While we’re talking about the Middle East and its history, it’s useful to understand why historical narratives of the Israel-Palestinian conflict are as much a battleground as anything that happens between armies or diplomats. As Gershom Gorenberg explains at the American Prospect today, Bibi Netanyahu’s demand for full Palestinian recognition of Israel’s character as a “Jewish state” makes acceptance of his country’s favored narrative a condition for peace:
[T]he battle over narratives already plagued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before Netanyahu tossed in his recognition demand. The two issues that contributed the most to the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 were the refugees and the Temple Mount, otherwise known as Haram al-Sharif. Israelis heard Palestinian insistence that the Haram was a purely Islamic holy site as a shameless denial of any Jewish historical connection to the land as a whole. For Palestinians, the Israeli refusal to bend on the right of return showed perverse unwillingness to own up to creation of the refugee problem—for which, in the simple form of the Palestinian narrative, responsibility lies entirely on Israel.
Since the refugee issue and control of holy places are also practical problems, they can’t be avoided. But dealing with their historical symbolism is the one place where constructive ambiguity can contribute to a peace deal. Borders must be precise. Both sides must agree on the last detail of security arrangements and water use. Symbolism, on the other hand, can and should be fuzzy.
So why is Netanyahu demanding that Palestinians bend on symbolism?
The easiest guess about Netanyahu’s motivation is that he has raised the demand precisely to foil an agreement. Perhaps. I don’t know his secret thoughts. Overtly, though, he has made hopes for the future hostage to history.
A workable peace accord must be written so as to avoid direct denial of either side’s narrative. But it cannot be conditioned on an agreed-upon account of the past. In the best case, the process will work the other way around: If peace is reached, if both sides actively seek reconciliation, if they let raw wounds become scars, a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians will sneak a look at the past from the other’s angle as well as their own.
Those are some mighty big “ifs,” but they probably represent the only hope for reconciling the two communities” variable histories.