As I write these words, it is about to turn to June 10, the date which, in 1967, was the last of six days of war that would be the primary landmark for the course of the next 40 years in the Middle East, and with reverberations that have continued to ripple through world events.
So much has been written, in newspapers, magazines and online journals in the past week, analyzing endlessly the effects of the war and the ensuing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and, until the Camp David Accords took full effect, the Sinai Peninsula. What more is there to say?
It is tempting to simply go into my own analysis of the war. It’s tempting to bring forth my own answers to the popular questions: was the pre-emptive Israeli strike really necessary; what difference could it have made if the UN Secretary General of the day, U Thant, had not so quickly caved in to Nasser’s demand to remove the UN Emergency Force from the Sinai; what if Nasser had not been misled by the USSR to believe that Israel was massing for an attack on Syria; could Jordan’s King Hussein have done anything other than join the war; and, of course, should Israel have immediately traded the captured land for peace, as some Israelis suggested?
Perhaps soon I will write about my own views on those very important questions, as well as a number of others that the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the occupation raises. But right now, I’m vexed by a different question: why is there still no end in sight? Most Israelis want this to end, as do most Jews. Most Palestinians want it to end, as do most Arabs. The Arab League offers peace between Israel and all its members states if the occupation is resolved. Ehud Olmert hints that he would be willing to trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria. Official, though not practical, US policy is for an end to Israeli rule over the Palestinians. Yet nothing happens.
In this space, I have and will continue to spend the bulk of my time exploring the political reasons why this doesn’t happen. But this one time, I want to talk about the human reasons that stand in the way.
Not long ago, I was giving a talk and, during the question and answer period, several people who do not share my view of the conflict were challenging my view of how to resolve it. I was able to answer their questions, I believe, to a surprising degree in their view. But they remained unconvinced. Why?
In the last analysis, these folks were unable to accept any scenario where the Arabs would keep their word. They are fundamentally convinced that, no matter what agreements are reached and what incentives are offered to make peace more attractive than war, the Palestinians’ and Arabs’ goals are limited to the destruction of Israel. They weren’t capable of imagining being at peace with the Arabs.
Golda Meir put it this way: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
That was a horrid statement. Many use it as proof of Golda’s racism, and with good reason. But I see it as the words of a person locked in an ethnic/national conflict with another people. In other conflicts I’ve studied, I’ve seen similar statements, and I’ve often heard similar expressions about Israelis. Not necessarily in those terms, but the dehumanization, the demonizing of the other, the sense that “we” or the “good guys” are morally superior or more human than “them” or the “bad guys”.
Just as the folks at my talk could not find a shred of trust in their hearts for Arabs, so too many supporters of the Palestinians feel the same about Israel. Every piece of diplomacy, every proposal is seen as nothing more than a trick. Again, there’s good reason. After the Oslo Accords were reached, Israeli settlement expansion exploded. There were political reasons for this, but for Palestinians it is the ultimate proof that Israel was never sincere about a two-state solution.
Such mistrust is not overcome for generations. But it can be diminished enough so that people can at least accept guarantees from third parties and agreements that create great benefits from peace and losses from war. That can be accomplished best by stopping the insistence that exists on both sides for the other to accept their historical narrative. It is accomplished by dialogue that focuses on the future not on the past, that eschews ideology and pipe dreams that have no basis in political realities and embraces that which is constructive and possible.
Jews and Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs and all of their supporters do not have to be friends in order to create an atmosphere where the occupation can end and Israelis and Palestinians can negotiate a resolution to this conflict. But they do have to overcome the notion that the other side is interested in anything but a better future for their children. Once that happens, the political momentum can be built, in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the United States, for a resolution.