New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East; President Barack Obama is scheduled to make his own trip to the region soon. Syria and Iran are high on the U.S. agenda but the Middle East peace process is not off the table. Kerry would even want to move it higher on the administration’s list of priorities. To assess what has been stalling the peace process and what needs to be done to get Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other again, VOA’s Cecily Hilleary spoke with with Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (audio below).
Hilleary: There’s been so much attention given back and forth over the years to who’s at fault and why, and who wants to make peace and who doesn’t. You’ve written about this fundamental bottom line as an impediment to peace. You say that the chief impediment is based on “biased and selective perceptions” bolstered by historic experience, religion and incompatible ideologies.
Ben-Meir: Exactly. We take a look at the conflict in terms of policy, politics and territory, which are real. These are all conflicting issues. But we have not been able or willing to ask, “What are the issues? What are the real impediments behind it all?” We can theoretically sit down and resolve the refugee problem. But if you, over the last six and a half decades have not been able to resolve the issue of the Palestinians’ right of return, and their mindset is such that the resolution to the problem can be done only through the right of return – In the end, they [will be] going back to Israel proper. Any other solution… is not going to be acceptable. Which means [Palestinians] have developed – as Israelis do on different issues – a certain mindset that is resistant to change.
Hilleary: So let’s look at the Israeli side. What is its mindset, its ‘illusion,’ as you call it?
Ben-Meir: Take Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a good case in point when it comes to the Israelis. The Israelis believe that Jerusalem ought to remain the eternal united city of the Jewish people of the State of Israel and that it cannot be divided. Now this, in my view, is an illusion, an illusion that can no longer be in conformity with the reality on the ground. And although occasionally, an illusion can come to pass. For example, it was illusionary to think a hundred years ago that the State of Israel would be created, a state for the Jewish people would be created. No one would have believed it. But that illusion then became a reality.
[W]hen you refuse to look at the changing conditions on the ground, this becomes the critical impediment that you cannot overcome by negotiation…” – Alon Ben-Meir
But an illusion also has to consider the changing conditions on the ground, and when you refuse to look at the changing conditions on the ground, this becomes the critical impediment that you cannot overcome by negotiation or by simple dialogue – which means as long as these illusions are reinforced day in and day out by public narratives, by officials, non-officials, in the media, you are going to continue to ingrain these perceptions and naturally become resistant to any kind of change.
Hilleary: Now, you talk about the narrative based on religiosity, the religious narrative.
Ben-Meir: The same thing is applicable to the Palestinian connection to Jerusalem, that is also based on religious conviction, that Muhammad, on his way to heaven, passed through Jerusalem, and this is where they feel the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were subsequently built. So there is a very strong religious connection by the Palestinians to Jerusalem just the same. And that is [what happens] when you have two people with the same religious conviction about the same place.
It is known that religion, as you well know, when you believe, you require no evidence to advance, to demonstrate, to prove your beliefs. That is the nature of religion. That’s our belief. There is only belief. And neither side is required to come up with any proof that this is “yours” or “mine.”
You cannot negotiate beliefs. So you are going to have to find a formula that is going to satisfy their religious conviction on the one hand, [and] satisfy their political need at the present time [on the other].
Hilleary: Well, the question is, obviously, can that be done? But let me wait until we discuss some other factors, and I’ll ask that again. In your paper, you also talk about history having shaped the narratives of each side.
Ben-Meir: Absolutely. You know, the Jewish experience in the diaspora, that is, the outside, throughout the centuries, even the millennium, specifically in Europe, we had the persecution, anti-Semitism, the expulsion, culminating with the Holocaust. That has created such an image in the mind of the Jews and removed any semblance of trust between them and the rest of the international community. What you see in Israel is the utter and complete distrust of the Palestinians. Because they say that what happened 70 years ago can happen again. So this is a historic mindset.
