With perhaps just weeks to go before the United States unveils its framework accord that it hopes will prod Palestinians and Israelis towards a comprehensive negotiated resolution of their conflict, it seems that every dimension of this conflict is generating new ideas, trial balloons, or fresh pressures on both sides, as the moment of truth for both sides approaches.
Consider just these recent developments: Hamas and Fatah are trying again to create a single, unified Palestinian national leadership. Spain is working on a law that would give citizenship to Sephardic Jews in Israel or elsewhere whose ancestors once lived in Spain. German banks and European companies and investment funds are almost daily listing Israeli firms or enterprises they will not do business with because the latter profit from the colonization of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem. An American-backed effort proposes to financially compensate the 700,000 or so Jews who fled or were driven out of Arab countries since 1948. Israelis and Western Jews are increasingly debating what exactly the Israeli government means when it wants the Palestinians to formally accept and recognize Israel as “the homeland of the Jewish people.” And earlier this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting Israeli youth delegation that in any permanent peace agreement he did not intend “to drown Israel with millions of refugees.”
These and other developments touch on some of the most delicate but important issues that have long stoked this conflict, and that must be resolved without ambiguity for a permanent peace agreement to see the light of day. As Israelis and Palestinians near the point where they must come clean on core issues that they have allowed to float in a sea of ambiguity for 70 years, they will both find it important to engage in tough debates on the two huge issues that define and dominate everything else in this conflict:
First, what is the precise required relationship between one’s Zionist or Palestinian identity and the same land that each side sees as its rightful patrimony? Since its inception in the late 19th Century, this has always been a conflict about two interrelated things: identity and land. The two are equally important in different ways, but also inseparable. The current negotiations, and the American mediation that seeks to nudge them forward with the framework accord, have focused on a series of issues like security, borders, water, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees, by disaggregating them into smaller items that can be addressed in a technical manner. Such solutions often rely on money (compensation) or guns (security) as the final arbiters, but this approach is unlikely to work if it does not recognize the centrality of, and wrestle with, the much deeper emotional, psychological and nationalist issue that are anchored in that fundamental twinning of land and identity—and also of their denial.
Second, how far is each side willing to go to acknowledge the other side’s need to be recognized in the manner that it defines itself, i.e., to what extent can Palestinians acknowledge Israel in a peace accord as “a Jewish state,” or “the homeland of the Jewish people,” a land where Jews have always lived as indigenous natives, and not only as colonial settlers? Conversely, to what extent can Israelis acknowledge the deliberate and documented role of Zionist political and military organizations in the forced refugeehood of the Palestinians in 1947-48, and their subsequent lifetimes of exile? What actions would supplement such an Israeli acknowledgment that remains absolutely central to the Palestinian national and individual psyche? What combination of options would be offered the Palestinians to finally resolve and permanently leave behind their refugeehood, and the pain they have suffered from it since 1947—and would those same options be mirrored by choices offered to Jews who left or were driven from Arab lands?
In other words, are both sides prepared to admit to the other that they both have a natural and historical link with the same land? If so, are they able then to share the land in an equitable manner that removes the pains of the past and provides them both with secure, viable and meaningful statehood for the future? Can this happen with honor and dignity for both sides, and in accordance with international law and UN resolutions?
I believe that the answer to all these questions is an emphatic ‘yes,’ if we assume both people have equal rights in the eyes of God, the law, and more importantly, each other. For it is in each other’s eyes that Palestinians and Israelis encounter the critical and reciprocal nexus of identity, land and historical trauma that demands first acknowledgment, then equitable resolution, because it is what has always shaped their conflict with each other. We will know soon if the American framework accord understands this, and if the parties to the conflict are prepared to address this.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global