When Israelis and Palestinians eventually get back to the table to negotiate a permanent-status agreement, ending the conflict and implementing the “two states for two peoples” agreement, it is essential that the quality of the agreement be much better than all of the previous, interim agreements. It is essential that we learn from the errors of the past and even other conflict areas that have gone through peace processes. In Part 1 of this series I related to the fundamental elements of personal and national security and the need to develop joint security mechanisms with the Palestinians rather than depending on third-party peacekeeping forces, as is the present thinking among many who are pushing for the renewal of the peace process.
One of the most difficult aspects for Israelis and Palestinians to agree on are what are called the “narrative issues.” These are those set of issues which relate to identity, history and national essence. The lack of agreement on these issues thus far has been the flashing red light held onto by those who claim that “they will never make peace with us.” When Palestinians say, “We will never recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people” or “we will never give up the right of return” it signals to most Israelis that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. When Israelis say, “All of the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel” or “all of Jerusalem is the united, undivided, eternal capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” this signals to Palestinians that there is no Israeli partner for peace.
My experience in dealing with all of these issues with Israelis and Palestinians, at the highest levels as well as at grassroots level, has taught me that there are solutions to every single concrete issue in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians which could be acceptable and workable for both sides. There are technical, political and structural solutions for every single issue in conflict, including borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. Dealing with narratives and genuine reconciliation takes a lot longer and requires putting to bed those issues in conflict which are much more pressing and concrete. Both sides will probably have to postpone full satisfaction of all of their narrative-related demands for later stages.
For Palestinians to accept the moral right of the Jewish people to a nation-state in the Land of Israel, or for Israelis to accept their part of responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and the Nakba will take a lot more time than it will take to conclude an agreement. The process of dealing with the above central issues to the roots of the conflict can only begin after an agreement is reached on all of the core issues at their base, concrete level. For example, the Palestinians have agreed to recognize Israel and to make peace with Israel and will be prepared to declare the end of conflict without having to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It would help a lot if they would do that prior to signing an agreement, but they will probably refuse. They may be forced to do that, but if it is not sincere it will be a cause of resentment and not a means of building reconciliation. I have discussed this issue with Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, and I know that there are ways that this core issue of recognition can be dealt with – but after agreement on borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
I know that there are solutions to the refugee issue without the Palestinians having to declare that they have given up the right of return. That will never happen because this issue more than any other is the core of Palestinian identity. It is wiser for us to accept that than to fight it. The right of return is seen as an individual right of each refugee and not a collective right that can be given away by any Palestinian leader. The Palestinians need to know that each refugee will be given a choice.
Most Palestinians know that there is no real option or possibility to return to their original homes. But there will be some symbolic number of Palestinians that will be given the possibility to come to Israel, along with other countries that will offer places for Palestinian refugees, and other options as well, including financial compensation for people who lost real property. Palestinians need to know that Israeli acknowledgment of its part of the responsibility for the tragedy that happened to Palestinians who became refugees will come with time, and not at the moment of signing an agreement.
Implementable agreements on the core issues that will positively impact realities on the ground for both sides will serve as the best corridor to confronting the narrative issues. Pushing them to the front will only postpone any agreement. Actions are more important than declarations.
The declarations must be made with true intent.
I do not suggest removing them from the agenda, but I do suggest that we begin to relate to them as part of the post-peace agreement process.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.