Understanding History and the Path to Peacemaking

I had been speaking of the role that "losing control of their history" had played in defining the Palestinian psyche during the last century, when a somewhat aggravated Israeli in the audience challenged my assessment. He disagreed, he said, because the Palestinians had had many opportunities to define their history and they had squandered each of them. In any case, he insisted, Israel bore no responsibility for this Palestinian dilemma.

I replied that he could, if he wished, deny the reality of Palestinian history and he could also deny Israel’s role in that history. But the price for such denial was great. Refusing to acknowledge the history of the "other," with whom you are in conflict, and rejecting any responsibility for shaping their history, only serves to prolong the conflict in which you are engaged.

The fact is that Arabs did lose control of their ability to shape their own history in the 20th century. It began with Britain and France’s post-World War I betrayal, their dismemberment of the Arab East and their promise of Palestine to the Zionist movement. This loss of control was compounded by the influx of Jewish immigrants into Palestine, the Zionist victory in 1948, and the resultant refugee crisis.

The 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and, their transformation into "dedeveloped" dependencies, the rapid expansion of settlements and roads into the heart of these territories, the closure and encirclement of Jerusalem, the "wall" and the daily acts of humiliation and collective punishments to which the Palestinians were subjected-all have combined to complete the picture of a "loss of control."

And so I told my questioner that it might make him feel good to deny this Palestinian experience and to seek to absolve Israel from any responsibility in creating it, but history, current reality, and the imperatives of peace require acknowledgement.

As to the argument that Palestinians squandered opportunities, that canard is but an old and hollow cliché. What it suggests is that if Palestinians had, at different points in their history, acquiesced to their dispossession, then they could have gained control-by accepting their loss of control.

Such a one-sided reading of history is both delusional and insensitive and a recipe for further conflict.

The audience I was addressing was an unusual one for me. It was comprised of forty Israeli generals and colonels who were in Washington for a seminar in public policy.

When invited to speak to the group I accepted, hoping to use the opportunity to open a dialogue. For the most part my hopes were realized. There were a few tough questioners, like the one cited here and another who challenged "the right of return" (he called it "the claim to return") and, of course, a few obligatory slaps at "Arafat." But, for the most part, the group appeared quite responsive and open to views that challenged their thinking. While, for example, my aggravated questioner was speaking I noted others were wincing or shaking their heads in disagreement. And when I responded many more were nodding in understanding and agreement.

I came away convinced that more of such exchanges can be most beneficial. Dialogue and the sharing of history is critical to understanding. And peace in this conflict can only be hastened by creating deeper understanding.

Israelis must understand and acknowledge the role they played in the dispossession of the Palestinians. But Arabs, in general, and Palestinians, in particular, must, at the same time, gain a deeper appreciation for the role that history has played in fueling the vulnerability that defines the Jewish psyche.

As Palestinians tell their story of victimhood, Jews, too, tell a compelling story of victimhood in which they recall centuries of bigotry and pogroms culminating in the horror of the Holocaust. It is, of course, true, that these crimes were largely European. But what must be understood is the fact that the profound sense of insecurity created by this traumatic European history has both defined the Jewish psyche that has been carried over by them into Israel/Palestine. Thus, bombs in the Jerusalem market or the Tel Aviv night club, not only claim innocent lives and spread fear. They also play out in the Jewish psyche against the backdrop of their last century of suffering, in much the same way that each house demolition in Gaza or the erection of a wall in Jerusalem plays out in the Palestinian psyche as a reinforcement of their vulnerability and loss of control. By not acknowledging the importance of the other side’s history, we fail to understand how our current behavior only serves to validate that history.

The key to resolving the conflict is to stop this deadly cycle that only replays and reinforces those old established fears that have come to define the realities of both peoples.

A decade ago I had hoped that it might be possible to end the conflict first, establish two states, and let time heal old wounds. That, however, would have required stronger leadership than was forthcoming-to forge an agreement, "striking," as they say, "while the iron was hot." Tragically, that didn’t occur and the cycles of violence and fear and anger has only escalated.

What I now believe, is that more effort must be made to change hearts and minds. Bold efforts like the Geneva Accords, the One Voice Initiative, and the work of US-based groups like Search for Common Ground should be supported. What they seek to do is reach across the divide to create the basis for shared understanding.

In the process of working to understand how the "other" sees their history, the "other" can gain a better sense of our history, as well. And more importantly, this understanding can help alter behavior.

As I left the discussion with the Israeli group, a number of them came forward and thanked me for my honesty and what some called "my courage" in coming to speak to them. I left thinking that while there may have been a future Ariel Sharon or Rafael Eitan in the group, it was also quite likely that there was a Amnon Shahak and Avram Mitzna, there as well. It was my hope that if I had made even some small contribution here, it might have a larger impact in the future.