The Real Dispute Driving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A cycle of denial has defined the shared existence of neighboring peoples for seven decades.

A road sign to the U.S. embassy posted in Jerusalem
A worker hangs a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

As the U.S. moves its embassy to Jerusalem, and the tragedy at the Gaza border escalates, Israelis and Palestinians continue to contest each other’s rights not just to that city, but to legitimacy itself.

On April 30, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, provoked an international uproar when he delivered a speech before the Palestinian National Council in which he blamed the Holocaust on Jewish “social behavior” like greedy banking practices. The European Union promptly denounced Abbas; former Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted that there can be “no excuses for antisemitism” [sic]; the dovish Jewish organization J Street warned that “diatribes like this” undermine legitimate Palestinian aspirations; and a New York Times editorial called for his resignation. In fact, Abbas’s contempt for Holocaust historicity was hardly new: His 1982 doctoral thesis trafficked in outright Holocaust denial, questioning the number of victims and claiming that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis.

But the international community missed a more consequential affront in Abbas’s speech: the denial of the Jewish people’s rootedness in the land it shares with the Palestinian people. “Their narrative about coming to this country because of their longing for Zion, or whatever—we’re tired of hearing this,” Abbas told the Palestinian National Council. “The truth is that this is a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region.”

Abbas’s “Zion denial” explains much about why the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains so intractable. If Israel is merely a colonialist project, rather than the fulfillment of an exiled people’s longing to return home, then it is illegitimate. You don’t make peace with colonialism—you destroy it. Seventy years after the founding of the Jewish state and the beginning of the Palestinian tragedy, peace remains as elusive as ever—in large part because of the pervasive denial, both within Palestinian society and throughout the Middle East, of Israel’s legitimacy, and the hardline response that denial evokes among Israelis.

Abbas’s speech only confirmed for many Israelis that this conflict isn’t primarily about redressing the Palestinian grievances over the consequences of the events of 1967—the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—but of 1948: the creation of Israel. Even if we were to uproot every last settlement and withdraw to the 1967 lines, some Israelis say, it won’t bring us any closer to peace, because the real Palestinian grievance is Israel’s existence.

This week, as the U.S. embassy is moved to Jerusalem and Palestinians observe the 70th anniversary of the nakba, or the “catastrophe” that saw the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1947 and 1948 by Israelis, violence in the region will almost certainly intensify. The ongoing war over 1948 is being played out on Israel’s border with Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinians have been gathering over the last month, in attempts to storm the fence that separates the two. In response, the Israeli army has used live fire and killed dozens of Palestinians. Leaders of the extremist group Hamas, which controls Gaza and is organizing the demonstrations, have declared that the “march of return” is the beginning of the end of the Jewish state.

In conversations over the years with many Palestinians and Arabs, I’ve been told some version of: We have nothing against Jews as a religious minority. You lived in Arab lands for centuries. But we cannot accept your redefinition of yourselves as a people, let alone a sovereign nation. That rejection of Israel’s legitimacy ignores that many Jews have always defined themselves as a people with a religious identity, nurtured by the hope of one day restoring their sovereignty in their lost homeland.

Palestinian media, schools, and mosques routinely reinforce the message of denial. According to the prevailing Palestinian narrative, the Jews are pathological liars who have invented their history, thieves without rights to any part of the land—“a foreign body,” as Abbas put it. Among the fabrications in this narrative: that there was no ancient Jewish presence here—that’s a Zionist lie, too; the massive archeological findings attesting to that presence were all faked; no temple stood on the Mount; and the Holocaust was a Zionist invention intended to extort Western support for a Jewish state.

I know Palestinians who reject that assault on the Jewish narrative and are prepared to accept the indigenousness of the Jewish people in the land we share. But voices affirming the legitimacy of the Jewish story are excluded from the official Palestinian discourse.

The international community has tended to downplay or ignore altogether this deep-rooted denial of the Jewish story. But the impact on the Israeli public has been profound. Zion denial is one of the most effective arguments of the Israeli right, which portrays the greatly diminished left as hopelessly naive.

It could have been different. By the early 1990s, many Israelis were beginning to come to terms with the ruinous consequences of the occupation on their own society. The turning point occurred during the First Intifada, the five-year Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. I served then as a soldier in the Gaza refugee camps and, like many of my generation, concluded that we had to find another way. Many Israelis, including on the right, came to realize that ruling over another people was a long-term disaster for Israel. The teenagers confronting armed soldiers with rocks proved that Palestinians were no less willing to sacrifice for their sovereignty than we were.

This realization was a historic departure from the mainstream Israeli denial of the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity. “Palestine denial” was notoriously summed up by Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, who in 1969 said that, under the British Mandate, Jews and not Arabs had been called Palestinians and that, in effect, there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. For Meir, Palestinian nationalism was merely a ruse invented by the Arab world to undermine Israel.

Palestine denial remains pervasive within the Israeli right. But there are also those Israelis who have long since come to terms with the right of the Palestinian people to self-definition—a prerequisite for achieving the right to self-determination.

The widespread Israeli awakening during the First Intifada led to the election of Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister in 1992, followed by the Oslo peace initiative, which was initially supported by a majority of Israelis. The premise of Oslo was a rejection of the old Israeli attitude conveyed by the Hebrew adage, Ein im mi l’daber—there’s no one to talk to, no partner for compromise.

But that hopeful moment vanished in 2000 with the Second Intifada, four years of suicide bombings that turned Israel into a nation of shut-ins, afraid to congregate in public places. No less traumatic than the terrorism was the fact that it followed Israeli overtures to end the occupation. We tried to make peace, many Israelis concluded, and in return suffered the worst wave of terrorism in our history. Whether or not one accepts that normative Israeli version of why Oslo failed, Israel today cannot be understood without grasping the impact of the Second Intifada. Many Israelis remain convinced that the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of peace in 2000 was an inevitable consequence of its rejection of Israel’s right to exist. The conviction that “there is no one to talk to” returned with full force.

The most significant political divide in Israel today is no longer between right and left, but between right and center: right-wingers who believe that there is no partner for peace and so Israel should settle and annex the West Bank, and centrists who believe that there is no partner for peace but Israel still needs to try to extract itself from the occupation, even unilaterally if necessary. Neither camp believes in the possibility of reconciliation with the Palestinians any time soon.

Israelis and Palestinians are caught in what could be called a “cycle of denial.” The Palestinian national movement denies Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel in turn denies the Palestinians’ national sovereignty. The cycle of denial has defined this shared existence since the creation of Israel 70 years ago.

No matter how vigorously the international community condemns the occupation, it won’t move the Israeli public—including those who see the occupation as a long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state—so long as Israelis believe that no matter what their country does, the other side will continue to see its existence as illegitimate.

According to polls, a majority of Israelis believe two things about the conflict. The first is that ending the occupation is an existential necessity for Israel itself. The second is that, given the denial of Israel’s legitimacy within the Palestinian national movement, a Palestinian state will likely be irredentist and itself a potential existential threat to Israel.

The key to ending the occupation, then, is beginning a new conversation on peace between Palestinians and Israelis—not only about the technical details of an agreement, but about the intangible issues of legitimacy and rootedness of two indigenous peoples fated to share the same tortured land. The international community can help by expressing its vigorous opposition not only to Israeli settlement building, but also to the Palestinian campaign that portrays the Jewish return home to any part of the land as a colonialist affront.