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Israelis and Palestinians: Contested Histories

Ph.D., Université de Montréal, Editor,®
In his new book about the contested histories of Israelis and Palestinians, author Neil Caplan claims that the main obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in each party’s strongly-held view of itself as the victim of the other. What role does history play in the current conflict? What does the future hold? We asked Neil Caplan these and other questions. The interview was conducted for ® by Editor Victor Teboul.

Subscribe to ®: Your book, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories, has just been published by Wiley-Blackwell in England. What are the main themes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

- The main theme of the book – as opposed to the conflict itself – is that the Israel-Palestine dispute is pretty much unresolvable. This is sadly true both on the ground and on an intellectual level. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting over the same piece of territory. But they also have sharply differing views of the history of what happened and why, and who’s to blame for everything that has gone wrong. So the land of Israel/Palestine is being contested, and so is the very history of the dispute. On an intellectual level, advocates for both parties are locked into a whole series of unwinnable debates over what I call in the book “core arguments.” ®: Can you give us some examples of these “core arguments”?

- Well, the first one would have to be “Who was there first?” and “Who has the right to this land?” Another recurring and unresolved argument is: “Is Zionism a legitimate nationalist movement, or is it a colonialist enterprise?” A third would be: “Did Zionism bring harm or benefit to the Arab inhabitants of the area?” Another current one is “Do the Palestinians want to live in their proposed state beside a Jewish state of Israel, or do they want to replace Israel with an Arab state?”

Since the conflict began and as it became more complex with every passing decade, each party has been able to construct arguments which provide – for them and their supporters – watertight justifications for the answers and conclusions they draw. But these conclusions are predictably contested by the other side, which often draws diametrically opposed conclusions. For over 130 years, variants of these core arguments are still brought up; yet very little progress is made in convincing anybody to change his or her viewpoint. There appears to be little chance of anyone producing a common, shared understanding of the history of the conflict. That’s why many authors speak instead of two conflicting “narratives” – the Israeli/Zionist narrative and the Arab/Palestinian narrative. And that’s what this book tries to unravel, and why it was commissioned by the editors of a series called “Contesting the Past” launched by Blackwell publishers in Oxford. ®: Why, based on your understanding of the history of the conflict, have peace negotiations failed?

That question is more appropriately addressed in a different book, one that I co-wrote with Laurie Eisenberg of Carnegie Melon University, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace, whose revised edition is scheduled to appear in 2010. In that book we analyze patterns of failed negotiations – e.g., Arafat and Barak with Clinton at Camp David in 2000 – and compare them to those which have had some limited success – e.g., Sadat and Begin with Carter who met in the same place in 1978. There is no simple, single answer to this question; rather, one has to look at a combination of factors such as timing, previous negative or positive experience, the role of third-parties, motives, leadership dynamics, etc. ®: What are the major obstacles? Can they be overcome?

- In this book about the contested histories of Israelis and Palestinians I single out the tendency of both parties to deflect responsibility onto the other as the main obstacle to a mutual understanding and potential agreement. Israelis and Palestinians are both locked into viewing themselves as the victims of the other – not just victims, but (in Benny Morris’ apt phrase) righteous victims. I wrote about this idea several years ago in my article “Victims versus Victims” in this very web’zine. 

I consider this mindset to be the main obstacle to peace and reconciliation. Disarming it or reducing its impact is an essential prerequisite to unblocking deadlocks on a whole range of specific issues. And yet, given the continuing and escalating cycle of violence and hatred, it may never be possible to break out completely of the impasse caused by the parties’ interlinked perceptions of themselves being each other’s victims. As Amos Oz, Israeli author and Peace-Now founder, has noted, even when this conflict becomes “history”, there will still be bitter disagreement and neither of the parties will give up its claim to victimhood. This, he believes and I agree, is something that the parties will simply have to live with and find ways to work around. ®: There is a peace movement in Israel. Are there, in your view, similar credible currents on the Palestinian side?

- I have no special expertise on current trends in either the Palestinian or Israeli communities. My impression is that there are many Palestinians who – whatever their feelings about the rights and wrongs of the past and the present – share with many Israelis a profound sense of conflict-fatigue. To the extent that this conflict-fatigue overpowers or holds in check the passions that would otherwise incite people towards revenge, we might see a tentative momentum that might be exploited by peace activists who do exist – despite all that has happened and continues to happen – on both sides. ®: Given the high number of Palestinian civilians killed and wounded during Israel’s heavy armed attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, is it possible that Palestinians will overcome the memories of this tragic episode and consider peace with the Israelis?

- While copy-editing the manuscript I was visually reminded about the recurring cycle of violence and victimization in this conflict by the daily media coverage of the Israel Defense Forces’ onslaught on the population of Gaza. Certainly Palestinian survivors of those terrifying weeks are unlikely to be in any hurry to sign a peace treaty with Israel, just as the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon – targets of incessant and indiscriminate Hamas rocket fire – are not ready to believe that there is a credible “peace partner” on the Palestinian side. Sadly, these are unlikely to be the last Palestinian and Israeli victims of the conflict. If this conflict is ever to subside or de-escalate, it is these people who will need to be motivated – as I said before – more by fatigue than by revenge.

Notice that I did not say “solved” or “resolved” – since I do not believe that there exists a clean-cut, definitive solution that will satisfy all parties.

Dr Caplan is an expert on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and the author of many books and articles. Recently retired from teaching Humanities at Vanier College, he remains affiliated with Vanier and also with the History Department of Concordia University in Montreal. He is a member of the Advisory Board of

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Thanks for the article!
By Sharon Gubbay on September 30,2009

This is a great peek at this important book. I am very much looking forward to attending the book launch and to reading the whole thing!

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Interviews conducted by Victor Teboul
By Victor Teboul

Victor Teboul is a writer and the publisher of ®, The Tolerance Webzine, which he founded in 2002 to promote a critical discourse on tolerance and diversity. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

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