Ziad Asali MD
Speech at Tikkun Conference in Washington DC
June 2, 2003
The march of events of humankind that we call history has been unkind to the Jews and Palestinians this past century. Europe, the seat of the pinnacle of world culture and western civilization, was seized with convulsive fits of hatred and barbarism that culminated in the Holocaust and made the defeat of Nazism the highest moral order of the time. The Palestinians, caught in the ensuing whirlwind, were eviscerated, displaced, denigrated and driven to desperation. Israel was established on 78% of the land of Palestine in 1948, and occupied the rest in 1967. Much of what happened in these geographic confines accommodating two peoples and three religions over the past several decades was a clash of narratives, a consequence to the exclusive possession of pain and suffering and monopoly of victimization. The pain of the others was not only unfelt but rather has become a source of just recompense for the pain they inflict. Revenge, of biblical proportion, primitive and all consuming, has engulfed an ever-increasing circle of adherents with the maddening spiral of violence, mayhem and death. Individual responsibility dissolved in a group ethos of hostility, undifferentiated and dominant. Individuals and tiny groups who searched for a compromise out of this sad mess were marginalized and rendered ineffectual.
The Palestinian/Israeli conflict can be viewed simply, and simplistically, as a real estate deal whose contract is being negotiated with blood. The ultimate objective could be construed to be control of more land. The problem with this construct is that the title deed for both people would be religious texts and dogma, thus introducing all metaphysical forces, perceived, imagined or felt, by Jews, Christians and Muslims of all times. Such a view would take the conflict outside the realm of time, both the past and the future, and ordains it to an eternal struggle. No sane person would see that as a legacy worthy of this generation to bequeath to our progeny. Zealots of all kinds, who in this case come at least in three varieties, view this conflict as a clash of religions and cultures, with definable victories and defeats, with countless masses of humanity participating on a global level to unfold their drama. The rest of us, mortals with no claim to direct communication with the divinity, more encumbered with respect for law, justice, and peace than with visions of heaven on earth cannot watch with indifference the workings of the extremists and zealots. It is indeed our obligation to present the world with a better vision for the future than that of the clashists, yes clashists as in Fascists, whose visions of Apocalypse and Armageddon compels them to achieve the glorious end of fire and destruction in Palestine.
The problem with history is that it has been around for a long time. It provides endless examples, documentations, lessons and justifications for each action or plan imagined by humans. Add religion to that story and you get the history of the Holy Land. Add nationality as yet another layer of complexity and you get the history of the Palestine/Israel conflict. And furthermore add yet the current events of live human beings fighting with no self imposed limits for what they perceive to be their existence, security and dignity and you will have a sense why it is beyond the realm of the possible to expect the victimized people of Israel and Palestine to resolve this conflict if left on their own devices. Like abused children or sibling afflicted with rivalry, these two people in their collectivity and by themselves are hurt beyond reason and compromise. There seems to be no end to their testing each other‘s limits of enduring suffering and pain. A grown-up needs to intervene and put an end to this conflict. A grown-up with the clout and will to intervene, but of this I will speak later.
Jewish people have held on to their dream of going back to Palestine for ages enduring the calumny of anti-Semitism and a Diaspora of the soul. They wanted nothing other than living by themselves and taking care of themselves. They achieved that in establishing Israel in 1948 but their achievement continues to be contested.
The Palestinian people through no fault of their own lost control of their ancestral land, homes, farms, villages and cities as well as their identity as a people in 1948. They happened to live in a place desired and claimed by Jews fleeing an anti-Semitic Europe and welcome nowhere else. Enduring with uncommon valor and tenacity they held on to the dream of having their own country, living by themselves and taking care of themselves. There is room in this world, and in historic Palestine, to accommodate these two dreams in a historic compromise. A Palestine alongside Israel, living in peace, will fulfill the basic aspirations of both people. The basic fear of Palestinians is to end up without a state- a genuine viable, independent, constitutional state of their own choosing- not to be cheated out of it by guile and by uneven power. The basic fear of Israel is to be rejected and destroyed in the future by a hostile Arab and Islamic world after it makes concessions that might make it less secure and more vulnerable. Noises made by extremists and clashists on all sides do nothing to allay those fears. The fact that these noises do nothing to change the status quo, or to advance any cause, is less often noted or mentioned. The two- state solution addresses the legitimate fundamental fears of both people and cannot be abandoned because violent men, on either side, are allowed to exercise their veto power by unleashing their deadly wares.
The outlines of the historic compromise are:
1. Establishing a state of Palestine alongside Israel based on borders of 1967 with mutually agreed border modifications.
2. Shared Jerusalem, with Arab East Jerusalem serving as capital of Palestine and West Jerusalem serving as capital of Israel.
3. A fair solution of the refugee problem based on international law and relevant United Nations resolutions to be negotiated between the parties.
4. End of occupation and evacuation of settlements.
5. Signing peace treaties between Israel and all Arab states based on the Saudi proposal adopted by the Arab League.
6. A Marshall plan to rebuild Palestine and the new Middle East.
The broad contours of this compromise have been supported by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab league and seems to get the support by the Israeli and Palestinian people as evidenced by surveys. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the right of return, which is a right that property owners have that cannot be abrogated without their consent. It is not the same as the actual physical return of the refugees. Serious people will have to work diligently and together to resolve this issue with the view to solve it justly rather than to incite primordial existential fears that preclude compromise.
