Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Return Of 'The Right'

I surprise nobody by remarking what a difficult time this is for Israelis and Palestinians. In many ways, the sides are closer than ever to sensing what a modus vivendi feels like, as the institutions and economy of a Palestinian state gradually take shape, and the parameters of an initial deal become more widely understood by the international community. For the younger generations, who live more and more in cyberspace, the issue of land per se seems less and less relevant to quality of life. And yet I cannot remember a time of relative calm when the sheer hatred between the two sides has been more palpable, and the ultras on both sides are on the ascendancy, enjoying (and fueling) the resulting polarization.

Late last summer, I thought I'd take a step back and simply ask why we are so stuck. The result is this long essay in the current Harper's on the Palestinian right of return (for now, behind the magazine's paywall, I'm afraid, but a year's subscription to this great magazine is about the cost of lunch).

IN A NUTSHELL, the article argues that the sides are not simply stuck because of the Israeli occupation and settlement policies, inflammatory and destructive as these are, or because of Hamas' arguable power. Rather, the vast majority of people on each side hold to nonnegotiable principles of identity, and understandable but exaggerated fears regarding the other side's intentions. These make the polarization serious even if demagogic rejectionists were not exploiting them.

Most important in this context is the Palestinian right of return, which is not just another matter to be settled or finessed once a border has been agreed to. It is a nonnegotiable demand for Palestinians and cuts to the heart of what the Palestinian nation is. The problem is, Israelis tend to hear the demand through a prism that is different from that of Palestinians. And the prism is of a piece with the Israelis' own nonnegotiable demand, that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish national home, or even more vaguely, the state of the Jewish people. What are these prisms?

FOR ALL THE obvious reasons, the Palestinian nation is unselfconscious about its cultural life. Were it not for their confrontation with historic Zionism, the Palestinians would be virtually indistinguishable from other Muslim and Christian Arabs in the Fertile Crescent. Palestinian identity derives from a deep and abiding sense of injustice done to many but specific Palestinian families. Palestinians as a whole feel the dispossession and suffering of these families have never been acknowledged, let alone redressed or compensated.

Israelis, for their part, are extremely selfconscious regarding their cultural distinction, also for obvious reasons. They can easily imagine the world with Jews and Jewish culture extinguished. They look at America and see personal successes but, for Jewish civilization, a wasteland. They think of themselves as the last best hope for preserving Jewish language and everything this subtends. The article attempts to recapitulate the history of the confrontation between these rival needs.

It should come as no surprise, yet does, that people of good faith on both sides are still talking past each other.When Palestinians speak of a right of return they are really insisting on the centrality of the individual rights of Palestinian families, historically, but also gesturing toward the contemporary rights of Arabs in the state of Israel. They want their day in court, as it were, but also constitutional protections, "equality" going forward, something they think historic Zionism never accorded them.

For their part, Israelis hear the demand for a right of return and immediately assume Palestinians want to flood them with Arabic and Muslim culture and snuff out Jewish national identity. So they turn things around and insist that, before talks could get serious, Palestinians must recognize the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. What Palestinians hear is that Israel is demanding Palestinians accept a Zionist movement and state that once displaced them and now create institutions that discriminate against them.

WHAT CAN WE learn from this? For some time, most of us have assumed that the best way to approach peacemaking is by getting to a border, building confidence, and dealing with the right of return last. But perhaps this is misguided. (It is a little like a divorcing couple trying to come to an agreement about property before they have taken care of custodianship of the children.)

Rather, I argue, Israelis interested in peace should agree up front to participate in an international commission that will carefully investigate the property losses and pain and suffering of Palestinian families. (Olmert offered something like this in his negotiations with Abbas.) There are other actions, flowing from the establishment of this commission, that Israelis should agree to, including modalities for compensating refugees and, in various cases, allowing them to return to Israel should they choose to (though polls show most would not). I go into these modalities in the article.

