Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Ghassan Khatib

The narratives that inform Palestinians and Israelis are important and dangerous components of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that are rarely touched upon by those who are trying to bring it to an end.

Their respective narratives have been used liberally by both sides for all kinds of purposes: first, as a tool for incitement and to secure political support and consensus as well as increase the hostility necessary to continue the fighting. Second, narratives have been used in order to justify each party’s position to the outside world. This is especially important in light of the fact that the two sides, to different extents and during different phases of the conflict, have been heavily dependent on external support, whether from governments or public opinion.

The differences in the two narratives are very deep and serious. They encompass the whole array of historical, religious, cultural and political facets of the conflict. It is difficult to see a serious reconciliation process and lasting peace agreement succeed without dealing with these contradicting narratives in a way that will allow both sides to agree on a growing number of issues, thus reducing the number of issues they disagree on.

Some elements from outside the establishment in Israel have recently gone through a process of serious revision of parts of the Israeli narrative, particularly vis-a-vis the historical aspect. Many of the “new historians” in Israel have now revealed the lies that were erected to serve political ends in the official and non-official narratives of Israelis regarding especially the establishment of the state of Israel.

These are the kinds of initiatives that need to be encouraged and developed in order to proceed toward greater understanding. Hopefully, they will one day include other aspects of the Israeli narrative, notably the religious. The religious Israeli narrative has been solidifying in Israel and has now reached a point where top politicians in the last few years have based some of their political positions on religious claims. This group includes the otherwise secular former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon at a certain point in time, but a growing number of others as well.

On a cultural level, a certain kind of Israeli feeling of superiority over others, particularly the Palestinians and Arabs, is also something that needs to be addressed as a component of the narrative about the conflict.

The problem also exists on the Palestinian side, but with some differences. There is a difference between the positions, mentality and narrative vis-a-vis the conflict on an official level compared to the public level. The Palestinian leadership, until the recent victory of Hamas, was less influenced by an unscientific narrative then the public. The Palestinian leadership has historically been rather secular and thus less influenced by any biased religious narratives and relatively speaking more accurate when it comes to the historical understanding.

The problem of narratives on the Palestinian side is serious and real on the public level. The Palestinian public is influenced and compromised by certain narratives that need a lot of revision and education. The weakness of the Palestinian side in the conflict and the weakness of the Palestinian leadership internally, however, restrict the possibilities for debating and revising these narratives.

One of the possible constructive contributions from civil society institutions on both sides is to try to establish several arenas of debate on aspects of the respective narratives. Such an undertaking should include relevant personalities and institutions from both sides but also relevant third party institutions specializing in the issues. Such groups could establish the ground rules for processes of academic debates of a kind that could teach both sides about each other’s narratives and also eliminate certain aspects that do not belong in such objective and academic fora.

Such an initiative could be extremely constructive in terms of confidence building and the narrowing of narrative gaps at a public level to create a situation more conducive to peacemaking between the two sides.

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