Part IV: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor – A Critical Analysis

Has Yossi Klein Halevi contributed in any way to advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Certainly, his appeal is heartfelt. It seems clear that he genuinely wants to hear the narrative or narratives as understood and perceived by the Palestinians. It is also true that the peace process is widely considered to be at a dead end by both sides and there is very little optimism that Jared Kushner’s efforts or proposal will make any difference. Thus, although innovation may not have entirely evaporated, there is a widespread conviction that such efforts are futile.

However, is Halevi correct in assuming that the main failure is a failure to listen? I have no difficulty in hearing and even listening to the narrative of Abbas that Jews lack any legitimacy to claim a polity in the Middle East. But I have enormous difficulty in accepting the narrative as legitimate. For even if one assumes that Arabs are and have been the primary and majority residents of Palestine for centuries, this is not factually true of cities like Jerusalem and Safed. Further, at the time in which the independence of Israel was declared in part of Palestine, cities like Tel Aviv were almost all Jewish.  Until the 11th century, the majority of the residents of Palestine were Christians. In 1947, there were just over 600,000 Jews living in Palestine and twice that number of Arabs, almost 90% of them Muslim. Jews made up approximately one-third of the population of Palestine. Does one-third of the population lack any legitimacy?

This is not a problem of numbers. This is not a problem of listening. This is a problem concerning what gives legitimacy to a group to determine their own political affairs. Facts do not seem to be central, however relevant. But neither does theory. For even if a distinction is made between indigenous residents and newcomers, disputes immediately arise over both the meaning of indigenous and its application to the matter-at-hand. There are other relevant side issues. Even if it is granted that the major responsibility for the increase in the Palestinian population was due to natural increase, an estimated 25% has been attributed to “illegal” immigration. This is not a matter of different narratives but of different objective sources of counting.

The pattern of population growth is a matter of dispute only on the edges. The core issue was that if the British Mandate had not been granted in 1917 and if the population determined to create their own polity, in 1920 Palestine would have become an Arab state. This, again, is not a matter of perspective but of objective fact. Clearly, a conflict over demography was at work in 1917 and in 1947 and the proportion of Jews increased primarily as a result of immigration. It does not take two narratives to tell that story. What is different is the legitimacy of self-determination to be granted to each group. Everyone knows the differences in views. So why is it a problem of listening?

Yossi claims that the main governing emotion driving the Jews has been fear. The main governing emotion driving the Palestinians has been humiliation. These are both tales of subjective states for which it is much harder to correlate substantive support than for numbers. Yet there is some objective evidence. For example, there is a general consensus that the current Trump administration in the U.S. has had a program of successive steps that each in turn took away power from the Palestinians while granting them nothing in return. These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (December 2017), freezing all assistance to UNRWA (January 2018), moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, closing the PLO office in Washington and re-designating the land in the West Bank from “occupied” to “Israeli-controlled.”

When you take steps to reveal the impotence of the other, the other is humiliated. This happens, as above, on a grand scale. It happens daily on an individual scale to Palestinians at various different Israeli checkpoints. This does not require a contrary narrative to point out. Some assertions, however, do. When David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, calls out the Palestinian leadership for harbouring, for protecting and for honouring terrorists, there is both a difference whether what takes place is being mis-described and there is a difference over whether such claims humiliate Palestinians.

However, there is no dispute that the social-psychological traumatic effects of conflict are critical in understanding the resort to violence. There is, however, a debate on how much this bears on the possibility of making peace which, in modern international relations theory, is usually reduced to competing interests and excludes social psychology. How does humiliation, how does resentment, affect the possibilities of peace? Is this dimension central, complementary or really marginal? Yossi Klein Halevi asserts that the social-psychological dimension is not only important, but more important than ethnic, economic and political variables.

I happen to agree with Halevi that peace efforts underplay the role of the passions versus the interests, underplay the role of prestige, honour and morale. How much weight to give to each dimension may be disputable, but I believe current peace-makers generally want to make room for both though there is a dispute over the degree each effects the conflict. But what has this to do with different narratives? I argue that understanding both with greater precision is what counts in an effort to provide a common narrative rather than making claims that merely listening to another viewpoint is key.

