Israeli-Palestinian peace making is, to some extent, an attempt at negotiating the difference between national narratives. Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator on the Palestinian side and someone I have long regarded as the voice of reason and moderation, recently said something curious. I quote from an article by Michael R. Gordon and Jodi Rudoren (NYTimes) that appeared in the Boston Globe of Dec 5, 2013 on p. A7.
Erekat told the diplomats [at a dinner held in Jerusalem on the prior
Friday] that the Palestinians could never accede to Israel's demand that
they recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. "I cannot
change my narrative," he said. "The essence of peace is not to
convert each other's stories."
At first glance, this statement is a non-sequitur. The first part of the
statement references an Israeli narrative of Israel as a “nation-state of the
Jewish people,” while the second part speaks of the right of the Palestinians
to their own narrative. In combination, this amounts to saying that Palestians
cannot be expected to change their narrative, but they expect Israel to modify
its self-understanding as a Jewish state. At the same time, Erekat asserts that
peace entails not to convert each other’s
stories. So what will it be?
Erekat’s statement can be broken down into three parts, but the relation of
these parts and hence the meaning of the statement as a whole is not
First statement : The Palestinians could never accede to Israel's
demand that they recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
This sentence is made up of two
[1A] Israel demands that Palestinians
recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people
[1B] Palestinians could never accede
Second statement : "I cannot change my narrative," he said.
"The essence of peace is not to convert each other's stories."
This, too, can be broken down into
two statements, namely,
[2A] I cannot change my
[2B] The essence of peace is not
to convert each other’s stories.
This is where it gets opaque. It is
not clear how [2A] and [2B] are related. [2A] is a bridge between  and 
but it is phrased in form of a personal, not a general statement: “I cannot
change my narrative” could mean Erekat alone, but the next sentence links it to
a claim on the “essence of peace,” defined as the demand of not converting one
another’s stories. In other words, what he is articulating is not just his
personal view but his view as the member of a nation with its own narrative.
On some level, what Erekat says is
clear. He gives us the well-known Palestinian response to a demand first made a
few years ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others and since reiterated
in the debate on a loyalty oath that may be imposed on the Arab residents of
Israel, namely, to recognize not just Israel’s right to exist but to recognize
Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or as a state of the Jews,
i.e., as an ethnic democracy, rather than a democracy based on the equal rights
of all of its citizens. This demand, which has ratcheted up the rhetoric of
recognition, has irked the Palestinians (and many Jews) because it is widely
perceived as creating an insurmountable obstacle to peace and reconciliation
between Israel and the Palestinians. The shift from recognition of Israel to
recognition of Israel-as-a-Jewish-state effectively wants Arabs to accede to
Israel’s demographic fear of being overtaken by Arab birth rates and therefore
to seal the deal on their own ethnic inferiority within the Jewish state in
perpetuity. No wonder this is irksome.
The problem with Erekat’s statement
is that he demands the freedom to retain his own narrative, while demanding of Israelis
to change theirs. If the condition for peace is not to convert one
another’s stories, then what’s the point of trying to pressure Israelis to
change theirs? Palestinians and many well-meaning Jews have indeed been trying
to use world opinion to pressure the Israeli government and the public that
sustains it to change their narrative. The precondition for Israeli-Arab
reconciliation seems to be that Israel relinquish the notion of itself as a Jewish
I have very good friends who loathe Israel because of its ethnic character. For them, Israel’s treatment of Arabs,
Bedouins, and other “others” is colonialist or worse. Zionism seems to them a settler
movement grounded in European racism and sustained by American capitalist and
imperialist interests. They argue that the only way of rectifying the historic
injustice done to the Palestinians and the only way to a lasting solution in
the Middle East is to allow for one state to be established in what used to be
British Mandate Palestine, perhaps including the territory and populations of
what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a state where Jews, Arabs, and
others enjoy equal rights and equal access to all resources and no group enjoys
particular privileges as a group.
Historically informed readers will
immediately recognize the similarity between this view and the 18th-
and 19th-century European debates on Jewish emancipation. As the
Count de Clermont-Tonnere put it in the mother of all of these debates in the
French National Assembly of 1791, to the Jews as individuals everything, to
the Jews as a nation: nothing. We know the outcome of that attempt to solve
the “Jewish question.” Zionism was, in fact, the response to the failure of the
French Revolution to deliver a lasting integration of the Jews into European
societies, a failure for which-contrary to Karl Marx, Bruno Bauer, or Richard
Wagner-the Jews are not to blame.
The reason why Palestinians, even
the most reasonable ones among them, including Mr. Erekat, are caught in a bind
is that they may be right in theory, but they are wrong in light of
history. Palestinians carry the heavy weight of a plurality of historic
failures that cannot be easily rectified by means of general verities. It is
true that Palestinians have suffered the indignities of foreign intervention, political
deception, failure of leadership, expulsion, statelessness, and occupation for
too long. They deserve better. They should not be paying the price for the
failure of European societies to integrate their Jewish minorities. They should
not pay the price for the destruction of European Jewry wreaked by Nazi Germany
and their many willing helpers across the Continent. We cannot weigh Nakba
against Holocaust, or else we will belittle the Palestinian right to
self-determination, let alone to a life in dignity and self-respect.
Part of the onus is indeed on
Israel. Israel is in a position of strength. Part of its strength derives from
the moral right to security it derives from the historic suffering of the Jews.
But the power it derives from this past needs to be balanced by responsibility,
its moral capital invested wisely and justly. Jewish ethnic power threatens to
turn into the pursuit of a natural right, i.e., you act because you can, not
because it is legitimate, or at least legitimized by a more general consensus
(e.g., sanctioned by the UN General Assembly as the embodiment of a volonté
générale of all nations). With time and with the lack of rectification of
Palestinian suffering the value of the latter increases as the value of Jewish
suffering is eroded and squandered, leaving the Jews exposed as merely
self-interested, the very claim raised against them by the likes of Marx and
Bauer in the nineteenth century who argued against Jewish emancipation not
because Jews should not enjoy equal rights but because everyone should enjoy
equal rights, not just the Jews.