Geography is doable, history isn’t

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both a fight over land and a clash of conflicting narratives. In other words, it involves both geography and history. As such it is not unique: think of similarly intractable conflicts like Serbia-Kosovo, or even China-Taiwan. It appears to be in the nature of mankind to create historical narratives to explain attachment to land, and vice versa: to integrate specific geographical regions into historical-religious narratives.

What does distinguish the Israeli-Palestinian mix of history and geography is its sharp contrast, against the Middle East regional backdrop, with the rest of the Israel-Arab conflict. Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan could sign peace treaties that resolved the geographic aspects of their dispute–swapping land occupied by Israel in return for peace. Those treaties do not seek to resolve the historical/narrative aspects of the Arab-Israel dispute: Egypt and Jordan did not insist that Israel acknowledge guilt for creating the Palestinian refugee issue, or declare itself a foreign entity implanted in the region by western imperialism, and Israel did not insist that its Arab peace partners recognize the right of the Jewish people to live a sovereign life in its historic homeland. The peace may be a cold peace, and many Egyptians and Jordanians may find it impossible to accept Israel’s narrative. But the conflict between Egypt and Jordan and Israel has effectively ended, ju! st as it could end along fairly similar lines with Lebanon and Syria.

In other words, in Israel’s interaction with its Arab state neighbors, the conflict can be resolved, however tenuously, along primarily geographic lines, with historic issues relegated to secondary status. This is evidently not the case between Israel and Palestine, where geography also appears to be more easily resolved than history, yet geography and history cannot be disentangled.

At Camp David II and Taba (2000-2001), the parties came close to resolving their territorial issues, i.e., defining the outline of a future border between two states. Yet they barely began to come to grips with the narrative issues: the refugee/right of return question, and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dispute. Notably, attempts to treat the Temple Mount issue as a territorial question and divide up sovereignty there horizontally or vertically met with failure.

The refugee issue takes us back in history 57 years; the Temple Mount issue some 3,000 years. While the surrounding Arab states and the Muslim world evince an interest in the resolution of these questions, they no longer overwhelm Israel-Arab state relations. In contrast, it appears that for Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, they really will have to find a mutually acceptable formula for explaining and laying to rest the events of 1948 and for dealing with the Jewish and the Muslim claims to the Temple Mount. If this proves impossible–and I fear this is the case, at least for the present generation–they can still agree on a line of separation between their two states and settle for less than peace, i.e., for a geographical arrangement that falls short of an end to the historic conflict.

The Israeli mainstream, in opting for unilateral withdrawal, appears to have begun to internalize the bitter lessons of the abortive attempt to deal with the historical/narrative issues at Camp David II/Taba, and to recognize the necessity of dealing first, and separately, with the geographic/territorial aspects. Not so the Palestinian mainstream and its leadership, which continue to insist that a comprehensive solution is possible. Certainly not so Hamas, which threatens to snatch power away from Fateh and whose ideology insists that neither geography nor history can be resolved as long as Israel exists.

Finally there is PM Sharon, who recently has begun to cite the narrative formula–Arab recognition of the right of the Jewish people to live a sovereign life in its historic homeland, i.e., the "history" issue–as justification for his reticence to enter into peace processes. Sharon appears to ignore the broad readiness of the Arab world to set aside this issue and live at peace with Israel–perhaps a cold peace, but certainly better than a state of war–as evidenced in the peace agreements we already have and, more recently, in the Saudi/Arab League formula of March 2002. Nor has he even offered to discuss with the Palestinian leadership the idea of separating history from geography and resolving the land dispute now. Apparently this is because Sharon values geography over history: he covets the land, though not for reasons of "narrative" so much as due to pseudo-security concepts. One suspects that, unlike the mainstream he claims to represent, he has adopted disengagement! not because he wants to resolve the land dispute unilaterally, but rather because he sees this as a means of holding onto large segments of territory in the West Bank.

It will be up to the Israeli public, in the aftermath of disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, to keep us on track toward resolution of the geographic dispute with the Palestinians. And it will be incumbent upon the Palestinian public to recognize the utility of solving the land dispute even if we cannot solve the narrative issues.

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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