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An approach to the different “narratives”: Don’t let them prevent Arab-Jewish coalition-building

There is a remarkable essay by Hussein Ibish, a Palestinian American who is a Senior Fellow with the American Task Force On Palestine, on the ATFP’s web site.

Called “Sense, Nonsense and Strategy in the New Palestinian Political Landscape,” it allows us to eavesdrop on the internal Palestinian American conversation about what is to be done. After skewering Arab leftists who have come around to supporting Hamas, and analyzing the complex causes and consequences of the Hamas-Fatah conflict, he tries to offer Palestinian and other Arab Americans concrete ideas for a political approach that could, conceivably, help to end the occupation. Among other things, he provides a critique of the one-staters on the left, and then embraces the idea of working with pro-Israel American Jews who share the goal of two states. The entire piece is well worth reading, but for now, note what he says about the different “narratives”:

The only serious prospect of ending the conflict and gaining independence for the Palestinian people lies through the path of a negotiated end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. This is not an perfect or ideal solution. Few political constructs ever are. But, if properly crafted, such an agreement could and would end both the conflict and the occupation…

…In addition to developing more effective advocacy, friends of Palestine need to help build a serious national and international coalition to end the occupation. The Arab League peace initiative, for example, provides a significant platform to build upon, as it offers Israelis the potential of achieving what they say they have always wanted. Just as Palestinians and Israelis need to come to terms with each other in order to realize their rights and security, and to ensure a decent future for both peoples, supporters of Palestine in the United States will have to develop a functioning working relationship with a wide variety of organizations that support an end to the occupation and the conflict.

The motivations for such support are irrelevant, as are differences on other issues. Policy changes in a system as complex as the American one require broad-based, single-issue alliances between factions who agree on little, or even nothing, else. Supporters of Palestine and Israel in our country have glared and shouted at each other for many decades for very understandable reasons. However, since Israelis and Palestinians need to come to reasonable terms in the interests of both peoples, Jewish and Arab Americans who are serious about peace also need to develop, insofar as possible, functional working relationships.

I do not mean here simply Jewish and pro-Israel groups that oppose the occupation on moral grounds, but those that wish to end it for practical and selfish reasons as well. We are never going to convince each other to abandon the narratives that inform our support for Israel and Palestine respectively. But since, for different reasons, Israelis and Palestinians finally find themselves needing the same thing – an end to the conflict based on an end to the occupation – Arab and Jewish Americans ought and need to be able to build a working alliance to support that aim. Israel has every reason, purely in its own manifest self-interest, to come to reasonable terms with the Palestinians, and its American supporters have every reason to encourage it to do so, even though not everyone has fully comprehended this yet. Many others would want to be involved too, as the whole project would emphasize the benefits of an end to the occupation for US foreign policy and the world at large.

Indeed, almost all parties – Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, European, Asian and of course American – need this conflict to be resolved, and the formula of two states living side-by-side in peace is the only viable means of doing so. Only forces radically and violently opposed to the regional and world order, or extremist groups on both sides and their allies who consciously prefer unending war over painful compromise, actively reject it. Until now those extremist minorities have managed to exercise a veto over the will of the majorities and the needs of all of these parties. This veto must be revoked. If we say we want the same thing, we should at least try to call each other’s bluff and test the waters rather than concluding from the outset that it is inconceivable that self-interest might actually bring friends of Palestine and Israel to the same place at the same time, with the real potential of mutual benefit.

Acknowledging and then trying to set aside the differences in each other’s narratives, and not trying to reconcile versions of history that cannot be reconciled, is the only way to accomplish anything –both here or in the Middle East. That doesn’t mean longstanding grievances disappear. It means they aren’t allowed to interfere with the practical work of ending the occupation. Some Israeli and Palestinian peace activists have learned this lesson, and put aside their many differences to work towards the same goal. They often go through a long, internal process with different phases. Generally, it starts with a desire to talk to and work with The Other. Then anger erupts, and differences are magnified. And eventually, “functional working relationships” –as Ibish puts it– can be developed.

Jewish and Arab Americans don’t have enough of those working relationships and not enough of them have gone through the process I just described. There have been isolated joint projects and speaking tours , sporadic meetings behind closed doors between communal leaders, dialogue groups, a dinner here and there. I am probably going to offend the people who have mounted these efforts, but they have never amounted to anything that is politically consequential or enduring on a national scale. The American Task Force on Palestine, led by Ziad Isali, is comprised of very smart, politically savvy Palestinian Americans who want to change that situation. They offer a ray of hope on the domestic political scene, and rays of hope for meaningful changes in American Middle East policy are few and far between.

To complicate this new ethnic paradigm even more, I’m going to think of them during Thanksgiving tomorrow. Happy turkey day to one and all…

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