The Middle East peace process has always been obstructed by a lack of understanding: There is a total disconnect between the the two sides’ mindsets. Dennis Ross explains this in terms of different “collective memory” of Israelis and Palestinians, saying each group describes the same regional history in such different terms that they might as well be referring to two different stories. Before we can achieve peace, we must reconcile those two stories so we can start with the same foundation.
It was in this spirit that I attended Hanan Ashrawi’s talk on Monday evening, titled “Palestine, Peace, and Democracy: The Road Ahead.” For the last several years, Ashrawi has been the most articulate spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, and also a major advocate for women’s rights in the Palestinian Territories. I felt that by going to her speech, I would gain some insight into how Palestinian society works.
Ashrawi’s explication of what goes on behind the scenes in the Palestinian Authority enhanced my understanding of the inner workings of the Palestinian political environment. Addressing the complexities of trying to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East, Ashrawi explained that Mahmoud Abbas faces a very difficult challenge in getting all of the “anachronistic” factions either behind him or powerless. She demonstrated that Abbas cannot act independently of political influences, and must compete with many internal forces at each stage in the peace process.
But she failed to show the same nuanced understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of Israeli politics. She fell into the trap that so many on both sides fall into by claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon failed to produce results from the Sharm Al-Sheikh agreements. Israeli politics is at least as complicated as Palestinian politics, and Sharon, just like Abbas, does not operate in a vacuum.
As an example of how Ashrawi overlooks the complexities of Israeli politics, let us take her analysis of the Gaza withdrawal plan. To many of us, it is obvious that this was the most difficult thing Israel has ever committed to do, and that it is a significant step in the right direction. But Ashrawi sees the move for what it doesn’t accomplish; namely, ceding control over borders and airspace. It is crucial for anyone involved in this situation to carefully consider what Sharon has had to go through with the settlers in order to produce any results, and to acknowledge that in a democracy, he cannot just decide one day to oust all of the settlers and hand the land over. It doesn’t work like that.
Yet there is more to understanding Israel than examining the politicking involved in withdrawal. There is also the Israeli psyche. Israelis are scared of Camp David. They know what happened there in 2000: Peace negotiations collapsed, and a few months later, terror organizations began an all-out attack on Israel. Israeli citizens, while ready to try again, are afraid that history might repeat itself. They partially blame the negotiations’ failure on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s attempt to do too much too fast, and hope that slow motion might produce better results this time around.
And recent events have not done much to allay this fear. Even though the Feb. 25 bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub was carried out by Syrians, it was a painful reminder of the events that happened during and after the last set of negotiations. Ashrawi joked about the concept of an “occupying power defending itself,” but the fact is that occupying powers aren’t normally faced with attacks on home soil. Israelis feel just as threatened as Palestinians do.
But they are ready for peace. We could argue until the end of time about whether Yasser Arafat was a “convenient scapegoat,” as Ashrawi claimed, or the actual cause of violence. What is important is that now, after his death, both sides are willing to negotiate. Still, nothing can be accomplished if anyone tries to simplify a very complex situation. Each side must understand the societal obstacles the other faces, and together, they must try to overcome them. I hope that Ashrawi will learn the same things about Israeli society that I learned from her about Palestinian society.
Ashrawi opened her speech by describing Arafat as a man who “represented a period of struggle.” Let us pray that the bloody struggle of the past 60 years is over, and that a different kind of struggle — one aimed at achieving a deeper sense of understanding — has begun.
Daniel Hoffman is a freshman in Branford College.