By Khaled Diab
As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail again, it is time to build a New Canaan of diversity, tolerance and peace based on reimagined identities.
Monday 30 January 2012
The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Jordan this month has resulted in deadlock and mutual recriminations over the issues of borders and security. Meanwhile, Palestinian youth activists have held numerous small demonstrations to protest against the talks in the absence of a settlement freeze and a clear vision of the future borders of an independent Palestinian state.
In a way, there is really little left to negotiate over. This was depressingly highlighted in the latest Peace Now report which said that the unprecedented rate of settlement construction threatened to torpedo the two-state solution. Personally, I think Israel blew that option out of the water some years ago.
Simply put, the scraps of land left over in the West Bank cannot be meaningfully weaved together to form the fabric of a feasible Palestinian state, while Gaza floats like a lone and isolated meteoroid in the Israeli cosmos.
Moreover, for Israel, evacuating the half million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make way for a viable Palestine not only runs the risk of precipitating severe internal divisions and even conflict, it would also carry a substantial economic price tag.
Although the settlements are largely built on seized land, Israel has nevertheless invested, according to a comprehensive 2010 study, an estimated $17 billion in building homes and infrastructure in the West Bank, while the market value of these properties is probably several factors higher. That’s not to mention the enormous material and human cost of the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation.
The Palestinians, who have seen much of their homeland vanish to make way for Israel, feel that they have compromised enough by accepting a state on a fifth of historic Palestine and are in no mood to settle for less, even if Israel petrifies their dreams in concrete. In a last desperate bid to arrest this state of decline, the Palestinians have gone to the UN to seek symbolic statehood first.
But concrete walls and paper states are not the answer and will not resolve this longstanding conflict. A far better solution would be for Israelis and Palestinians to accept that they are stuck together on this increasingly indivisible land and to find creative ways to coexist peacefully and justly.
Instead of this generations-old and outdated nationalist fixation on ethnicity and the romanticisation land, it is time for both sides to shift their attention away from the soil and towards the people living on it, to create a society of equal citizens, regardless of whether they identify themselves as Israeli or Palestinian, or as Jew, Muslim, Christian or atheist.
For this to work requires the creative re-imagining of the current ethnocentric nationalism, and to remould it along egalitarian civic lines. An important psychological hurdle would be to end the negationist tendency on both sides, which only serves, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to delegitimise the claim of one side or the other to live on this land and, hence, breeds immense distrust.
Israelis, especially the right wing, need to accept that a Palestinian people exist and stop dismissing them as Arab newcomers, invaders and usurpers. In my view, describing the Arabic-speaking population as Palestinian is more accurate than saying they are Arab. The only true Arabs are the inhabitants of Arabia, while the rest of what we refer to today as Arabs are a diverse spectrum of Arabised peoples whose only universal denominator is that they speak Arabic, although most share numerous common cultural and religious features.
In fact, the idea of a unified “Arab people” as imagined by pan-Arab nationalism is every bit as invented and constructed as the idea of a “Jewish people”, as if sharing a common language, in the former, and a common religion, in the latter, somehow automatically instils its members with a unique essence.
Similarly, Palestinians, particularly the Islamists, need to accept that an Israeli people exist and that they are not merely European colonists. Even though Zionism was born in Europe as an ideology, today’s Israeli Jewish population is a diverse mix of Jews from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and this melting pot forged a distinctive Israeli identity which is neither here nor there.
Moreover, even though a lot of Israel’s behaviour is colonial in nature and the Zionist project involved the dispossession of an enormous number of people, Zionism was also a liberation movement for the Jews, who have suffered, despite a number of “golden ages”, marginalisation, discrimination and periodic persecution for centuries, with the worst example being the Holocaust.
Once the two sides have accepted each other, the next step is to create a hybrid cultural and national identity that is more inclusive of the other. This does not mean that Israelis and Palestinians need to abandon their respective identities. Instead, they should create a new, unifying meta-identity.
In this, both Israelis and Palestinians can build on their cultural tradition of diversity to expand their respective identities to encompass the other side. In addition to a core that has remained on this land since the times of ancient Canaan, the modern Palestinian population is a melting pot of peoples from across the Middle East, Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa, as reflected in many place names, such as the Armenian quarter, and family names, such as al-Masry (the Egyptian). This malleable identity once also included the Jews of Palestine.
Likewise, the modern Israeli identity not only managed to assimilate diverse Jewish populations from around the world, it has also, albeit uncomfortably, managed to integrate the Palestinian population that remained within Israel after 1948. These Palestinian-Israelis offer a possible, yet incomplete, blueprint for deeper future symbiosis, as does the complex identity of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, who, though their heritage is both Jewish and Arab, have thus far not managed to bridge the contemporary chasm separating the two.
Politically, this supra-identity can be expressed in the creation of an umbrella state which I propose to call New Canaan, since Canaan is the original name of this land, and the identity of the original Canaanites is shrouded in mystery. I add the prefix “New” both because this union will be future-looking and because it will work to overcome the petty tribal and religious divisions, rivalries and conflicts that have marked this land since antiquity.
Within this federated state, where freedom of movement and equality will be guaranteed for all, cultural and social issues can be the preserve of Israeli and Palestinian community governments, while common issues relating to the economy, defence, foreign policy and the protection of fundamental rights can be handled by a joint bi-national parliament.
And to reach this secular “promised land” requires peace-seekers on both sides to embark on an exodus away from the captivity of their past towards the freedom of the future. It’s high time for Israeli and Palestinian doves of a feather to flock together against the hawks.