Our Palestinian interlocutor’s refusal to cede his dignity wasn’t a performance; it was despair. It felt to me like an epitaph. There have been conflicts in which leaders have made compromises that may have seemed like betrayals, only for history to view them as both bold and necessary. But those conflicts are not this conflict.
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The Israelis’ narrative is quite different from the Palestinians’, and on its own terms, it’s not necessarily wrong. According to this perspective, Arabs, from the founding of Israel in 1948 onward, have either longed for the Jewish state to disappear or taken action to actually make it disappear. This relates to the Israeli refrain that there is no Palestinian partner for peace; the most moderate Palestinians may accept Israel’s existence as an unfortunate fact, this argument goes, but not even they believe in Israel’s right to exist as the national homeland for the Jewish people.
In their long history together, Muslims knew Jews less as an ethnic group than as adherents of another religion, different from Islam but also like it. In The Jews of Islam, Bernard Lewis noted that when Muslims expressed negative attitudes toward Jews, they were “usually expressed in religious and social terms, very rarely in ethnic or racial terms.” In conversation, many Palestinians express discomfort with the idea that Jews are both a people and a religion, and Israeli Jews tend to view this lack of recognition as sinister and evidence of Arab irreconcilability.
Many of the early Zionists were secular, so their vision for a State of Israel did not depend on a shared religious faith. It depended, instead, on being a people. The moniker “Jewish state” itself captures this, since a Jewish state can be a secular home for Jews, whereas an “Islamic state”—to use another legalistic religion—suggests a religious mission and theological premises.
Divergent histories and narratives shape the interpretation of otherwise factual questions about what actually happened and didn’t happen at key moments. For example, Israeli politicians attack Palestinians for squandering Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” of 2000, and so a story of Arab and Palestinian recalcitrance builds uninterrupted, with each new rejection confirming the previous one: First, Arabs rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan. Then Arab nations waged war against the new Israeli state. Decades later, when they finally had their chance, Palestinians rejected Barak’s offer. Then they rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, and so on.
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To put it mildly, Palestinians do not share this interpretation of what went wrong. They believe the offer was far from generous, coming after six years of “more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions,” as the senior Clinton-administration adviser Rob Malley and Hussein Agha argue in one of the definitive accounts of the 2000 Camp David negotiations. In practice, Barak, the dove, wasn’t much of a dove. As Malley and Agha write: “Behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield.”