JERUSALEM — The Middle East conflict faces a critical diplomatic moment this month with the Palestinians apparently sticking to their plan to ask the U.N. to recognize their state, a plan condemned by Israel, the U.S. and others as a unilateral act that should be set aside in favor of resuming peace talks.
The widespread feeling among Palestinians is that they are running out of options, given that two decades of on-and-off talks have not yielded an independent state, while the number of Jews living on occupied territory has more than doubled.
Israelis maintain that the Palestinians have not yet internalized Israel's existence, and that in exchange for statehood they should be willing to be more flexible than they have been to date in peace talks.
The Palestinians may turn to the U.N. Security Council, where their plea for full membership probably would be vetoed by the U.S.
But they also could ask the General Assembly for the in-between status of nonmember observer state, the same status as the Vatican's. That probably would be backed by a majority of the 193 member states, and while this would be a morale boost it is not a state on the ground, and some Palestinians might be disappointed.
If this particular ball should end up in the U.N.'s court, it would be a sharp reminder of the failure of decades of diplomacy in which the U.S. played the leading role. Why has it come to this?
One reason may be practical: each side's maximal set of concessions seems to fall short of the other's minimal demands. Previous Israeli governments have presented plans they considered reasonable, and included the ceding of close to all the land the Palestinians seek; yet the gaps, especially on Jerusalem and refugees, simply could not be bridged.
Another reason may prove to be deeper: The dueling narratives born of a psychological chasm dating back to 1948, the year Israel became a state and Jews and Arabs began to see reality through vastly different filters, at times using separate vocabularies altogether.
In Israel's narrative, the fighting that broke out that May was the "War of Independence," in which Jews – outnumbered and outgunned, many fresh out of the Holocaust – pluckily fended off invading Arab armies, carving out a modern state on their biblical homeland.
To the Palestinians, 1948 is the "naqba" – the catastrophe – when they were stripped of their ancestral land and turned into refugees by modern-day Crusaders.
This inability to agree on what happened 63 years ago lies at the core of the inability to agree on the future, and the narratives have kept diverging. While both societies are divided and multifaceted, on certain key threads they find wide internal consensus.
Here is how it breaks down:
PALESTINIANS: They want to build their state in the West Bank and Gaza, parts of pre-1948 Palestine which were ruled by Jordan and Egypt respectively until Israel seized them in the 1967 war. Together they comprise less than a third of former Palestine and less than the land earmarked for their state by the 1947 U.N. partition plan. In exchange for recognizing the loss of the majority of Palestine, they apparently will not give up another inch, demanding that for any part of the West Bank Israel might ultimately keep, equivalent land from today's Israel must be ceded in compensation.
ISRAELIS: Many Israelis view the West Bank as their biblical heartland, or at least as strategically precious because it overlooks their main cities. At its narrowest point, Israel is a morning's jog from Mediterranean to West Bank border. From the West Bank, Israel's main airport is in easy missile range. Underlying the Israelis' view is a sense that with more than 20 Arab states already in existence the needs of the one Jewish state should reasonably be considered paramount.
PALESTINIANS: They are in wide consensus that the 300,000 Jews who live in settlements built by Israel inside the West Bank are essentially usurpers, illegally and disproportionately exploiting land and water resources in violation of Geneva Conventions which forbid colonization of occupied land. They want the settlers gone, though they seem open to minor land swaps to allow Israel to keep settlements near the 1967 lines, where many of the settlers live.
ISRAELIS: Official Israel rejects the applicability of the Geneva Conventions, arguing that there is a sovereignty vacuum in the West Bank because there was never an independent Palestine and all previous rulers – from Ottoman Turkey to Britain to Jordan – have abrogated any claim. They say the settlements are up for negotiation and should not cause so much anger since Israel has proven willing to dismantle settlements – first when completing its return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, and again in 2005 when they pulled out of Gaza.
ISRAELIS: Israel captured the eastern sector, including the Old City with its Muslim, Jewish and Christian shrines, in 1967. It expanded the municipal border to include part of the adjacent West Bank, annexing the new sections and filling them with Jewish "neighborhoods" to the point where redivision would be a logistical and practical challenge of, well, biblical proportions. Only recently have Israelis truly grasped the seriousness of the Palestinian demands in Jerusalem, after years of assiduously referencing the "unified" city as "Israel's eternal capital." The current government still uses that language, and although there is now some willingness to speak of ceding "Arab neighborhoods" and "Muslim and Christian holy sites," there is a sense that this means enclaves inside a largely Israeli city.
PALESTINIANS: The Palestinians regard the eastern sector as theirs by right. Like the rest of the world they do not recognize the Israeli annexations. They view the 250,000 Jews in east Jerusalem as "settlers" who live in "settlements" within the city, not "neighborhoods." They have shown some willingness in talks to cede some of these, including the Jewish quarter of the Old City, but, it seems, as pockets within a Palestinian capital. They share one thing with the Israelis: little practical notion of how to divide, share or secure such a deeply intertwined city among two peoples with a recent history of serious violence.
PALESTINIANS: The Palestinians apply the term not just to the original 700,000 of 1948 but to some 4-5 million descendants. Many live in shanty towns in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, as well as Gaza and the West Bank, universally dubbed "refugee camps." They demand recognition of their "right of return" to what is now Israel, even if their old homes and villages in many cases no longer exist. Quietly, Palestinian negotiators have assured Israeli skeptics that there will be no mass return and that arrangements to restrict the return to symbolic numbers might be made. Yet politically it is a hugely charged issue.
ISRAELIS: It took decades for Israelis to widely accept that the displaced did not all "flee" – that at least half were expelled – and that it was wishful thinking to expect they would ever simply blend into the wider Arab world. Still, Israelis generally have no patience for the "right of return," noting the world is full of resettled refugees, including 800,000 Jews who left Arab countries for Israel in its early years, many under great duress. In their view, a Palestinian "right of return" would eliminate the country's character as a Jewish state – a nonstarter considering that it is to preserve the Jewishness of Israel that many are willing to cede the valuable West Bank. Many Israelis were genuinely surprised when this emerged in 2000 as a deal-breaker. With only 6 million Jews in Israel, the demographics make this a red line for Israelis. They are hoping resettlement in a future Palestine, or compensation, will satisfy the descendants of refugees.
ISRAELIS: For the Israelis this is the essence: to have a nation-state as much for the Jews as Ireland is for the Irish. While it is true that Israel always will have a large Arab minority – it currently is about a fifth of the population – they would have equal civil rights as individuals, but not separate national rights. The Jewish character of the state is enshrined in matters great and small, from the flag to the lyrics of the anthem to automatic Israeli citizenship for any Jew requesting it.
PALESTINIANS: Palestinians bristle at the "Jewish nation" label, arguing that it is an outdated affront that renders some 1.5 million Arabs second-class citizens. Along with some leftist Israelis, they want to redefine the country as a "state of all its citizens," and where needed change symbols and policies accordingly. Increasingly, some Palestinians actually seem content to avoid partition altogether and let Israel and the West Bank, and maybe Gaza, stay joined at the hip with roughly equal numbers of Jews and Arabs, they reason, such a tormented hybrid entity hardly would be a "Jewish state."