The Asymmetry of Pity

September 1, 2001 Topic: Security Regions: LevantMiddle East Tags: IntifadaSecond Intifada

The Asymmetry of Pity

Mini Teaser: Oslo failed because the Palestinian side has taken no responsibility for having helped cause the conflict, and has seen itself above any need to make concessions in order to end it.

by Author(s): Yossi Klein Halevi

My most instructive conversation on the Middle East conflict was not
with a politician or a journalist but with a soft-spoken Palestinian
Anglican minister named Naim Ateek, whose group, Sabeel, promotes a
Palestinian version of liberation theology. During a long and
friendly talk about two years ago, we agreed on the need for a
"dialogue of the heart" as opposed to a strictly functional approach
to peace between our peoples. In that spirit, I acknowledged that we
Israelis should formally concede the wrongs we had committed against
the Palestinians. Then I asked him whether he was prepared to offer a
reciprocal gesture, a confession of Palestinian moral flaws. Both
sides, after all, had amply wronged each other during our
hundred-year war. The Palestinian leadership had collaborated with
the Nazis and rejected the 1947 UN partition plan, and then led the
international campaign to delegitimize Israel that threatened our
post-Holocaust reconstruction. What was Rev. Ateek prepared to do to
reassure my people that it was safe to withdraw back to the narrow
borders of pre-1967 Israel and voluntarily make ourselves vulnerable
in one of the least stable and tolerant regions of the world?

"We don't have to do anything at all to reassure you", he said. He
offered this historical analogy: When David Ben-Gurion and Konrad
Adenauer negotiated the German-Israeli reparations agreement in the
early 1950s, the Israeli prime minister was hardly expected to offer
the German chancellor concessions or psychological reassurances. The
Germans had been the murderers, the Jews the victims, and all that
remained to be negotiated was the extent of indemnity.

"So we are your Nazis?" I asked.

"Now you've understood", he replied, and smiled.

I have thought often of that conversation since the collapse last
fall of any pretense of a mutual process of reconciliation between
Palestinians and Israelis. With disarming sincerity, Rev. Ateek
offered the most cogent explanation I had encountered for why the
Oslo peace process never had a chance to succeed.

From the start, Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking was burdened by
asymmetry. The gap between Israeli power and Palestinian
powerlessness was translated into a political process that required
tangible Israeli concessions--reversible only through war--in
exchange for Palestinian promises of peace: In essence, land for
words. But the deepest and most intractable asymmetry has been
psychological: it has been an asymmetry of pity, or, more precisely,
of self-pity. The Palestinians, as losers of the conflict, continue
to see themselves solely as victims, without guilt for helping
maintain the conflict or responsibility for helping to end it;
indeed, for many Palestinians, the war is not over borders but
absolute justice, a battle between good and evil. Because history has
been kinder to them, Israelis can afford to concede complexity and,
indeed, the Israeli mainstream now perceives the conflict as a
competition between two legitimate national movements over the same
tortured strip of land. Aside from the hard-right minority, most
Israelis acknowledge that both sides share rights and wrongs.

Zionism's Victory over Jewish Self-Pity

The first generation of Israelis after statehood resembled
Palestinians today in their simplistic view of the struggle over the
land as an absolutist moral conflict. In every generation, as the
Passover Haggadah puts it, a new enemy rises to destroy the Jews and,
for most Israelis, this was the Arabs' turn. A popular Yiddish pun
emphasized the point: Hitler fell into the water, it went, and
emerged "nasser"--Yiddish for wet, and a reference to Egypt's
president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Israel's great antagonist during its
formative years.

Only gradually did Israelis begin to see the conflict with the
Palestinians and the Arab world generally as a fundamental break from
the pattern of Jewish history--that Zionism's hard gift to the Jews
was to restore to us our collective free will, transform us from
passive victims of fate to active shapers of our own destiny,
responsible for the consequences of our decisions. A key turning
point was the November 1977 visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel.
Remarkably, a mere four years after Egypt's surprise attack against
Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Sadat was
welcomed as a hero in the streets of Jerusalem. The Israeli notion of
the Arab world as an impenetrable wall of hostility began to change.
So too, Israeli certainty about the justness of its cause was subtly
challenged: Many Israelis, including Ehud Barak, began to suspect
that Israel could have prevented the 1973 Yom Kippur War had it
agreed to withdraw from the Sinai in the early 1970s. The subsequent
invasion of Lebanon in 1982, followed in late 1987 by the first
intifada, reinforced for Israelis the moral ambiguity of the Middle
East conflict.

