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Jewish Journal

It’s time for words to lead the peace process

by Judea Pearl

November 20, 2008 | 1:57 am

It is now clear that no peace agreement, not even on principles, will be signed by the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team before some time in 2009, after the new American administration takes charge, the Israeli election runs its course and the fate of Mahmoud Abbas' presidency is decided.

Analysts who have been urging the two sides to expedite matters for all the many reasons that made the window of opportunities narrower by the day are now urging them to "keep the momentum going," lest the window, which I doubt ever existed, becomes too narrow to re-open.

But how do you keep momentum going when the two sides are locked in a fundamentally immobile stalemate?

Israel is physically unable to accommodate a sovereign neighbor a rocket range away from its vital airports, one whose youngsters openly vow to destroy it. And Palestinians, on their part, cannot change their youngsters' vows after having nourished them for decades, especially under occupation, while Iran is promising to turn those vows into reality.

Yet there is a way. If we cannot move on the ground, we should move above it -- in the metaphysical sphere of words, metaphors and paradigms -- to create a movement that not only would maintain the perception of "keeping the momentum going," but could actually be the key to any future movement on the ground.

Let us be frank: The current stalemate is ideological, not physical, and it hangs on two major contentions: "historical right" and "justice," which must be wrestled with in words before we can expect any substantive movement on the ground.

Starting with "historical right," we recall that a year ago, the Annapolis process was on the verge of collapse on account of two words: "Jewish state."

In the week preceding Annapolis, Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed, "The PA would never acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity," to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted angrily with: "We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state.... Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me."

Clearly, to the secular Israeli society, the insistence on a Jewish state has nothing to do with kosher food or wearing yarmulkes; it has to do with historical claims of co-ownership and legitimacy, which are prerequisites for any lasting peace, regardless of its shape. Olmert's reaction, which is shared by the vast majority of Israelis, translates into: "Whoever refuses to tell his children that Jews are here by moral and historical imperative has no intention of honoring his agreements in the long run."

In other words, recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" is seen by Israelis as a litmus test for Arabs' intentions to take peace agreements as permanent. Unfortunately, for the Arabs, the words "Jewish state" signal the legitimization of a theocratic society and the exclusion of non-Jews from co-ownership in the state.

Can these two views be reconciled?

Of course they can. If the PA agrees to recognize Israel's "historical right" to exist (instead of just "right to exist" or "exist as a Jewish state") fears connected with religious exclusion will not be awakened, and Israel's demand for a proof of intention will simultaneously be satisfied: You do not teach your children of your neighbor's "historical right" unless you intend to make the final status agreement truly final -- education is an irreversible investment.

But would the PA ever agree to grant Israel such recognition?

This brings us to the second magical word: "justice." One of the main impediments to Palestinians' recognition of Israel's "right to exist," be it historical or de-facto, is their fear that such recognition would delegitimize the Arabs' struggle against the Zionist program throughout the first half of the 20th century, thus contextualizing the entire conflict as a whimsical Arab aggression and weakening their claims to the "right of return."

All analysts agree that Palestinians would never agree to give up, tarnish or weaken this right. They might, however, accept a symbolic recognition that would satisfy, neutralize and, perhaps, even substitute for the literal right of return.

Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab wrote in the Washington Post (May 12): "The basic demand is not the physical return of all refugees but for Israel to take responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy."

Similar to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Palestinian refugees demand their place in history through recognition that their suffering was not a senseless dust storm but part of a man-made historical process, to which someone bears responsibility and is prepared to amend the injustice.

Journalist Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset, believes that this deep sense of injustice can be satisfied through an open and frank Israeli apology.

"I believe that peace between us and the Palestinian people -- a real peace, based on real conciliation -- starts with an apology" he wrote in Arabic Media Internet Network, June 14 (www.amin.org).

"In my mind's eye," he writes, "I see the president of the state or the prime minister addressing an extraordinary session of the Knesset and making an historic speech of apology:

'Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

'On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.

'We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

'The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews perished.

'All this does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.

'We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 -- which is the War of Independence for us and the Naqba for you -- some 750,000 Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy, I propose the establishment of a Committee for Truth and Reconciliation composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.'"

Is Israeli society ready to make such an apology and assume such responsibility? Not a chance.

For an Israeli, admitting guilt for creating the refugee problem is tantamount to embedding Israel's birth in sin, thus undermining the legitimacy of its existence and encouraging those who threaten that existence. The dominant attitude is: They started the war; wars have painful consequences; they fled on their own, despite our official calls to stay put. We are clean.

Can this attitude be reconciled with Palestinians' demands for official recognition of their suffering? I believe it can.

Whereas Israelis refuse to assume full responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war, they are certainly prepared to assume part of that responsibility. After all, Israelis are not unaware of stories about field commanders in the 1948 war who initiated private campaigns to scare Arab villagers and, on some occasions, to force them out.

So, how do we find words to express reciprocal responsibility? Here I take author's liberty and, following Avnery, appeal to my mind's eye and envision the continuation of that extraordinary Knesset session at the end of the Israeli president's speech.

I see Abbas waiting for the applause to subside, stepping to the podium and saying:

"Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

"On behalf of the Palestinian people and the future state of Palestine, I address today the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, wherever they are.

"We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

"The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement was to liberate Palestine from colonial powers, first the Ottoman empire and then the British Mandate Authorities. In their zeal to achieve independence, they have treated the creation of a Jewish national home in this country as a form of colonial occupation, rather than a homecoming endeavor of a potentially friendly neighbor, a partner to liberation, whose historical attachment to this landscape was not weaker than ours.

"We cannot ignore anymore the fact that the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 has resulted in the British White Paper, which prevented thousands, if not millions, of European Jews from escaping the Nazi extermination plan. Nor can we ignore the fact that when survivors of Nazi concentration camps sought refuge in Palestine, we were instrumental in denying them safety and, when they finally established their historical homeland, we called the armies of our Arab brethren to wipe out their newly created state.

"Subsequently, for the past 60 years, in our zeal to rectify the injustice done to us, we have taught our children that only your demise can bring about the justice and liberty they so badly deserve. They took our teachings rather seriously, and some of them resorted to terror wars that killed, maimed and injured thousands of your citizens."

Admittedly, this scenario is utopian. The idea of Palestinians apologizing to Israel is so heretical in prevailing political consciousness that only six Google entries mention such a gesture, compared with 615 entries citing "Israel must apologize."

Yet, peace begins with ideas, and ideas are shaped by words. And the utopian scenario I painted above gives a feasible frame to reciprocal words that must be said, in one form or another, for a lasting peace to set in.

And if not now, when? Recall, we must keep the momentum going.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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