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A Shard of Light

by Carlos

May 9, 2007 - Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine, has some important things to say, recorded in articles on his web site,

The most important is this:

It is up to all friends of Israel and Palestine to cross the national religious, racial and ethnic fault lines that divide us and form a national and international alliance for two states. ("Accepting the Other in Palestine.")

Asali is passionate in his advocacy of the two-state solution. Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have the right to live as full-fledged members of states of their own, and to determine their own futures. The two-state solution is the only one that offers any hope for the survival of both communities and a life of future peace.

Before the Oslo years, a Palestinian state might have been unthinkable to most Israelis. Now to many it seems inevitable. Asali believes that many Palestinians have experienced a similar change of attitude: the wars of 1948 and 1967, he says, "clearly established the limitations of Palestinian and Arab aspirations - Israel was here to stay." ("Accepting the Other in Palestine," "A Paradigm Shift.")

The other half of Asali's statement is even more pivotal. For the two- state solution to work, there must be a willingness "to cross the national religious, racial and ethnic fault lines that divide us." Whether or not people possessing this willingness exist in sufficient numbers may well determine the future of the Middle East, and also the world.

At the very least, each side must accept both the right of the other side to exist and the fact of the other's existence. Arab attacks on Jewish existence have taken the form of denials of Jewish peoplehood (PLO Charter), the right to kill Jews (Hamas Charter), and denial of any Jewish historical roots in the Holy Land. On the Jewish side there are still those who deny the existence of a Palestinian people, a contemptuous clash with reality that cannot be justified. The United Nations partition resolution of 1947 envisioned a state specifically for Palestinian Arabs, who now share the distinction of living in a stateless condition and who have the right to define themselves as a people.

In this one phrase, "to cross the national religious, racial and ethnic fault lines that divide us," Asali has expressed the most basic of all spiritual principles, which ironically seems no more flagrantly violated than in the very land that gave rise to its religious expression. The best of all religion has always stood for reaching out in hospitality to the stranger. The land itself is violated by an attitude of "there is room here only for me and not for you."

The way to peace must begin with introspective self-confrontation leading towards the realization that there must be room here also for the other.

Nowhere does Asali say it better than here:

Grievances are easy to recall and recount. Focusing on achieving objectives is hard. It is harder still when you depart beyond the political parameters emotionally carved out by the family, the peer group and consensus of your establishment. But it is making links with like-minded people outside your race, nationality, ethnic group and religion that will give you the power to carve out a better future. ("Educating the Gap.")

This is more than a policy. It is a spiritual vision. Grievances in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict run so deep, it is no easy thing to call for moving past them to consider solutions that will work in the present. We could go on forever arguing over who did what to whom and how long ago, but we still need to learn to live together today. The pressures from one's own group can also be tremendous, and so the call to resist such pressure and make links with like-minded people on the other side, "outside your race, nationality, ethnic group and religion," is prophetic. It is the essence of true spirituality.

Asali calls for a "paradigm shift" in which the lines of opposition will no longer be drawn between Jew and Arab but between those who favor the peaceful coexistence of two separate states and those who do not.

Survey after survey over the years has consistently shown that a majority of both Israeli and Palestinian publics, in the 70 percent range, support a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. The problem is that these same publics do not believe that the other side supports the same thing. In terms of actual numbers, barely a third of Israelis and Palestinians believe that the other side supports what surveys have shown both sides do.

The trick, therefore, is to raise trust in each other's desire for a negotiated peace. One way that has yet to be attempted in any coordinated and serious sense is for Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to change the traditional paradigm of Arab vs. Jew or Palestinian vs. Israeli, to a new paradigm pitting those who believe in a fair and negotiated sharing of the land by two states and those who do not. In other words, recognizing the finality of the 1948 war and all the implications that result from it. ("A Paradigm Shift.")

It would be a wonderful thing if those on both sides who favor the two-state solution could join forces. Asali is correct in emphasizing the effect of distrust between the two sides. If he is also correct that a peaceful coexistence of two states is supported by the same majority on both sides, then certain things need to happen. The Israeli peace movement is very vocal and very visible, and often stridently critical of Israeli policy. If there is indeed a 70% majority of Palestinians in favor of a negotiated two-state solution, then they too must become vocal and visible. Their relative invisibility, and the continued overwhelming dominance of the rejectionist voice in the Palestinian community, have indeed given Israelis much reason for distrust.

