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To End the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, We Must Confront Its Soft Issues

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For almost all of the eighteen years since the negotiations between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Israelis and Palestinians have shared an awareness of the main articles of agreement. It is a queer negotiation when both parties know the outcome and yet are seized by a paralysis that prevents them from reaching out and grasping the agreement that is there for the signing. This reluctance to consummate is about ideas, history, narratives, even words.

The Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders meeting this week to resume negotiations need to recognize this and understand that they also have to confront the conflict's underlying "soft" issues.

The Palestinians have largely -- but not entirely -- gotten over their difficulty in speaking of a Palestinian state living side-by-side and in peace with Israel. Many Israelis are happy to accept a "two-state solution." But the Israeli fear is that it will be seen by Palestinians as a transition period to be followed by their next effort to reduce Israel's size and undercut the Jewishness of the State. The Palestinians shy away from the concept of "partition" and often refuse to utter "two-state solution."

There is also an intense theoretical disagreement about the solution for the Jerusalem and refugee issues. Palestinians and Israelis know that solving the refugee problem will not mean the return of all, or even most, of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to live within the boundaries of the State of Israel. Instead, they will be invited to become citizens of the emergent Palestinian state that is to include the West Bank east of the 1967 border, Gaza and Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians insist they will refer to it as "fulfilling the right of return," though it will be nothing like their image of the right of return. The Israelis, however, cannot live comfortably with that language, even with an agreement. They believe that using the term "right of return" will keep the conflict alive for Palestinians, signed peace agreement or not. That term will retain its psychological power and remain a profound national responsibility for future Palestinians and for Arab nationalists beyond Palestine.

For the Palestinians the right of return is rooted in their sense of being driven out in 1947. Three generations of parents have taught three generations of children that they would go back to the same places from which they were driven. That is an aspect of their national reality. No matter that they know that they cannot return and most would not. How will those raised on faith in the return - even against all reason -- accept new aspirations and new formulations?

Most Israelis understand Palestinian identity as a response to or outgrowth of the strength of Israel and the evolution of the Zionist dream. They do not see Palestinians as having an authentic identity of their own, nor as having a national self-understanding that exists separate from the conflict.

Can Israeli Jews come to see the legitimacy of Palestinian Arabs' insistence on their right to the land from the beginning of the conflict? Can they understand why Palestinians persisted in resisting the Jewish claims for so many years, even through armed conflict? Are Israelis ready to understand and accept that Palestinian resistance was not born of innate perversity and hatred of Jews, but is rooted in the Palestinians' own sense of right to the land of their fathers and grandfathers and in the Palestinians' inability to comprehend why another people could feel it not only right but glorious to take this land from them?

Can the Palestinians recognize that the Jewish people who came to Palestine were not arriving as colonialists but rather owing to a deep conviction that they had a full right to return to the land of their Bible from which they had been forcibly expelled and for which they yearned throughout two thousand years of exile? Are the Palestinian ready to understand and accept that these Jewish people were not agents of imperialistic powers, intent on their subjugation and ultimate supplanting?

Although sophisticated negotiators will downplay or outright deny the necessity of resolving these ideological questions and conflicts, they have wormed their way into the minds of many people on both sides. So, at the critical moments when both would have to accept the negotiated agreement they reached as a true and lasting commitment, some detail will lead to an inability to accept the permanence of the agreement. It will arouse again the fear that a former ideological dispute will raise its head in one year, ten years or in the next generation, and reignite the conflict.

Therefore, in addition to the substantive and concrete issues - the "hard side," negotiations must also involve the "soft side" -- deeply rooted psychological, emotional, historical, spiritual and cultural issues.

Negotiators will have to bring into the peacemaking process intellectual, religious and cultural leaders of both parties to legitimize the political agreement. They can describe each side's national story in such a way that these old ideological conflicts will be nailed down long after the political leaders who reach agreement have passed from this good Earth. Serious discussions between both sides' writers, artists, religious leaders, educators, etc. about these underlying ideological issues will also enable each side to see and believe that the other has climbed down from the ideological branch it has been clinging to all these years.

This approach requires both sides to jettison the paradigms that have coalesced over a century. Peace cannot be reached, much less perpetuated, unless those who formulate the national history on both sides come together with and talk to their counterparts to create a shared elemental dialogue.

I am convinced by my experience as a close observer of the negotiations and as a convener of many informal Israeli-Arab meetings following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's journey to Jerusalem in 1977 and in the three decades since, that only by wrestling with the broad spiritual and cultural dimensions will we have a real chance of bringing this conflict to an end.

Stephen P. Cohen is the author of "Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009) and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. He served as Academic Consultant to the National Intelligence Council from 2003-2006 and on the US Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World in 2003.