Back to the grown-up question. Let me be clear here as to make sure that this does not imply in any way that the individuals on both sides in the conflict are less than mature, sophisticated and capable of the most nuanced political analysis and anticipation. Not at all, I fear the exact opposite is true. It is the system of collective victimization that precludes compromise and allows the extremists to play on people‘s fears that presents a problem. The United States, the only candidate in the world to act in this capacity has never fully engaged to put an end to this conflict in spite of the crying need to do so. Global strategic considerations, domestic political calculations as well as the inclinations of the ruling elite and successive presidents have all in effect added up to non resolution of the conflict. A new geopolitical reality, emerging from Sep.11 and the seismic changes that are taking place in the Middle East, may have at last placed the Palestine/ Israel issue at the center stage for attention as well as action. The arch of crisis that Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to in the early eighties has physically exploded in violence that touched American lives and shores this century. The Palestine issue, which is at the core of the frustrated sensibility of the Arab and Muslim world, needs to be resolved soon because it is in the national security interest of our country to do so. With the corrupt Arab and Muslim governments paying lip service to the issue for decades the resentment of their people grew with a hostility directed at those governments, Israel and the West especially America. Palestine has defined to these people their sense of injured dignity, their weakness, their failure, their vulnerability and their impotence. The best way to understand the feelings of Arabs and Muslims about this issue is to compare it with the feeling of the Jews about the Holocaust. Rational solutions need to be found, and urgently, that provide a sense of hope and fairness to prevent the clashists from realizing their apocalyptic visions.
It is not beyond the realm of the possible to think that the Road Map proposed is just such a solution. In essence it is a map for the parties to follow, with implementations and time lines, to establish a Palestinian political system, with ever increasing separation between the two peoples and with enhanced security leading to establishing a state at the second phase, and negotiating a final agreement between both states, with the Arab League resolution as a guide to the final stage. The roadmap could, in principle lead us all to the promising land of peace. It could, just as easily lead us to unmitigated disaster. I have read with great care the opinions of scholars, seasoned politicians and hard nosed ideologues who painted with painful detail how this road map can be derailed and abused and how it can be a trick leading to a dead end. This all may turn out to be true but it is also true that it is the only game in town.
It is my contention that the parties themselves are inherently unable to resolve this conflict on their own, not just because of individual or mass psychology, but also because of the flagrant imbalance of power. The United States has to be more than the “ honest broker” of bygone days. It has to be honest, and has to be a broker. The fundamental issue of security issue cannot be left to locals to implement. Outside forces, strictly controlled by the US, perhaps under NATO or other friendly forces, can play a constructive role in resolving this thorny issue. Israel without a sense of full security cannot be made to move, and the Palestinians without a sense of full independence will not yield. It is entirely possible to accommodate both. The president of the United States has expressed his personal commitment, as well as his administration‘s, to make it work. This commitment cannot waver. It needs to be irrevocably conveyed to all concerned in order for it to succeed. Crafty games of deception should be met with the stern gaze of the leader of the free world.
A non-belligerent viable Palestinian State, with the substance and trappings of independence, is the single most stabilizing source of security in the Middle East. It is fortuitous that the Palestinian people have what it takes to make a constitutional state, with rule of law, and respect for individual human and property rights, work. Peace, genuine peace in the hearts and minds of people, like the one that existed between the French and Germans in Europe after the Second World War, will not be far behind. It is how we plan for that peace, and prevent others from derailing it that will determine this outcome. The enterprising Israeli people will need to work to erase the memories of the occupation from the Palestinians. The resilient Palestinians will have to re earn the trust of the Israelis who suffered from suicide bombing. Time, and good will on the part of many, will make such things possible, but it will not do it alone.
Is it possible we all ask to have peace in our time? Perhaps other than wishing for a positive answer we cannot provide a meaningful response. Perhaps the more relevant question is: What can we, as citizens, do to make it happen?
Those of us, who are roughly in agreement on the contours of the solution need to work, coordinate, speak up, organize and push this agenda of peace to all levels within our reach. Palestinian and Jewish Americans have a particular responsibility to tell the world that the majority of the people within our communities are for peace. We refuse to be divided simply along religious and tribal affiliations that define our stand on issues. The resolution of this conflict is not a zero sum game. The future of all Palestinian and Israeli children will be brighter if we make an honorable peace. We will do well to dwell on their future rather than on our past.
We should break the taboo of not speaking to each other, in the open, and forthrightly. We should not shrink from telling each other what we think. What the Palestinians think is that occupation is the source of all troubles and all other issues will dissipate as it comes to an end. We understand the Israeli‘s position that security is the main issue that dwarfs all others. It is our role as American citizens to work together to help the parties untie this Gordian knot. It is our obligation to see to it that our country do the right thing, for our sake and for the sake of the Israelis, for the sake of the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Muslims, indeed for the sake of the world at large.
We should see to it that our opinions are heard at the White House, the State Department, the hallways of the Congress, on the evening news, at the editorial pages, in colleges and in barbershops across the nation. Man-made conflicts are to be resolved by men and women. We cannot accept a religious and tribal feud that defines us beyond the realm of time. We will say to each other and to all who want to listen that we will extend a hand, and will take a chance on each other, and will work together for peace. People will let each other down, it has happened in the past and it forever will. But no progress, no peace, and no bright future for the children will take place if we fail to act.
Let politicians in Palestine and Israel work to sort out their strategies, but let us here and now work on our own administration and our Congress to see to it that the vision of peace articulated by the president is translated into reality. Let us not allow those who are steeped in mistrust and fear on either side make the world lose once again another opportunity for peace.
A thousand flowers are blooming across our country with voices for peace, inter-faith groups, Arab —Jewish dialogue, Muslim Christian groups, and Palestinians talking to Jews about peace. Let us light those candles with courage and not in fear. A future defined by our vision and our energy is well worthy of our toil.
Ziad Asali MD