[W]hat you have now, are two peoples with such historical dimensions that are totally incompatible with one another.” – Alon Ben-Meir
Then you look at the Palestinians, they also fear what happened to them in 1948 with what they call al-Naqbah, the “catastrophe.” This is also embedded in their psyche. And it cannot be mitigated by simple conversation. From their perspective, they have also suffered tremendously because of the Israeli incursions into their territory. And so, what you have now, are two peoples with such historical dimensions that are totally incompatible with one another. Palestinians say, “We should not be blamed for the Jews’ historic experiences,” whereas the Israelis are saying, “Well, we don’t only have a religious connection to the land, but we also have historic connections.”
So, seeing that we have, this conflict – and it is reinforced by the historical experiences – what do you do? You cannot change history. What you can do is change the conditions on the ground.
”[I]llusions continue to be reinforced…, so the young generation is not coming to the forefront with a new mindset, with a new approach.” – Alon Ben-Meir
But it is almost impossible to say, “Well, you have to accept what I think.” You have to begin the process of changing the narrative. And that is where the problem lies because it is still to this day, the illusions continue to be reinforced by the politicians, in schools, in universities, so the young generation is not coming to the forefront with a new mindset, with a new approach. They have basically inherited what their fathers and forefathers have given to them.
So, what I am suggesting to you, is that a sense of victimhood that Israelis have felt throughout their history, culminating with the Holocaust, the sense of victimhood that the Palestinians have experienced because of the Naqba, have been passed to the next generation and the next generation. And now we are producing a fourth generation of victims – not from past history, but from victimhood that is inherited.
Hilleary: And you write that this sense of being victimized has led to a lack of empathy for the opposite side, the perceived enemies.
“[There is an] inability of both sides to show compassion and understanding of the other.” – Alon Ben-Meir
Ben-Meir: Correct. This is exactly what happened. And therefore, the inability on both sides to show compassion and understanding of the other. That is really what has happened here. And when you put all this together, and then you add the day-to-day – going back for the last six-and-a-half decades – encounters, frequently very violent [encounters] between Israelis and Palestinians, it has now reinforced their perceptions of each other in terms of rights – or the lack thereof. Let me give you an example: The Israeli’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. From the Palestinian perspective, it is – and I agree with this—completely inconsistent with the Israeli’s claim that they are willing to go for a two-state solution. If Israel is saying it is willing to go to find a solution based on two states, then the building of settlements is totally inconsistent with that position.
The Israelis are saying, “If the Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution, then they must formally abandon violence as a political tool by which to realize their objective,” and so they can point to Hamas still publicly saying that Israel has no right to exist. This is the problem there.
The interesting part of it is that both sides know that coexistence is inevitable under any circumstances.
Hilleary: Explain that, because I think that a lot of people would think otherwise. Why is it inevitable?
Ben-Meir: First of all, because Israelis cannot expel three or four million Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. That is why it is inevitable. Even if the Israelis could do so logistically, the international community would be up in arms. Israel cannot go against the international community. This would be completely unacceptable.
Hilleary: Conversely, what about absorbing that population?
Ben-Meir: They can’t, because that would mean losing the Jewish majority and it would no longer be a state with a national Jewish identity.
Hilleary: Would Israel lose its identity if other populations were there?
Ben-Meir: Absolutely, because today, there are about 6.5 million Jews in Israel. Then, if you combine [with them] the Palestinians who live in Israel proper [plus] about 1.5 – 1.7 million in Gaza and about 2.5 million in the West Bank, then the total number of the Palestinians in these three areas…exceeds the number of Jews; so if you were to have a one-state solution, Palestinians would have a majority instantly. If Israel were to remain a democratic state, the Jews [would] lose power almost overnight. For the Israelis, it would be completely unacceptable to have a one-state solution.
Hilleary: We have seen [the Unites States] change demographically over just the relatively short period that the U.S. has been around, and yet it remains fundamentally the United States of America, and we have a national identity, in spite of our diversity. So for those who would not be able to understand Israelis’ feelings, how would you explain that?
