Israeli-Palestinian Peace Is Dead and Both Sides Killed It

Padraig O'Malley's idea that both Israelis and Palestinians are so addicted to their meaning-systems ("narratives") that they are willing to slide into a chaotic abyss is chilling, but seems strongly supported by recent history and current facts.
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Irish conflict researcher Padraig O'Malley says that neither side has the will to reach the two-state solution, and he is probably right.

The world has grown tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Twenty-two years after the historic signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, the very term "peace" is fraught with despair, ridicule and anger both among Israelis and Palestinians, and with tiredness of those who have spent much time and energy to reach this elusive goal.

Many accounts have been written about the failure of the peace process, often by those who have played a role in it like Shlomo Ben-Ami, the foreign minister under Ehud Barak, Dennis Ross, who was senior negotiator for the United States, as was David Aaron Miller. These books appeared between 2006 and 2008, and none of them exuded optimism.

As time went by, the accounts and analyses became more bitter and desperate. Benny Morris, the left-wing doyen of the so-called New Historians, who unearthed Israel's role in the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, has made a radical right-turn and no longer believes that Palestinians want peace. And Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and long-time peace activist wrote his depressing "What is a Palestinian state worth?" in which he calls on fellow Palestinians to cease fighting for two states: Israeli Jews, he believes, are too traumatized to give up control over the West Bank, and Palestinians should just insist on civil rights and a life with dignity.

Both Morris and Nusseibeh buried the two-state solution, each thinking the other side was responsible for its demise.

It is therefore of great interest, even though depressing, to read an account written by someone who is not part of the conflict, and who comes to the same conclusion - but without blaming either side exclusively. Padraig O'Malley's life has been about peace. Born in Dublin, educated there, then at Tufts, Yale and Harvard, he has spent decades involved in the Northern Irish peace process that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. In parallel he spent thousands of hours documenting South Africa's transition to democracy, and serves as Professor of International Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

He has been an observer of and involved in intractable conflicts for more than 40 years, and has been trying to bring his vast experience to the Middle East as well; first to Iraq, and from 2010 to 2014 he travelled Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to get an in-depth understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict, interviewing more than 100 people on both sides.

The result is his book "The two-state Delusion," a detailed analysis of the conflict, and particularly of the demise of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The book is extensively documented, including a huge bibliography and the detailed and very impressive list of Israeli and Palestinian interviewees on both sides; he has spoken to many of the central players in the various stages of peace negotiations, but also to many of the peace process's implacable enemies, like the leadership of Hamas.

O'Malley's conclusion is obvious from the book's title: He thinks that neither side has the will to reach the two-state solution, and that the Israel-Palestine conflict is there to stay indefinitely. Toward the end of the book he relates that friends who had read the manuscript told him that he couldn't simply publish the book without any indication of hope and advice. In response he writes:

"But why should I be so presumptuous as to dare to provide a vision for people who refuse to provide one for themselves, not just in the here and now, but in the future, too? For people who have no faith in the possible? Who themselves believe the conflict will take generations to resolve? Who are content to live their hatreds? Who are so resolutely opposed to the slightest gesture of accommodation? Who revel in their mutual pettiness? Why delude you into thinking that there is a magical bullet?"

Of course, such a conclusion will lead readers from both sides to seek bias, but they are bound to come up empty-handed: O'Malley is remarkably balanced in his analysis of the reasons that make him so pessimistic, and his diagnosis is as interesting as it is depressing. He believes that both Israelis and Palestinians are so addicted to their respective narratives that they are both incapable and unwilling to do what it would take to reach the two-state solution.

The Jewish-Israeli narrative is dominated by the fear of annihilation. Israeli Jews' collective memory is shaped by the history of persecution and suffering culminating in the genocide that largely destroyed European Jewry in the Holocaust; the memory of three wars from 1948 to 1973 in which Israel's existence was indeed at stake; the memory of terror attacks from the early Fedayeen to the second intifada; and most lately the various wars with Hamas in Gaza. Israelis, O'Malley concludes, are deeply convinced that the Palestinians' ultimate goal is to erase the State of Israel.

The Palestinian narrative is one of humiliation and dispossession, and O'Malley's Palestinian interviewees return to the same refrain of "humiliation, indignity, dispossession and disrespect, leaving little room for other issues to become part of the dialogue. So while the Palestinian national narrative is invariably cast in terms of the Nakba and the occupation, a subnarrative is daily life in occupied territory." O'Malley comes to the conclusion that Palestinians cannot really accept Israel's existence, because the Nakba and the question of refugees is central to their narrative and their identity.

O'Malley's book is a refreshing departure from the blame game in which Israelis and Palestinians and their respective international champions try to make the other side responsible for the peace process's failure. And it diverges from the tendency to find the trick that will do the job, and comes to a conclusion as intellectually compelling as it is dismaying: "...on a deeper level it seems that the impasse relates to human nature and the nature of social structures that have been the source of the two people's habits/addictions, not the least of which is an impenetrable adherence to national narrative."

Reading O'Malley, I am divided between two of my identities and roles. As an Israeli who believes that anything but the two-state solution is bound to have a catastrophic outcome for Israel, and who has written this endlessly and ad nauseam, I cannot but recoil from his conclusion.

When I try to take analytical distance and look at the facts and at O'Malleys arguments from an academic point of view, I am afraid that he is right. In the past I have argued that the human need for meaning can be so strong, that it often overrides reason and pragmatism, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

The idea of the two-state solution is based on the model of sovereign nation-states and based on the value of self-determination of national groups. It is not a religion, but the only pragmatically workable model that has so far been offered - and it has the advantage that the 1967 borders are recognized by international law, which means that they can serve as a reasonable basis for a final-status agreement.

But the Middle East is not governed by the logic of modern international law, nor by political pragmatism, but is disintegrating into a war of cultures, religions and meaning-systems rather than moving toward pragmatism. One state after another disintegrates into warfare between religious and ethnic groups. Organizations like Al-Qaida and Islamic State dream of the reestablishment of the caliphate, Saudi Arabia and Iran are theocracies, and most other Middle Eastern states that have not disintegrated are autocracies of some form - and the Israel-Palestine conflict reflects this wider reality.

Palestinians are deeply divided: While Fatah seems to aim for a liberal democracy, Hamas is committed to Sharia as the law of the future Palestine (which for them includes Israel, whose legitimacy they deny). Israel is, despite all criticisms, a functioning liberal democracy within the 1967 borders - but we must not forget that even here there are substantial groups seriously calling for Israel to become a Jewish theocracy.

O'Malley's "The two-state Delusion" provides an impartial, empathic but relentlessly objective look at our reality. His idea that both Israelis and Palestinians are so addicted to their meaning-systems ("narratives") that they are willing to slide into a chaotic abyss is chilling, but seems strongly supported by recent history and current facts.

Like O'Malley, I wonder whether I should not end on a rousing battle cry for political will, prudence and the need for a vision for the future. But then again, such calls are coming to sound more and more hollow. There may be moments where only chilling clarity can liberate us from the cacophony of political rhetoric and allow us to fully face our situation.

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