At the same time, Israel's sense of siege began to ease. The collapse
of the Soviet Union, the repeal of the UN "Zionism is racism"
resolution, the post-Gulf War optimism in the Middle East, the mass
Russian immigration and resulting Israeli prosperity--all reinforced
the same message that Israel had entered a new era and was about to
fulfill the long-deferred Zionist promise of Jewish normalization.
Finally, a new generation of native-born Israelis that could take
Jewish sovereignty for granted no longer saw itself as living in the
pathology of Jewish history but in a new Israeli reality.

Indeed, young Israelis became so distanced from the traumas of Exile
that the Israeli Ministry of Education felt impelled in the 1990s to
introduce pilgrimages to Nazi death camps in Poland for high school
students, as an emotional crash course in Jewish history. In
politics, too, the Holocaust lost its centrality: Only the hard Right
and the ultra-Orthodox continued to cite the genocide of European
Jewry as a potentially recurring threat. Whereas former Israeli Prime
Minister Menachem Begin once routinely invoked the Nazi era--and even
publicly compared himself, during the invasion of Lebanon, to an
Allied commander closing in on Hitler's bunker--his equally
right-wing politician son, Benny, confined his traumas to the Middle
East. Thanks largely to the effects of Israeli sovereignty on the
Jewish psyche, a wound that should have taken generations to heal
began to recede into history. By the time of the Oslo agreement in
September 1993, a majority of Israelis had been weaned from the
self-defensiveness of the victim and educated in the moral dilemmas
of the conqueror.

The Weight of Palestinian Self-Pity

It would be unrealistic to expect a similar evolution among
Palestinians who, after all, lack fifty years of sovereignty to
compensate for their historical trauma. The Palestinians are at a
different stage of their national development, resembling Israel in
its early years, celebrating nationalism and self-sacrifice and
mistrusting moral complexity as weakness. Yet that psychological gap
between Israelis and Palestinians was precisely Oslo's great
structural flaw. The problem with the Oslo process, as Ariel Sharon
has noted, was not its goals but its timetable, its lack of ample
"process." Oslo's implicit expectation was that Israel would return
to approximately the June 1967 borders after a mere seven years of
tenuous relations with the Palestinian entity, well before the
Palestinians could be emotionally prepared to offer Israelis even the
most minimal sense of safety and acceptance in the region.

On the Israeli side, a vigorous and successful effort was made by
Labor Party leaders to wean the public from its emotional attachment
to the biblical borders of "greater Israel." Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon
Peres repeatedly told the Israeli people that the dream of greater
Israel was unrealistic and self-destructive. That message was
reinforced by the Israeli media, often by what we journalists chose
to omit as much as to publish. I recall, for example, reading an
account in the Jerusalem Post's media column, written by right-wing
commentator David Bar-Ilan, just after the White House handshake of
September 1993. The column reported on a speech delivered by Yasser
Arafat in Amman in which the Palestinian chairman noted that by
signing the Oslo Accords he was merely implementing the "stages"
policy--that is, the 1974 PLO decision to accept whatever territory
Israel evacuated and continue struggling until the demise of the
Jewish state. My instinctive reaction was that the account must be
exaggerated: Bar-Ilan, after all, was a right-wing ideologue. Despite
the devastating implications of that speech, I did not bother
checking whether Bar-Ilan's report was accurate, precisely because I
feared that it might be. Nor did I want to be tainted by association
with the right-wing opposition. That combination of wishful thinking
and cowardice characterized most Israeli journalists, at least in the
early years of the Oslo process.

In contrast with Israel's contortionist efforts to adapt to Oslo's
false promise, no attempt was made by Palestinian leaders to
accommodate the Jewish state in their people's mental map of the
Middle East. Indeed, the self-justifying myths of the Palestinians
have only become more entrenched since Oslo. The Palestinian people
are routinely told by their controlled media that the Temple never
existed on the Temple Mount, that the biblical stories did not occur
in Israel/Palestine, and even that the Holocaust is a lie. The
consistent message is that the Palestinians are victims of a false
Jewish narrative.

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