Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Narratives War

Published in Middle East Mirror on September 23, 2009

This week, President Obama hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his New York hotel on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. While a step in the right direction, the meeting generated little hope for renewed negotiations between the two sides. Indeed, with the rising power of Hamas and a rightward shift in Israeli politics, most experts are casting grim predictions of ongoing deadlock that could spell the death of the two-state solution.

Yet polls show majorities of Israelis and Palestinians to support a peace settlement, and a consensus exists over the general framework of such a solution. In fact, the deepest source of contention is not whether peace is desirable or what its parameters should be. Rather, it is an all-out war of historical narratives playing out on an international stage, and the American public has front row seats.

At a fundamental level, each side of this narrative battle seeks to establish a monopoly on victimhood, delegitimizing the other's suffering while sanctifying its own. Each perceives itself as a heroic David battling an intractable Goliath, viewing the conflict through the lens of past victimization. When suicide bombers and rockets strike their cities, Israelis recall centuries of persecution culminating in genocide and wars in which they seemed hopelessly pitted against multiple armies. And when tanks and missiles tear through their streets, Palestinians remember their exiles in 1948 and 1967 and decades of occupation.

As universally human and understandable as this tendency is, it creates an obstacle to reconciliation that must be overcome if a peace settlement is to move forward. A just and lasting peace cannot come about by merely delineating borders and agreeing to end violence; it must include mutual recognition and dialogue.

Because the narratives war involves the international community, such dialogue must also take place internationally, especially in the United States. Since the creation of the State of Israel, and particularly after its sweeping, monumental victory in the Six Day War of 1967, the United States has played an important role in Israeli affairs. Because of Israel's dependence on diplomatic, military, and economic support from the U.S., both sides of the conflict are acutely aware of the necessity of swaying American public opinion. This has translated into a fierce battle over academic and media channels and the access granted them to American hearts and minds.

A major source of contention is the use of language, whether in labeling geographical locations, deciding what to call perpetrators of violence, or invalidating the opposing narrative. The West Bank becomes Judea and Samaria; terrorists become martyrs; and the peace process becomes the "peace process."

In today's Information Age, the proliferation of media has greatly increased the scope of the narratives war. College campuses have also become battlegrounds. Troublingly, the physical and rhetorical conflicts have even merged, and journalists have become targets for those who wish to silence them.

Those who care about Middle East peace can play a leading role in transforming this ideological conflict. By creating dialogue that honors both narratives, the international community can transcend the polarization surrounding this issue and help pave the way for genuine peace.

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