BERLIN: The last few years of the Israeli-Palestinian saga have seen a shift from talking about peace to talking about talking about peace. The means have become the end, and wanting (or claiming to want) has replaced doing. The status quo has been so ongoing that it may have entrenched itself in the very narratives Israelis and Palestinians use to define themselves. Without the conflict, who are they? What’s left of their societies?
These are questions best taken up by philosophers. But achieving peace may not be as difficult as we have been told, if the key issues are seen as a matter of perception rather than fact.
Word choice is the cause of one of the major stumbling blocks. Most of the Arab leaders who signed the Arab Peace Initiative, and some voices within Hamas are ready to accept Israel s existence, and say so publicly and in writing. But they are wary about taking the extra step of recognizing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The Israeli government wants an unequivocal endorsement of its Jewishness before it commits to further talks.
A feasible Arab solution, however, could be a readiness to call Israel “a state for Jews , rather than “a Jewish state . The difference may appear superficial, but within the sliver of difference lies an important distinction. A “Jewish state connotes one designed exclusively for Jews and no one else, owing more to an idea than reality. A “state for Jews , however, is more tangible and less ideological in nature. It defines a place with a Jewish majority, founded on Jewish values and shaped by Jewish thought and customs.
The latter phrasing may be not only more palatable for Arabs, but also more accurate. With more than one in five Israelis being non-Jewish (mostly Muslim and almost entirely Palestinian-Israeli), defining Israel as a “Jewish state is an objectively troubling thing to do. Better to call it a “state for Jews , a description closer to Israel s actual political, cultural and ideological composition, and a definition that both Israel and its neighbors could more easily agree on.
Another major hurdle, Jerusalem, appears insurmountable. Israel wants it unified; Palestinians want a part for their capital. But really we may be talking about a completely different Jerusalem and just do not know it.
Jerusalem is not a “one size fits all . Depending on whom you talk to and when, the boundaries of this holy city change. There are Ottoman maps of Jerusalem, British maps of Jerusalem, UN maps, Israeli maps, Arab maps, pre- and post-1967 maps and modern-day municipal maps. Chances are, if looked at carefully enough, both Israel and the Palestinians could claim they got what they wanted without either side having to relinquish anything.
How can Jerusalem, so often the death of past peace processes, possibly be win-win? Today, Israel maintains a broad definition of Jerusalem in an effort to bolster its position in future negotiations which includes dozens of outlying villages that have very little to do with what makes Jerusalem the hotly contested place that it is. Pointing to different maps, then, both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships can establish the perception of victory for their people. Israel can say it kept Jerusalem unified, cutting off from its jurisdiction only those areas that threaten its Jewishness. Palestinians can say it gained a tract of land, called East Jerusalem, for its capital. Neither would be wrong. Both could be satisfied.
The maps become complicated, however, in light of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. As Jewish homes push further and further into once-exclusively Arab areas, the two become harder to delineate. But this is a challenge Israelis must grapple with internally, just as Palestinians must debate the vision and values of their state if one is to ever materialize.
The holy sites, comprising a minuscule fraction of a tiny part of all the land in and around Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, would be an essential sticking point in the win-win map proposal but when seen within the broader context, this too can be resolved. Regardless of the arrangement made to ensure equal access and safeguards, the point here is simply to underline that “East Jerusalem is not necessarily synonymous with “Old City , and when Palestinians talk of a capital in East Jerusalem, they are not necessarily looking to take the Western Wall away from Jews.
It is often said that if peace were easy, it would have happened by now. However, it may just be that a small change in definition and perception, on all sides, is all that’s needed to make a big change in how we talk about, and ultimately achieve, peace in the Middle East.
Bill Glucroft writes extensively on Middle East issues and has worked for both Arab and Zionist causes. He teaches English in Berlin and blogs at mediabard.org. This commentary is distributed by Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.