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Peace Needn’t Depend on Common Facts

An argument for moving away from talk of Israeli and Palestinian ‘rights’

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Israelis celebrate Independence Day in an ominous symbol yesterday.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/GettyImages)

In his latest Nation column, Eric Alterman describes Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, a new volume put out by Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. The group and the book aim to reconcile Palestinian and Israeli narratives of Israel’s creation and the subsequent conflict. “Alas, it proved impossible,” Alterman reports. “And so Side by Side instead tells the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli and a Palestinian perspective on alternating pages. This follows the example of PRIME’s series of three pamphlets, which included a third, blank section for students to write their own histories. Perhaps predictably, however, neither side’s schools would use them.” (I haven’t read the book.) Alterman and PRIME both seem to see the inability of the two sides to agree on a common narrative as a failure; at the least, they think that working toward a common narrative is a good idea.

While their hearts are obviously in the right places, I disagree. Arriving at a common narrative—even common facts—is probably a futile endeavor, and even if it isn’t, it’s not worth the energy. Besides that, it focuses attention on a sense of overall, total justice, a game neither side will ever win, because, where ultimate justice is concerned, each side’s fanatics can always fall back on irrational, unfalsifiable appeals (religious, nationalist).

Instead, I think the strategy should be to get large majorities on both sides to concede the legitimacy of many of the other side’s claims, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them. It’s important that most Israelis acknowledge that many Palestinians were expelled during the War of Independence; it’s less important they agree on numbers. It’s important that most Palestinians acknowledge Jews’ historic and spiritual claim to the land, including (and especially) Jerusalem; it’s not as essential that they feel that this claim completely supersedes their own. One side can call it the War of Independence; the other side can call it the Nakba. I have my own opinions on which side’s version is more correct (surprise surprise, the Israeli side), but that doesn’t need to matter if all of that is put aside in favor of creating something workable on the ground.

(It should go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said, that part of this arrangement would permit the discussion of facts that some people don’t agree with, not the arresting of people for discussing those facts, as happened last night in Tel Aviv.)

A discussion of rights can only lead to further stagnancy (and bloodshed), both because of those aforementioned irrational, unfalsifiable appeals, and also because what you would probably find is that both sides have legitimate rights to all of Jerusalem, and to all of the land.

By contrast, a mutual suspension of the discussion of rights could allow the two sides to discuss—and this is, as Alterman notes, the pertinent question—what is to be done. Practically, there are two peoples living on one land, and only one of them has a state, and the other lacks security—those are much easier facts and narratives to agree on. By reducing the conflict to its most practical, contemporary elements, you do forsake ultimate justice, but you actually make a deal much easier. One cannot compromise if the stakes include the past, because the past cannot be changed. The third, blank section should not be for writing history. It should be for writing the future.

Defending Israel (and Waiting for a Miracle) [The Nation]
Police Besiege, Arrest Activists Planning to Commemorate Nakba in Tel Aviv [+972]

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yevka says:

Yes something workable on the ground Marc to borrow your own words is just what Obama wants and Bibi does not want. An end to West Bank settlements is the starting point for something workable on the ground to most reasonable minded people and then an end to the occupation. Which side of the wall do you stand on this issue Marc?  Or do you stand for anything at all?

Nat Greenwald says:

Marc, I would hope that you do not find the Israeli “version” of the truth more correct because you are a Jew or a Zionist. The man who has examined better than anyone, Palestinians included, the expulsions (or lack thereof) of Palestinians is Benny Morris, a staunch Zionist. It’s cliche to cite Daniel Moynihan quote about everyone being entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, but it seems necessary to repeat. History is only a tool of politics as much as it is allowed to be.

    yevka says:

     Nat I’ve poured over so many of Marc’s posts. Did you know he’s seen Exodus more times than Star Wars? The dude is DEEP.

    jacob_arnon says:

    Nat Greenwald, It sounds like you have accepted the Arab version of events because of your own political views. 
    Benny Morris is a great historian but his version of events is still a version.