I will provide a detailed example on the role of humiliation, in this case of the Jews, namely the Holocaust, and its affects on the conflict with the Palestinians, more specifically, the role of the Holocaust in creating Israel. That series of blogs will suggest that the Jews created Israel by setting aside, by bracketing that humiliation, though it certainly played a role in the calculations of each side. As long as the Germans nursed a sense of false victimhood after WWI, they wanted to fight the war over. When they acknowledged that an even more drastic humiliation after WWII was their fault – at least in good part (not the uprooting of twelve million Germans), a radical shift became possible. The same can be said of the Japanese.

This suggests that the problem is not narrating a tale of humiliation that is critical, but acknowledging one’s own responsibility for one’s part in that humiliation. This does not mean that the current overt actions by both the Netanyahu and the Trump governments to humiliate the Palestinians offer a new path to peace. Perhaps an argument can be made that these do. but as far as I am concerned any argument would have to be very convincing. On the other hand, relaying and listening to a past tale of a series of humiliations offers no evidence, and Halevi offers none, that such an approach may lead to a breakthrough.

All of this is quite aside from whether Halevi’s letters themselves make a minor addition to that humiliation by his offering an initial version of a Palestinian narrative. I suspect not, but I am unsure. On the other hand, I am convinced that an ability to empathetically re-enact the experiences and rationale of another side that agrees to engage in dialogue is very helpful. However, I consider the objectivity of a narrative and testing that objectivity to be crucial.

In an earlier blog I mentioned that Halevi’s account of the institutional basis for dealing with the refugees in Palestine was simply historically incorrect. Unconsciously, his version added to the misrepresentation of UNRWA that evolved from a humanitarian agency with a back agenda of resettlement into the ministry of education, health and welfare for the Palestinian refugees. It is a mantra of many Israelis and its supporters that the role of UNRWA has contributed to the continuation of the conflict. I argue that there is little objective evidence for such a claim, though it is a widely shared part of the Jewish-Israeli narrative. What counted was not how the refugees were educated and housed, but the dedication of the Palestinians NOT to resettle them while the Jews resettled the 37,000 Jewish Palestine refugees on their side. This is not a difference in narratives, merely objectivity.

Understanding the Palestinian perspective on their refugees would indicate, I believe, the impossibility of their openly surrendering a right to return in exchange for the return of some Jewish settlements. On the other hand, I am equally convinced whether Jewish Israelis from a great part of the political spectrum would be willing to engage in such an exchange. I believe they would not be. For most it would mean exchanging facts on the ground for a puff of irrelevant smoke.

Thus, a key problem of Halevi is that the narrative he does offer and the suggestions for pursuing peace both lack both substantive objectivity as well as subjective pull – on either side. In sum, I disagree with reviewers of Halevi’s book who found it to be a most insightful depiction of the conflict, that his perspective, however deeply heartfelt and sincere, would not add an iota to reviving the peace process, though it may encourage a degree of dialogue which in itself would offer a dollop of help. But, in my mind, it is not the best foundation for encouraging a future path of discourse.

Empathy does not heal traumas. It is a tool for understanding trauma. Healing, particularly self-healing, is a very different process. Put more pointedly, hope may help bring people to the peace table, but hope may blind one to the onerous compromises required to make peace. Finally, infusing the process with religion may add a positive dimension to the conflict, but if past history is any indication, religion has made the possibility of a deal or even dialogue more remote. This does not mean that there have not been exceptions. However, past history provides little ground for any confidence.

Halevi may also have inverted dependants. He suggests that compassion fosters peace. I suggest the reverse, that the increased bracketing of insecurity results in a greater openness to compassion. To that degree, compassion for the other can be an important ingredient for strengthening any peace initiative. But it is part of the process not its foundation.

In the next few blogs I will offer a different version of the Zionist narrative, but one focused on four months in 1947 and one institution, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) rather than offering an overview of the conflict and the differences on each side. The account will provide no support that peace has little to do with drawing lines on a map, that peace has little to with reducing anxieties on each side and that peace, however, has almost everything to do with the initial recognition of one side to accept the principle of self-determination and the refusal by the other side to concede the same right, and, then the much later general reversal in positions.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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