement and help of their Arabs allies, the Palestinians refused to cede any land at all, and they fought a war that they lost. The armistice lines that resulted from the war gave the Jews more land and left the Palestinians with two disconnected pieces, the tiny Gaza strip and the West Bank (or its original Jewish name, Judea and Samaria). That war also created close to one million refugees on each side.
The Jews wanted to rebuild a state on their ancient land, but the Palestinians saw them as foreign invaders, so the Palestinians fought them the same way that one fights foreign invasions – never give an inch, and struggle for as long as it takes, i.e., maximalism. They ignored the fact that the Jews had nothing to lose and were not going to give up under any circumstance because they were not invading a country. They were defending their home.
In the years that followed, if the pragmatism narrative had prevailed among Palestinians, they could have created a state in Gaza and the West Bank, and they could have demanded that most of their refugees be absorbed within the Arab world, just as Israel had absorbed the Jewish refugees from Arab lands. But the maximalism narrative still prevailed, and the Palestinians took neither of those two pragmatic steps.
In 1967, the Arab world tried again to destroy the Jewish state, and it lost even more land. The Arabs lost Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights. The Arab world tried a third time in 1973 but again without success, and in the years that followed, both Egypt and Jordan adopted the pragmatism narrative, allowing Jordan to have peace and allowing Egypt to have the Sinai back as well as peace.
The Palestinians, however, maintained their maximalism narrative, while Israel, despite its remarkable successes on the battlefield, and despite strong dissension among a growing number of Jews, maintained its pragmatism narrative. In the year 2000 and then again in the year 2008, Israel made peace offers, allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank (with small border adjustments), and even East Jerusalem, but the Palestinians refused.
While the maximalism narrative continued to stifle any pragmatism among Palestinians, the religionism narrative also developed among Palestinians, resulting in the creation of Hamas, a group whose objective is the elimination of Israel and the creation of an Iran-style Islamist Palestinian state. As Palestinian professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi puts it, “Maybe in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s it was the Zionist claim to Palestine, and we have a competitive claim, and so the struggle was political. Today, it is the Jew and the Muslim. They are creating enmities that didn’t exist in the past”. If there was any temptation among maximalists to become pragmatists, the religionism narrative ensured that they stay put, lest they appear as weaklings in the eyes of the Palestinian population.
The few Palestinians who openly advocate the pragmatism narrative, such as Dajani, are struggling to be heard, and there appears to be little hope for them at this time. After Dajani took some of his students on a visit to Auschwitz in an attempt to learn more about the reality of the Holocaust, he became a pariah among Palestinians. He lost his job at al-Quds University, his car was torched, and his life was threatened.
To make matters even worse, on the Israeli side, the pragmatism narrative is no longer prevalent either. The proponents of the maximalism and religionism narratives, i.e., right wing parties, are in power, while there appears to be no real prospect for a return of the pragmatists to power. However, the silver lining on the Israeli side is that much of the support for right wing parties comes from voters who are not adherents to the maximalism and religionism narratives bur rather have become convinced that the Palestinians cannot make peace, and they see left-wing parties’ proposals to negotiate peace with the Palestinians to be naïve and a waste of time. The pragmatism narrative still has a chance to prevail in Israel, but only if there is a credible movement towards pragmatism on the Palestinian side.
In a joint interview with Dajani, Klein Halevi offered a small ray of hope, “The possibility of an agreement between Israel and the region. We are seeing more and more signs that that may be possible. My admittedly slender hope is that we can reach an agreement with the Arab world which will then impact on the Palestinians. I think that the Palestinians are too angry, traumatized, focused on victimhood to offer us a deal that we can work with. But let’s see what happens with the region. We need to widen the lens, because if it is just a bilateral track of Israelis and Palestinians, it’s going to remain stuck”.
In the end, the Arab states who had a central role in starting the conflict, may end up being the catalyst that finally infuses the pragmatism that is needed for a solution.