    The Arabs countries who made war on Israel still haven’t opened their archives to historical researchers.

    Until they do we will only know half the story. 

    The Jews in Palestine did accept the UN partition plan. The Arabs both locally and in other surrounding countries 


    did not accept the UN Partition plan and attacked the Jews. 

    The Jews defended themselves and everything that happened was a response to the Arab rejection of the UN partition plan. 

    You Greenwald can take the side of the Arabs if you wish but don’t question the author’s honesty. 
    He investigated the historical facts.   Did you?

    Do you know Hebrew did you look at the primary sources?

      Nat Greenwald says:

      Maybe I wasn’t clear, but I was trying to say that no, there are such things as facts, and not just versions of truth. And it’s usually Palestinian advocates who argue for the acceptance of “narratives” and other such crap. 
      You don’t have to tell me how the Arab Revolt 1936-39 changed Zionist thinking, or which side didn’t accept partition, etc.
      My point is that the idea that each side is equally guilty of distorting the truth is bogus. Israeli/Zionist historians, politicians, etc. have been on the whole much more truthful, and sometimes self-critical,  in dealing with that period. In other words, if Marc endorses the so-called “Israeli narrative” because he’s Jewish (as he implies), then it only devalues the historical findings.

        jacob_arnon says:

        Nat if there are facts, as you say, and not just narrative versions, (and I agree with you there) then what difference does it make if I accept the fact say, that 2 plus 2 equals four as a Black man, or as a woman, or as a Jew, Christian or Muslim. 

        2 plus 2 will equal four no matter who accepts that fact.

        The same with your question to Marc. What difference does it make if he accepts the facts of this history as “a Jew” or as independent observer?  These facts will not change no matter who and for what reason one accepts them or denies them. 

gemel says:

Marc, you state, 

 “Practically, there are two peoples living on one land, and only one of them has a state, and the other lacks security—those are much easier facts and narratives to agree on,”
but you leave out the most important fact, that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Leaving out the acceptance of the Jewish state of Israel means that no matter what temporary accommodation they (Palestinians) are willing to make, it is temporary until they can continue the fight against Israel, just as they are doing within their area of control through their anti-Semitic teachings and regulations, such as forbidding sale of land to Jews, etc. 

yevka says:

Peter Beinart is proving still not to be last month’s flavor of the month…another op-ed on his book and the range of reactions. A good take down of Bret Stephen’s bunk.

PhillipNagle says:

The Palestinians will say anything as long as it further their goals, regardless how rediculous.  This includes the denial of the existance of the temple mount,  “Jesus was a Palestinian” and for a lie on current events the Jenin massacre.  To give any respect to their distorted view of history, which they change when convenient, is lunacy.

    yevka says:

     You know you sound like broken record of tired inflammatories. Cool off.

      PhillipNagle says:

      And you disagree with me how?  It seems you just don’t want me to speak the truth because it might make somebody mad.  It’s better if I ignore their lies and just bend over.

I agree – the narratives cannot be reconciled at this time, but they must each be mutually respected by the other side.  Israel must give up its ideal of a Greater Israel and the Palestinians must give up their idea of a Greater Palestine.  The land must be partitioned one more time – with recognition of  current facts on the ground, security arrangements, economic relationships, water sharing, demographics, etc.  And, no tricks — return of refugees is a de facto negation of the acceptance of mutually-respected narratives, as is complete Arab sovereignty (or Israeli, for that matter) of Jerusalem Holy places and neighborhoods.   Settlements can be negotiated with border adjustments.  Narrative reconciliation can be saved for when there is political peace and security and the desire is for more — to live together as good neighbors, to forgive and accept one another as human beings with rights and dreams.  One step at a time.


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Peace Needn’t Depend on Common Facts

An argument for moving away from talk of Israeli and Palestinian ‘rights’

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