The world is often like that. The really surprising thing isn't that people have incompatible understandings of the world, but that people attribute their own understanding to everyone else; that observers interpret the actions of others through the prism of how the observers think, not the observed; that professional observers insist on the hubris of applying their own standards to the actions of the people they're observing.
Take The Economist - one of the most professional and intelligent set of observers and reporters anywhere, the top of their profession. Their leading article this week is about how the Obama administration must - must - force a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict on the warring sides. Set aside the abysmal silliness in the assumption that America, or anyone, can force warring societies to stop being warring societies, if they wish to continue warring, or even if only one side so wishes. Old King Canute couldn't even stop the rising tide, and that was only about dry and predictable laws of physics, with nary any human agents or irrationalities at all.
But as I said, let's not be distracted by technicalities. Instead, let's focus on the heart of the matter:
To start with, at least, peace will be incomplete: Iran, Hizbullah and sometimes Hamas say that they will never accept a Jewish state in the Middle East. But it is the unending Israeli occupation that gives these rejectionists their oxygen. Give the Palestinians a state on the West Bank and it will become very much harder for the rejectionists to justify going to war.The Weltanschauung behind that paragraph is that most people in the region, foremost the majority of the Palestinians, would prefer peace and dignity in a small but sovereign Palestine, over war and conflict with no sovereignty. That a small reality is better than a large dream.
(As an aside allow me to wonder how often the forbears of the English (the Economist is London-based) preferred small realities to big dreams. Then let me wonder if preferring small realities to big dreams might not have prevented the coming into existence of, say, the United States of America, partly through the work of English dreamers. Assuming small realities always trump big dreams is pure bunk. But I digress.)
What if, however, most Palestinians, Arabs, and even Muslims, truly and fervently believe that the dream of No Israel is an inevitable certainty, ordained by God or History or Destiny or Justice or All of the Above? What if they feel that a small sovereign Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one is not only not a goal worthy of pursuing, it's an abomination? Or if not an abomination, at most it's a cynical stepping-stone on the road to the inevitable No Israel?
I'm not saying that's the reality. I'm merely broaching the theoretical possibility, so as to ponder what the practical implications might then be.That's what pundits are supposed to do, isn't it? To imagine different possibilities and outcomes?
Then again, perhaps it is the reality. You may have seen this article by Saeb Erekat, a few weeks back. Erekat is the top Palestinian negotiator under Mahmoud Abbas. He has been around for many years. No description of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will ever fail to mention how moderate he is, how close and warm his relations with his Israeli counterparts in the peace-making camp. Erekat is often held up as living proof for the viability, indeed, the near inevitability, of peace, if only the Israelis would desist from their various stubbornness.
This period of dispossession, known to Palestinians as al-Nakba or "the catastrophe", is the seminal Palestinian experience and source of our collective identity. In fact, the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is himself a refugee displaced from the city of Safed during the 1948 war when he was only 13-years-old.Does that sound like a man who is yearning for a small reality over a distant dream? True, at the end of the article he tacks on some weasel words about how giving the Palestinians the right to overturn Israel's victory in a defensive war in 1948 "will not change the reality in the Middle East overnight, nor will it lead to an existential crisis for Israel."- but that's actually for Israel to determine, not for him, so the words are meaningless.
Today, Palestinian refugees constitute more than 7 million people worldwide – 70% of the entire Palestinian population. Disregarding their legitimate legal rights enshrined in international law, their understandable grievances accrued over prolonged displacement, and their aspirations to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel completely untenable.
Just last week I read Jonathan Spyer's excellent new book Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, which I hope to review sometime soon. In the meantime, however, here's a taster, from page 63 where Jonathan sums up the section on Hamas:
Hamas among the Palestinians is now articulating the deep sense of strategic optimism that has always characterized the Palestinian and broader Arab and Muslim views viz a viz Israel. According to this view, the existence of Israel is in opposition to the natural state of affairs in the region, and to the usual laws of human development. Since this is the case, what is required is to keep the struggle going, never to give in, until the final victory.
[He then describes an interview he made with Nizar, a Hamas leader in Ramallah, in 2008]
The Israelis, he said, nowadays just wanted to be left alone. Gone were the days when they sought to expand and conquer. The Zionist project, he said, had begun with the desire to to create a Jewish state between the Nile and the Euphrates rivers. Then, because of Arab resistance, this ambition had shrunk to a desire to expand Jewish control to the entire area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. Determined Arab and Muslim resistance had now shrunk Zionist ambitions even further.Now, all the Israelis wanted was to be able to keep what they had. But this, too, was only a stage...
The fact that the Jews, in his view, now wanted only to be left with the current situation, was proof that the way of resistence was correct, and was in the process of delivering victory...
Here was a genuinely held ideological position. Nizar, unable to leave Ramallah because of fear of arrest at the hands of the IDF, harried by the security forces of Mahmoud Abbas, was calmly confident of the utter inevitability of the Muslim victory in the long, slow war of attrition of which he was a part.The last time the Palestinians had free elections Hamas won hands down. The Economist, like all good media, knew this was because Fatah was corrupt, not because anything about the message of Hamas appealed to Palestinian voters. How they acquired this certainty was never explained. The implication was that Western pundits couldn't imagine a centuries-long conflict to rectify nature, so the Palestinians obviously couldn't, either. This in spite of the irrefutable fact that Dan Yakir and I can't even agree on the motivation of a judge in one of our minor courts.