The word “narrative” is a very ambiguous one. Some use it to speak about the joint perceptions and collective memories in a society to differentiate between “us” and the “others” and thus express a concentration on a neo-tribalism that is no longer relevant in the new globalized context. Others use it to discover the diversity of different narratives within a society between one group to another, according to age, sex, ethnicity or any other such variable. This second concept of “narrative” helps to place it in a position not against the other, but rather to find “bridgeable narratives” shared by groups in the same society or across a divide. It also helps identify “conflicting narratives” between groups inside or outside a society.
At the same time, the narrative approach is risky if it adopts a position that a peace agreement between two sides in conflict is not possible until the two publics come to an understanding of each other’s narratives. One can imagine how long a peace process will take–if it can ever succeed–if it is made conditional on a bottom-up process to understand each other’s narratives. A different approach might be to make it sufficient to work with decision-makers, academics and community leaders on both sides to bring them to an understanding of each other’s narratives. If achieved, this will no doubt help politicians to reach agreements on the issues at stake. It will help academics to develop new educational curricula that will include the other’s narratives, and teachers to achieve an inclusive pedagogy. And it will help community leaders, including the sectorial leaders, to become actors for reconciliation rather than incitement and enmity. This is all built on understanding ! the narratives of the other–without necessarily having to agree with them.
With regards to the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one might find that a minority of Palestinians recognizes the narrative of the other even while a majority raises the question: why should a Palestinian try to understand the narrative of the other toward the same land? It was David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who said that, “if I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country.” This frank assertion shows that it was the Palestinians that paid the price for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (and suffered another massive deportation in 1967).
The question is, should Palestinians understand/recognize the Israeli narrative about their plight? If they do, will it only deepen the asymmetry that characterizes Israeli-Palestinian relations? Or is it a question of Israel’s recognition of its responsibilities for the plight of Palestinians, and including with it suggestions for creative solutions that are driven not only by Israeli demographic considerations but by creating the circumstances to ensure the right of equal access to human security for both Israelis and Palestinians? Human security in this sense includes the equal right of the two peoples for freedom from fear and freedom from want.
If this human demand for the recognition/solution of the plight of the Palestinian refugees and displaced persons is not met, then Palestinian fears will deepen that the justifications used in the past to create Israel will be used again in order to expand Israel into the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. These justifications have always been: the Palestinians refused such and such, therefore they bear responsibility for what has happened to them.
With that said, it appears that Israel should take the first step toward resolving the Palestinian refugee problem by understanding the narrative of the other side as a point of departure. This would create a positive atmosphere that could encourage both sides to respond to the “peace quest”, which includes the development of a vision for peace that the other side feels encompasses its needs and rights. Such a vision should include recognition of the individual and collective rights of both sides to the same land, recognition of the historical victimhood of both sides, and procedures to transform conflict into peace through the implementation of a two-state solution.
This would be a positive political use of narratives, as opposed to their use as a tool to make Palestinians deliver concessions against their rights, or as a tool for expressing and increasing the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.
At all times, the approach to narratives in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been used politically. The issue now is not to disconnect narratives politically from the current Israeli-Palestinian realities on the ground, but to aim at making them a political tool that can assist the two sides finding ways to break through.