UNDERSTANDING HISTORY WON'T HELP US MAKE PEACE
We're often told that understanding history will help us better understand the present. But the past can be a very dangerous place. Just look at the world's longest-lasting conflicts -- between Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, the peoples of the Balkans. All involve long, and unhealthy, glances in the rearview mirror.
Where I come from, the political culture has been shaped by incessant digging in history, aimed at supporting the dueling narratives in the Palestine conflict. My inbox often collapses under the weight of contradicting evidence that either the Jews or the Arabs lived in the Holy Land before the other. There is hardly a scientific discipline that has not been invoked to support conflicting claims about the past, from archaeology and philology to biology and genetics.
Resolving the mystery of who was here first has become an obsession because it seems to offer a final judgment on who is right and who is wrong, on who were the indigenous people of Palestine and who were the usurpers. Alas, whenever one side boasts about the ultimate proof, its adversary produces another, better one. A 2003 Israeli textbook aimed at teaching the conflicting narratives side by side shows how pointless our debates have become: The Jewish narrative relies on the Bible to link today's Israelis to the ancient Israelites while the Palestinian counternarrative reaches back to the Jebusites, who ruled Jerusalem before King David's occupation, as the forefathers of contemporary Palestinians.
Unfortunately, this pseudo-historical dispute lies at the heart of the current political debate. At the most crucial moment of the 2000 Camp David summit, for example, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat argued with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton about whether a Jewish temple preceded the Muslim shrines on the Jerusalem site known as the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif. Having failed to resolve the present-day conflict, the leaders retreated to a pointless debate about history. Their failure led to the bloodbath of the Second Intifada.
The current Israeli and Palestinian leaders are similarly obsessed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, son of an eminent historian, demands Palestinian recognition of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people," arguing that only such recognition could end the conflict. Recently, he declared Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as "national heritage sites." When UNESCO argued that these sites reside in occupied Palestinian territory, Netanyahu blamed it for trying to "detach the people of Israel from its heritage." For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas focuses on his people's victimhood and seeks "justice" for past abuses, the 1948 exile foremost among them.
Because accepting the other side's narrative amounts to destroying your own, there can be no compromise.
This has not always been so. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat negotiated their peace deal in the late 1970s, they put the past aside and constructed a new relationship rather than fruitlessly debate who had been the aggressor and who had been the victim. When Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, they wasted little time on history lessons and focused instead on building a future. But Rabin's 1995 assassination and the ensuing collapse of Oslo brought the ghosts back to the negotiating table, where they have stayed ever since.
In Europe, the belligerent past is visible everywhere, but contemporary European politicians wisely ignore it and look forward. Would that our squabbling leaders in the Middle East could do the same.
Aluf Benn is editor at large of the Israeli daily Haaretz.
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