This spring, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, came to speak at the University of Virginia, where I teach. As I approached the venue for the speech, I came across a young man sitting on the ground and holding a sign that read, “United Nations Targeted Resolutions Against Israel: 65, Palestine: 0.” At first, I thought this was a familiar tally of the well-known anti-Israeli bias of the global body, which suspends its trademark inefficiency and sloth at regular intervals to selectively single Israel out for political censure. Then, I noticed the young man’s kaffiyeh and Palestinian national colors peeking out from behind his poster board. I had gotten it all wrong; the point of the placard was that Palestine — newly recognized as a state by many countries — has a spotless international legal record. It was Israel, not Palestine, that was the repeat offender.
We hear much talk today about how the Palestinian declaration of statehood may fundamentally change the political or legal dynamics of the conflict in the international arena. But what struck me about the protester’s message was not its novelty — but its staleness. The contemporary Palestinian perspective that Israel is a rogue state and an egregious aggressor simply echoes rhetorical tropes that have been around for the past 40 years. They find their starkest expression in the infamous 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution that labeled Zionism as racism, and the other 64-plus resolutions that have accumulated through the decades. Even the new Palestinian bid for statehood — quixotic, tragic, or savvy as it may be — doesn’t change the underlying national narrative of Israeli intransigence and Palestinian innocence.
Unfortunately, the too-familiar message outside the lecture hall was matched by the one presented inside. Listening to Ambassador Oren’s eloquent, even compelling, description of the four pillars of the American-Israeli “special relationship,” I was struck by how dated his rhetoric sounded. To be fair, he offered penetrating historical insights into the American Christian-Zionist psyche. He sketched the dramatic depths of American-Israeli military cooperation. He recounted the shared political values and huge economic ties. Yet, subtract the start-up nation motif, and the narrative could have come from any of the less telegenic, gruffer Israeli ambassadors who have served in Washington over the past four decades. In a speech otherwise full of energy and optimism, the ambassador sounded strangely passive when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though there were some obligatory comments about the eventual painful compromises that will need to be made, these remarks signaled a resigned acceptance to a status quo in which Israel lacks the ability to change its fate vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Political agency rests in the hands of the other party. This, too, was a line that has been heard for decades.
Diplomats and peace processors such as Dennis Ross and Shlomo Ben-Ami often tell us that Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart in their views of the conflict. The two narratives, they declare, are premised on mutually incompatible claims and irreconcilable assumptions. But I suspect that the real problem is not the radical distance between the two sides, but rather their proximity. Over the decades, Israelis and Palestinians have produced one shared master narrative of the conflict. To say it differently, they have created two perfectly aligned narratives of vulnerability — which are mirror images of one another. In each version, the other side has the power. For Israelis, the Palestinians are part of an Arab Goliath while they remain forever a little David. For Palestinians, Israel is Goliath, and they are the scrappy, rock-throwing shepherd boys.
The roots of this shared narrative lie not in the early decades of the 20th century or even in the tumultuous years surrounding 1948. Rather, they reflect a post-1967 Cold War reality, in which the geopolitical alignments — Israel with the United States and the West versus the Palestinians with the larger Arab world and the USSR — led each side to see itself as facing a gigantic foe. Even as the United States and the USSR engaged in a series of proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, they maintained a broader status-quo understanding in which neither superpower attempted to destroy the other side. Ironically, though the Cold War ended 20 years ago, it seems as if the Israelis and the Palestinians are still locked into a Cold War-style status quo of their own. They fight — and particularly on the Palestinian side, the rhetoric sometimes escalates to extremist calls for total war — yet both sides also accept an enduring reality with no impulse to enact fundamental change.
Despite the march of history — the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first and second intifadas, the rise and fall of the Oslo Accords, 9/11, the Gaza disengagement and the ascent of Hamas, and the Arab Spring — there has been relatively little change in how Israeli and Palestinian partisans talk about the conflict and one another over the past 40-plus years. The national narrative each side clings to remains fundamentally locked on the same channel. The status quo of this narrative of the conflict — the mirror images they represent of each other — is firmly entrenched in the rhetoric and, indeed, in the psyche, of both sides. This has produced the perfect status quo, if you will, the one-narrative solution.
How do we move forward from this kind of status quo? To advance peace, we must understand the other side’s thinking. This comforting cliché forms the basis for much of the noblest Track II dialogue and conflict resolution efforts put forward in the past two decades. But it makes little sense to try to understand the other side when its account of the road that got us to this point is ultimately a familiar story of aggression and self-defense, just with the roles reversed. For this reason, it is not a national reconciliation that we need to resolve the status quo, but a severing of ties between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead of a shared one-narrative solution, we need two states and two narratives to reach a historical resolution of the conflict.email print