The Arab League’s plan for Middle East peace is back on the table and, as has been the case since the initiative was first unveiled, any real progress requires movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track. In order to give this round a chance, those wishing to see a breakthrough ought to take a page from an earlier Arab League declaration and insist on three “nos” as a basis for negotiation: no rights, no recognition and no reconciliation.
Notwithstanding their differences, most Israelis and Palestinians adhere to a moral framework that places rights, recognition and reconciliation at center stage. Whether they believe that their side alone holds the moral high ground, or that both sides have been wronged and deserve mutual legitimization, they maintain that rights and recognition play a key role in bringing parties to the table and moving toward reconciliation. Thus, their positions are based on the peculiar premise that out of the ashes of irreconcilable difference and decades of pain and violence, mutual recognition can emerge.
In the marketplace of negotiation, however, rights, recognition and reconciliation have become tools of intransigence and symbols of the very issues that bring the peace process to its knees.
From the Israeli perspective, recognition and rights have always been linked: As an indication that they could live safely among their neighbors, Israelis have sought Palestinian and Arab recognition of Jews’ historical ties to the Land of Israel and of the state’s right to exist. The result is that Israelis have effectively been asking Palestinians to be partners by way of asking them to be Zionists: In order to earn an invitation to the negotiating table, Palestinians must accept the historical and moral legitimacy of the State of Israel.
This is an understandable wish, but a logical impossibility. Israelis do not have to believe that their parents and grandparents were thieves or interlopers to realize that people who lost their land and homes will fight and deny, not recognize or legitimize. For Palestinians, withholding full recognition is not only a useful bargaining chip and expression of rage but also an act of dignity and assertion of existence in the face of an intolerable present and an uncertain future.
Israel’s answer to that rage has been to place the fault at the Palestinians’ door for their refusal to accept Jews’ rights, beginning with the rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan. Israelis could advocate for their cause more effectively, however, were they to reconnect to their culture of inquiry and revisit the reasons why partition was rejected. This might lead them to conclude that while Palestinians must accept Israel’s existence, they will never recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state’s founding.
Israel should allow the Palestinians to hold on to their beliefs and focus on what it really needs: a willing and capable partner, not a Palestinian Zionist; an end to violence, and a pact for the future to which each side can be held accountable. Improved relations will be a result of time and changes on the ground, not force-fed statements.
Israelis should not give their adversaries veto power over a renewed peace process by making Israeli participation dependent on Palestinians’ verdict on recognition. Just as recognition does not guarantee peace, its absence does not prevent an end of conflict.
For their part, Palestinians refuse to consider reconciliation until their rights have been addressed, and they have long sought acknowledgment of the injustice done to them when they lost their homeland in 1948. Indeed, the moral basis of the Palestinian national movement is grounded in the belief that an end to conflict is possible only once Israel has recognized this and provided sufficient redress through the right of return.
But although it is possible for Israelis to accept that Palestinians have a strong moral case, they will not accept what they consider to be the implications of the right of return: that their own national movement is an aberration, or that their claim and attachment to the land is false. The longer that Palestinians demand this, the longer they postpone getting what they need most urgently from Israelis: an end to occupation, and respect for the Palestinian right to self-determination.
Palestinians need not give up on their rights or beliefs. They can demand acknowledgment and compensation for past injustices, and insist on the right of return as a principle without making it a prerequisite for deal making. At the negotiating table, it will inevitably be bargained away.
By focusing on the rights of refugees rather than on the right of return, Palestinians can address the refugees’ need for a safer, more dignified future. Such a focus will not only help safeguard their rights; it will initiate a process that encourages Israelis to take more responsibility for the past. Israelis will never accept this responsibility if it is wrapped in what they perceive to be a time bomb threatening their existence.
As long as Palestinians demand acceptance of the right of return, they provide their adversary with a stranglehold over their national project. By breaking this hold, Palestinians can free themselves from Israel’s veto power without further compromising either themselves or their cause.
A renewed Middle East peace process should not be stalled in the name of rights, recognition and reconciliation. Rights are part of an unsettled conflict over history, and they will always be called into question. Recognition will never come in the form demanded by each party. And reconciliation will be the effect, rather than the cause, of peace.
Natasha Gill is a visiting assistant professor at New School University’s graduate program in international affairs.