At the same time, Palestinian leaders should agree in advance that Israel is the country where the distinct civilization of the historic Jewish people will find its contemporary expression. It is disingenuous on the part of Palestinian leaders, even moderates like Abbas, to say that they recognize Israel but have no intention of endorsing a "Jewish state" (or something like this) for fear of condemning Israeli Arabs to second class citizenship. If there are things about the Israeli state apparatus that Palestinians reject, that is, in addition to the occupation, they should say so--but this should not prevent their affirming Israel's purpose to provide a Jewish national home.

Both sides, in other words, have to state a view regarding the proper boundary between individual rights and national-cultural survival, just the way Canadians have had to, or members of the EU had to. Palestinians have to stop talking about the Jews as if they were referring to just another religion in some larger secular state, or about historic Zionism as if the Naqba and occupation are all there is to say about it. Israelis have to stop talking about Palestinians as if refugees who demand attention to their grievances are inviting genocide or Israeli Arabs who want a "state of its citizens" are calling for the end of Jewish national identity.

ALL OF THIS brings us to a culminating point, which I take up at the end of the article. The right of return is the most dramatic but by no means the only issue that forces Israelis and Palestinians to confront how to reconcile individual rights to national rights. This reconciliation cannot be achieved without certain confederative institutions that, say, permit certain Palestinian returnees to live as "resident aliens" in Israel (and may well allow some Jewish settlers to live in Palestine as resident aliens).

In fact, no two-state solution is even conceivable without any number of confederative institutions: a single municipality for Jerusalem, and international custodian for the holy basin, an international custodian to administer security arrangements on the Jordan River, institutions that guarantee the sharing of water, electromagnetic spectrum, and many other benefits. This has nothing to do with the sides loving each other--no more than the French loved Germans at the launch of the Common Market.

In short, the right of return can become a cause of a fight to the finish. Or it can be an invitation to finally settle this conflict humanely and imaginatively--and fully. Again, you can download the entire article here.


Y. Ben-David said...

The Palestinian demand for the "Right of Return" of the refugees is NOT a "humanitarian problem" (i.e. giving them some permanent place to live) nor is it a merely a demand that "Israel acknowledge the pain of the refugees". IT IS A POLITICAL WEAPON IN THE ONGOING PALESTINIAN STRUGGLE TO ERADICATE ISRAEL. The Palestinians do not accept the existence of Israel as a separate state, nor would they accept a large Jewish population existing in some sort of confederal political arrangement. The first is because the continued existence of Israel, even if it should say it is not Zionist and becomes a "state of all its citizens" would be an ongoing threat to the Palestinians and other Arabs because of what the Palestinians imagine is the very nature of the Jews as a group (see Sayid Qutb's "In the Shade of the Qur'an" for the most explicity description of how the Muslims view the Jews as a group), and even the confederal structure would lead to ongoing friction between the communities, similar to the situation in Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria where different ethnic and confessional religious groups have great difficulty sharing political power.
Thus, the long-term goal is the eradication of Israel and the depletion of the Jewish population. The Arabs know this will take time, possibly generations. This is how their struggle against the Christian Crusaders went, finally, after 200 years, they were gone. The existence of a Jewish state and an undigested large Jewish population center in the heart of the Muslim Middle East is viewed by the Muslims as an historical abberation and an abhorrent situation who are destined by the tenets of their religion to ultimately be the dominat religious force in the Middle East and later, the world.
Certainly, on a day-to-day level compromises and cease-fires can be arranged. But as Dr Avishai demostrated in his earlier posting about the message from his acquaintance in Gaza, the HAMAS leadership certainly looks at the medium and long-term situation in the way I have described. They sasy they are killing the "Elephant" by millions of pin-pricks. They think they are winning. Israel must convince them that they aren't.

Anonymous said...

Y. Ben David's on-going reactions exemplify the fractured cerebration of an intractable mind. He writes of Arabs and Palestinians as if variations of thought, hopes, and dreams don't exist among them at all, as if they think and speak with one singular voice. Yet surely he would allow that Israelis differ--sometimes passionately, sometimes violently--about a host of issues internal and external. Strange that he cannot imagine that SOME semblance of that might exist on the other side.

esthermiriam said...

