Israel-Palestine conflict

Research Apartheid

Academia has become its own battleground in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The segregation of research on the Israel-Palestine conflict – or “research apartheid” – reinforces the parties’ reciprocal lack of understanding. Photo: Zoriah @ Flickr

The segregation of research on the Israel-Palestine conflict – or “research apartheid” – reinforces the parties’ reciprocal lack of understanding. Photo: Zoriah @ Flickr

As a scholar of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I usually leave the Ben Gurion Airport with vivid images of checkpoints, separation barriers, demolished houses, crammed refugee camps, poverty, settlements, and soldiers. Earlier this summer, before the war broke out in Gaza, I visited Israel for the first time without entering either the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Without directly witnessing the occupation, Israel appears as a different country. The Palestinian experience of the country is nowhere to be seen, whereas celebration of diversity and tolerance is everywhere. This is Israel as most of its Jewish inhabitants know it. If they hear the notion “Israeli apartheid”, they believe it is a foreign conspiracy against them. With the Palestinians out of the picture, it seems like Israel’s biggest conflict is domestic and centers on what it should mean to be a Jewish state.

I was in Israel to participate on an academic conference organized by the Association for Israel Studies (AIS). My own presentation dealt with how the recent round of peace negotiations suffered from political anomie: Because the Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the conflict are so fundamentally different, the parties are unable to find shared norms to base the peace negotiations on. Palestinians view the conflict primarily in terms of what they regard as an illegal occupation, which in their view must be resolved by an Israeli withdrawal. Israelis, on the other hand, see the conflict as a struggle for recognition, which needs to be resolved before they can end the occupation.

Even when the two sides are discussing the same basic facts, they argue on the basis of different paradigms. While Israel talks about security, the Palestinians talk about universal rights. The only thing they have in common is that both sides understand the conflict, according to their own narratives, as a battle for their own existence.

After having studied the peace negotiations from both parties’ perspectives, I feel lucky not to be in their shoes. While the international society is threatening with sanctions to pressure the parties to negotiate, the negotiators’ situation resembles a Kafkaesque nightmare. Without stable and predictable norms it is impossible to predict the outcome of your own choices, and the other side’s demands appear completely irrational.

Researchers at the AIS conference, gathering for an outing. Photo: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

The most interesting thing about the AIS conference was to witness how clearly the research on the Israel-Palestine conflict divides itself in accordance with the same logic as the parties’ narratives. Different research paradigms are formed on the basis of either Israeli security concerns or Palestinian rights, without taking into account the opposing party’s concerns. This tendency is reflected just as strongly in dry statistics as in heated political debates.

For instance, both sides use opinion polls to measure the likelihood of a peaceful solution, in which they ask questions that reflect their own narratives. In recent years, many Israelis have become convinced that the main obstacle to peace is that the Palestinians do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Even though Israelis themselves are deeply divided as to what a Jewish state is and should be, there is an almost complete consensus that Palestinian recognition of such a state is essential to national security.

Many Israelis fear that Palestinians are not satisfied with a two-state solution, but aim to either undermine the Jewish majority with Palestinian refugees or seize control over the whole territory once the military occupation ends. A common question in Israeli opinion surveys among Palestinians is therefore “Do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state?” The answers are interpreted as indicating the extent to which Palestinians actually want – or do not want – peace.

The problem is that this question is completely disconnected from the Palestinian perception of the conflict. Many Palestinians view this question as if they are demanded to accept ethnic cleansing; systematic discrimination against Arabs in Israel; and the annulment – without negotiations – of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. For them, the Israeli demand for a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state thus asks them to simply accept their core grievances in the conflict without receiving anything in return. Whether or not this is a realistic interpretation of the question is actually unclear, as even the Israeli government fails to agree on in its implications. In either case, Israeli opinion polls say more about what issues Israelis view as important than the extent to which Palestinians want peace with Israel.

Unfortunately it is the norm rather than the exception that research on the Israel-Palestine conflict only examines one side of the equation. Academia has become its own battleground in the conflict. As I learned on the conference, one of the reasons why “Israel Studies” exists in the first place is that many university departments of Middle Eastern Studies are so polarized on the topic that competition for research funding leads to deep conflicts. Journals also often align themselves clearly with one of the perspectives, and research that cuts across the established paradigms can struggle to get published.

The segregation of research on the Israel-Palestine conflict – or “research apartheid” – reinforces the parties’ reciprocal lack of understanding. As long as the parties fail to see each other, hear each other, and share a common discourse to talk about the conflict, there is little hope of finding a solution together.

This blog post has previously been published at PRIO blogs. A Norwegian version of this text was published in Dagens næringsliv on July 7, 2014.