Asali's vision presents a moral and spiritual challenge. Putting it into practice requires hard work. Living up to this vision is not easy - even for those who proclaim it. We are all captives of our ethnic prejudices, and Asali is no exception. Even though he counsels against the recollection of grievances, he has a few of his own from which he cannot seem to let go.

In spite of his professed renunciation of grievances, Asali places the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem squarely on Israel: "Responsible parties include first Israel for displacing the Palestinian refugees, refusing their return and confiscating their property without compensation." (All quotations in this section come from Asali's "Statement of Principles on the Palestinian Refugee Issue" on his web site.) The Arab states also bear some of the responsibility, "for allowing generations of refugees to languish in camps under miserable conditions, or by placing various restrictions in terms of their legal status, employment and travel rights," but most of the blame falls on Israel.

This leads Asali to speak in a confusing and even contradictory way about the Palestinian demand for "right of return" of Palestinian refugees into Israel:

The right of return is an integral part of international humanitarian law, and cannot be renounced by any parties. There is no Palestinian constituency of consequence that would agree to the renunciation of this right. There is also no Jewish constituency of consequence in Israel that would accept the return of millions of Palestinian refugees.

It is hard to see how one can have it both ways, since the return of large numbers of refugees into Israel would eventually turn Israel into another Palestinian state. Yet Asali apparently thinks one can:

Although the right of return cannot be renounced, it should not stand in the way of the only identifiable peaceful prospect for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a resolution based on a state of Israel living side-by-side with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with its capital in East Jerusalem. Implementation of the right of return cannot obviate the logic of a resolution based on two states. The challenge for the Israeli and Palestinian national leaderships is to arrive at a forrecognizes [sic] refugee rights but which does not contradict the basis of a two-state solution and an end to the conflict.

How is this to be done? Either one seriously restricts the right of return, in which case it's no longer a right, or one jettisons the two-state solution. If there is a third alternative, Asali fails to explain it. One cannot profess support both for a two-state solution and for the Palestinian right of return. Such a position is self-contradictory. If Asali remains adamant on the right of return, his support for a two-state solution becomes questionable.

Instead of resolving the contradiction, what Asali does in the next, concluding paragraph is contrary to the message he so carefully tries to establish on the rest of his site:

As part of any comprehensive settlement ending the conflict, Israel should accept its moral responsibility to apologize to the Palestinian people for the creation of the refugee problem. Palestinians should accept that this acknowledgment of responsibility does not undermine the legitimacy of the present-day Israeli state.

This demand for an apology clashes with Asali's call not to dwell on grievances. It is also an insult based on a falsification of history. The primary reasons for the refugee problem were the Arab rejection of partition including a Palestinian state and the ensuing war against Israel waged by the Arabs in 1948. The Arab states perpetuated the refugee problem by refusing to absorb the Palestinian refugees, instead keeping them imprisoned in impoverished refugee camps. Had partition been accepted, there would today be no Palestinian refugees. Present-day Arab attempts to rewrite history cannot erase these facts.

Demanding that Israel apologize for the refugees, as tragic as their situation has been, ignores the great Arab contribution to the problem and, like the demand for a right of return, makes Israel responsible not only for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries but for the Arab refugees as well. More pointedly, after all of the Israelis who have been killed in Arab-instigated wars, in suicide bombing attacks, in their shopping places and in their homes, the demand that Israel now apologize is unbridled arrogance.

There is something else behind the demand that Israel apologize. What it really amounts to is a forced admission that Israel's founding was illegitimate, that the land belongs to the Arabs, who, even if they recognize Israel's right to exist, are making a tremendous concession. Asali therefore undercuts his own eloquent words about crossing racial and ethnic fault lines to affirm the other's legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the problems Asali may have conforming to his own vision take nothing away from the vision itself. The demand that we recognize and embrace the humanity of those outside our group is the absolute minimum that any foundation for a lasting peace requires. Yet unfortunately its fulfillment seems so rare, even in the land that came to be known as holy. Still, the fact that someone publicly points toward this vision is infinitely significant, and that is why Asali deserves attention. The standard of ethnic and religious tolerance must be applied to any discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and this will be a challenge to both sides.

What happened in the past cannot be changed. But we can change our attitudes in the present. Regardless of one's interpretation of the past, the incontrovertible fact is that two groups of people exist, each of which has a right to determine its way of life. We will know we are making progress when the right of each can be affirmed without hatred of the other.

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