A variation on the theme, perhaps: Israeli (and Diaspora Jewish) recollection of the way in which Jewish holy places were held from Jews and abused during the years before '67 when Jordan controlled them, for which (as far as I know) there has never been apology or even acknowledgement, standing in the way of willingness to discuss sharing internationally controlled parts of Jerusalem.

Y. Ben-David said...

Did you read Dr Avishai's earlier thread regarding HAMAS' position regarding peace with Israel? They aren't interested in it and they say so openly. I take them at their word. HAMAS and their allied Islamic movements are the rising powers in the Arab world. No doubt there are Arabs that are willing to make peace with Israel on some sort of compromise basis BUT THEY ARE NOT IN POWER. Sadat and Mubarak are cursed today for having "sold out Egypt" to Israel.
Yes, whatever regime arises in Egypt and possibly Syria, assuming Assad's Alawite dictatorship is ousted, will promise more confrontation with Israel, but at the same time, they will have to deliver on improved economic prospects for their people. Nasser faced this dilemma and never successfully resolved it and will cause difficulties for the new regimes. But steadfast opposition to real peace with Israel can be expected, regardless of whether the Egyptian regime formally abrogates the peace agreement or not.
I believe that EVENTUALLY political Islam will be discredited when if fails to deliver what it is promising. Recall the Nasserite pan-Arabism created great enthusiasm in the Arab world (partly by playing on hatred for Israel) but it became discredited after not so many years. The same will happen to the upcoming Islamic regimes and then maybe we can talk about a compromise peace, but this will take some decades to reach.

Potter said...

This cannot downloaded without spending $17. I spent $7, the cover price of the physical magazine, resisting subscription, and will read the entire article. I have too much lying around here that needs reading to add more. I wish that Harper's did not shoot itself in the foot with this pay wall. I would gladly have paid $# even $4 for the article online.

They can easily imagine the world with Jews and Jewish culture extinguished.

Let's get over this already. Ridiculous!

At the same time, Palestinian leaders should agree in advance that Israel is the country where the distinct civilization of the historic Jewish people will find its contemporary expression.

As part of a peace agreement....both can recognize each other formally. The demand before there can be any negotiations is not fair. Abbas has said that there should be no wish to change the demography of Israel and Israel can call itself what it likes. Why is this necessary-and a priori to talks? Are we talking about words?

Potter said...

Ben-David- I don't think you have time to wait for a rising "political Islam" to fail. Israel needs to talk about a just compromise peace now and you should stop focussing on imaginary worse case scenarios that feed your own paranoia.

Hamas positions gain legitimacy with the people because of Israel's unwillingness to agree to a just solution.Violence gains legitimacy when reasonable solutions fail especially over matters that can be resolved.

Violence at least makes Israel more uncomfortable.

If what you say is true- ie Islamic movements are rising and (coordinated) into one big enemy for Israel- then Israeli's should be dancing towards an end to this conflict and occupation or preparing for war.

Y. Ben-David said...

I think it is presumtuous for you to decide that you know why HAMAS is growing in popularity. The radical political Islamists are growing in influence THROUGHOUT the Muslim world, even in formerly militantly secular societies such as Indonesia, Tunisia and Turkey and this has nothing to do with Israel. The rise of HAMAS would happen even if there was an independent Palestinian state according to your specifications.

Potter said...

According an actual poll Hamas & Co is not doing so well. So much for that presumption about Islamists. But it did gain popularity ( or not lose any) during the Gaza War of 08.

If radical Islamists are growing throughout the Muslim world are you presuming that they will take over power and be united against Israel? I don't presume the people will allow this; these are democratic revolutions. At best they will have influence, I presume. But if what you say is true, all the more Israel should start dancing.

Potter said...

Dr. Avishai:

This article is excellent- worth $6.99... actually a lot more, maybe $7.50 :-) I don't mind paying, but this should be very widely available. So I hope these ideas, this point of view, and the excellent review of the history of this issue gets out in other ways.

This outcome depends upon the wills of the sides, ultimately, to think differently. The saying is "if there is a will there is a way" and you show a way through this right of return blockage that minds have erected and then go beyond that to a place where everyone wins. Everyone wins by opening up and letting go- even just a little. Everyone wins by pruning their own desires down to basics, to their essence and understanding what the other side really wants as opposed to projecting on them one's own fears.