Ben-Meir: Well, this is exactly the point. This is a combination of historical experience, religious conviction and a contemporary history between the Arabs and the Jews, and the creation of the State of Israel as a “last refuge” – and this is very important to understand from a psychological perspective. Israelis, Jews, see Israel as the last refuge that will protect them from events that, for example, took place in World War II and before that. So it is an entirely different mindset and attitude, compared to the United States.
As a matter of fact, there isn’t another country in the whole world comparable to the United States in terms of being a melting pot. None, not even in Europe. I’ve lived in the Middle East, I’ve lived in Europe. In the Middle East, as a Jew, I was called a ‘dirty Jew.’ In Israel, even in Israel itself, I became a sort of a ‘black Jew,’ because I came from the Middle East. In Europe, I was always a foreigner. Only in the United States am I Alon Ben-Meir! That’s just an aside. The United States is unique, and that’s why we love this country. It’s very, very unique.
So for the Israelis, living in a sea of hostility, national security and maintaining the national identity of the State become sine qua non.
Hilleary: We have John Kerry in the region now on his first trip as secretary of state. Next month, the president will make his first trip to Israel [as president]. Clearly, Syria and Iran are topping the agendas because of the urgency of these crises, but Secretary Kerry has publicly committed himself, seems to feel that he is the man that can bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table – not only to the table, but to reach some kind of political agreement. He’s going to have to move past a lot of political realities, but in light of what you’ve said, he’s also going to have to break through this psychological resistence. Can he? And how would he?
”I think President Obama himself needs to commit himself to the [peace] process, and we have doubts as to whether President Obama will be willing or able to do so.” – Alon Ben-Meir
Ben-Meir: Well, there are a number of prerequisites here. First of all, I think President Obama himself needs to commit himself to the [peace] process, and we have doubts as to whether President Obama will be willing or able to do so.
Because of his initial involvement at first. I mean, I applauded his efforts when he immediately appointed [peace envoy] George Mitchell to go there and try to work out a solution between the two sides. And then that effort failed, and the president ever since did not really touch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now, with the best of intentions, Secretary of State John Kerry may want to try, but will he have the mandate? Is the president prepared to invest that much political capital? Because there is always the risk that their effort may not work. So we have to keep that in mind. But in my view, if the president really wants to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I think it’s possible. Different kinds of steps would have to be taken by the United States because only – and I repeat the world ‘only’ and emphasize the world ‘only’ – only the United States can impact effective change between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
And there is a reason for the Palestinians to trust the United States. Because they know that only the United States can exact the kind of concessions [needed] from Israel in order to make peace possible.
So the United States ought to take a number of steps:
First of all, they have to actually go there with a framework, based on the prior agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, so they don’t go there and start from scratch. We have many, many things that both sides have agreed upon.
“The United States ought to be prepared to use pressure and coercive measures, if necessary, even against Israel.” – Alon Ben-Meir
The United States ought to be prepared to use pressure and coercive measures, if necessary, even against Israel. Basically, the president, when he goes there, ought to look in the faces of the Israelis and go to the Israeli parliament and tell them that this is not good for America, for the Palestinians, that peace is central to Israel’s survival as an independent democratic state, because Israel is absolutely in danger of losing both.
And you [the U.S.needs] to reaffirm that [it] will be standing behind Israel 100 percent of the way.
[President Obama] should try to reignite the Arab Peace Initiative, which I think is absolutely central to the peace process, so that the Israelis will look not just at limited peace with the Palestinians, but peace with the rest of the Arab world, which is going to expand their horizons to see beyond the tiny, little country that they have.
So the United States can also [exert], for example, influence on Egypt to put pressure on Hamas, to moderate Hamas’ position, because you can’t have peace with the Palestinian Authority without Hamas’ participation as well.
So there are many things the United States can do. But then again, this is going to require a tremendous amount of political capital, a tremendous amount of time, and perhaps even a great deal of money. I think the United States can do so, and I personally don’t buy into the argument that the president is busy with economic and domestic issues. This is all true, but the United States of America cannot afford to ignore the Middle East. Because a new conflagration in the Middle East will severely undermine the United States’ interests – and certainly the interests of its allies.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.