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

Secretary Kerry: Re-define “Jewish state” and “Right of return”

A tactical change is needed to prevent narrative issues from undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

March 2014

According to Secretary John Kerry, the most difficult issues to resolve in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are so-called “narrative issues” such as the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinian Right of return. The problem is not the parties’ stubbornness, as Secretary Kerry seems to think, but that the U.S. peace initiative fails to take into account why these issues are so important and come up with a more constructive way of dealing with them in negotiations.

In recent years, the notion of a “clash of narratives” has become a part of the mainstream vocabulary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Diverging narratives are known to undermine communication and breed distrust between the parties, and have for decades been a major source of headache for international peacemakers. However, different approaches to narratives have different implications for negotiations. A minimalist understanding of the term distinguishes narrative issues such as symbolic recognition from “real issues”, such as security, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, etc. Historical approaches focus on how the narratives recount historic events in different ways, which produces diverging interpretations of guilt and reasonable compensation between the parties. Constitutive approaches define narratives more broadly as a prism through which the actors understand everything in the conflict, including material issues and historic events.

When Secretary Kerry talks about narrative issues, he clearly takes on a minimalist approach, regarding seemingly symbolic issues as a separate category to be negotiated with symbolic gestures. This is not a particularly useful path to dealing with narrative issues, because it black-boxes the cause of their intractability and offers no tactics to making them manageable.

The idea of a Jewish state is as “real” to Israelis as the Right of return is to Palestinians, and as real as Kerry’s difficulty with encompassing both in the same framework. The problem is that Israelis and Palestinians interpret these issues and their implications in fundamentally different ways, and reject the validity of the other’s view. The Israeli demand for recognition as a Jewish state has over the past years emerged as a new expression of the Zionist goal of securing a state in which Jews hold the majority. Many Israelis perceive some of the Palestinian claims, particularly the Right of return, as signs that the Jewish majority state is in danger, and regard a formal recognition as a security clause in negotiations. Most Palestinians, on the other hand, perceive the new demand of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state as a rhetorical trick to legitimize ethnic cleansing and continued repression of Israeli Arabs. Although most Palestinians today regard the Right of return primarily as a symbolic issue, the claim is anchored in an international endorsement of the Palestinian narrative of historic injustice. Many believe that giving up this claim involves accepting the Israeli narrative and hence the premise on which the conflict is resolved.

From an outsider perspective, the Israeli and Palestinian positions on these issues may seem melodramatic and unreasonable. However, the parties have good reasons for their stubbornness. First, both the Right of return and the demanded “Jewish state” formulation are interpreted on the basis of existential narratives. Understood in their own right, these narratives stipulate who has the right to the territory, based on specific interpretations of history, justice and international law. Second, these demands have some very real implications in negotiations, as they establish a premise from which the parties can make other claims. Their prospects for success on other issues such as settlements, borders, and security arrangements depend on what premise gains traction in the negotiation process. Third, it is no coincidence that narrative issues keep overshadowing the negotiation process. In the absence of a shared definition of the core of the conflict and the various conflict issues, the only fixed parameters are each party’s sources of legitimacy. The Right of return is not a Palestinian invention, but a UN regulation, and the formulation of Israel as a “Jewish state” has been adopted by the U.S. peace initiative as the ultimate goal of the peace process, which Secretary Kerry recently anchored in the UN recognition of the state of Israel. Both parties cling to issues that have gained international support at some point, in the format in which they have been endorsed. Unfortunately, the parties’ most powerful sticking points in the negotiation process happen to be incompatible.

Although narrative issues are more fundamental to the peace process than usually recognized, it is not a given that they have to remain intractable. An important question in this context is why the issues come in this particular package, as a demand for a formal recognition of a Jewish state and recognizing or giving up the Right of return. There are reasons to question whether these demands are even good ideas in the first place. When the parties trust each other as little as they do; why should Israel be content with a written statement of recognition? And why should Palestinians give up the Right of return? Why should either party accept something they do not know the implications of?

They shouldn’t. In the current format, these issues are too convoluted, and their consequences are too unclear. If the U.S. is serious about ending this conflict, bringing the parties to the table and pressuring them into making concessions is not enough. Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk should show leadership by changing the format of all intractable issues. A place to start is helping the parties unpack the ideas behind the Jewish state and the Right of return. Both demands are expressions of a range of different concerns which need to be addressed in their own right. U.S. peacemakers can play a more constructive role in negotiation by helping the parties to clarify each concern. If the symbolic issues are replaced by a list of concrete concerns, it would be much easier for the parties to discuss each of them at a realistic level, and move forward.