Thank you.

sh said...

Abraham's Children, the Harper's essay, was the most lucid and thoughtful analysis on the Israel-Palestine conflict I have read. Professor Avishai reaches for a higher plane, one where personal and economic freedoms triumph ancient hatreds. Provocative and hopeful.

Y. Ben-David said...

I find SH's and Potter's comments most enlightening.....the solution is simple! Have everyone in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world read the Harper's article, then realize that their ancient belief in Islam is wrong, or at least grossly misunderstood, get them all addicted to Internet and focussed on making as much money as possible instead of wasting their time in the mosque or reading the Qur'an and, voila!....peace will be at hand.
I never realized it was so simple!

Potter said...

It's most disheartening to read this weekend in the New York Times that Israel is allowing itself to go in the opposite direction from what is being proposed in the Harper's article.

The report/opinion piece is by Gershom Gorenberg. But of course this is not news. It's just very disheartening to read about how Israel is pulling apart and losing even memory of admirable ideals and in the process moving even further away from a peaceful outcome. Settlers, anti-Arab, are moving their "price-tag" targeting to within Israel. Where is the movement against this, the one that says This is not who we are"? Or is this all about ( allowing) vengeance forever.

Israel's Other Occupation

Y. Ben-David said...

See what Israeli anti-Zionists and post-Zionists think of "liberal Zionists" like Dr Avishai:

Potter said...

( re Ben-David's link- proving?)

What a pessimistic negative commentary by Joseph Dana -- including the same ol same ol tortured discussion he partakes in below. He's seems in that fight to the finish. Words are weapons too.

Compare that to the lucidity and rationality of this Harper's article.

But at least this is making waves. Perhaps some will look at content less defensively. You can lead a horse to water......

One reader's comment made to Joseph Dana's critique of this article:

What’s worth is it to hunt liberal Zionists, when Fascists are hunting you?

It's wasted time, this name calling nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Know that filesharing is considered by some to be illegal, but if you are ok with it, here's a link to download the magazine

Click slow download and wait the sixty seconds - Seems a little sketchy, but it's the whole magazine, including Avishai's article

Y. Ben-David said...

Doesn't sound like the Egyptian people, the largest nation in the Arab world, want to be rule by Dr Avishai's beloved "secular entrepenuerial elite". See:

Now that HAMAS's close allies in Egypt are winning a big victory, does ANYONE think Abbas is now going to sign a compromise peace treaty with Israel? Dream on, if you do. The "peace process" that began at Kilometer 101 at the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 is dead and buried. We are now in the era of the Islamic Renaissance. The Arabs won't be talking about how to make peace with Israel, they will be arguing how to abrogate the peace agreements Israel has with the PLO, Jordan and Egypt without the US necessarily suspeding the aid it gives all of the them.

Potter said...

When there is. inevitably, no longer the repression of so many years, naturally those that were repressed will rise and be heard. "Islamists" (as so labeled) notice come in colors, and different philosophies. And revolutions go through many twists and turns. What is happening is more freedom and more democracy. Israel can save itself ( 360 degrees around) only by acting morally- regardless.

Daniel Ibn Zayd said...

The argument here is fundamentally flawed in ways that ring false in the ears of anyone who lives inequitably under the current occupation forces in Palestine, including of course the Palestinians, but also historically speaking the racially segregated Sephardim, Mizrahim, and Ethiopian Jews, the minority slave labor populations, the Eastern European women who make up the Israeli sex slave trade, etc. These flaws include the quaint deceit that Israel reflects "liberal" (read: European) values; the overreaching sentiment that the Israelis are a united people representing all of world Jewry (rejected most recently by Tunisian Jews); the historical revisionism that the fabricated cultural roots of this "people" are somehow more valid than the actual cultural roots of those, including the Semitic Jews of the region, whose culture comes truly from land and place; and finally the dishonest and willful mistranslation that gives us the trope of "wiping Israel off of the map"....

[continues: Rebuttal]

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